January 8, 2012

Shoot Em Up: Brees, Stafford Ignite Superdome Turf Again; Saints Pull Ahead in Second Half for 45-28 Win

Down 14-10 in a game that was supposed to be shootout, the Saints exploded for five straight second half touchdown drives before kneeling away the final minutes at the Detroit goal line.

The Saints advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, and will travel to San Francisco next Saturday.  Long-time NFC West rivals, the Saints have never met the 49ers in the playoffs.

Brees passed for an NFL record 466 yards on the night - giving him 808 in two games against the Lions - and the Saints' trio of runningbacks helped the offense dominate the second half with a balance attack.  The Saints controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes of the game, and Detroit did not possess the ball in the final three minutes of either half, shutting out any of Stafford's last-second heroics.

Stafford still did his damage - including 211 of his 380 passing yards to "Megatron", star WR Calvin Johnson who had the most ever receiving yards of a player making his postseason debut.  Stafford led the Lions on a touchdown scoring drive to open the game, an 8-play that was fueled by Stafford's arm - with completions of 22, 15, 11, 12 and the last 10 to TE Will Heller, when all three of the Saints' linebackers left the backup tight end alone inside the five yard line.

It was Stafford who would do most the damage for the Lions' offense, as the Saints shut down the Lions' depleted runningbacks and held Detroit to 32 yards rushing.  More than half of that yardage came in the first three plays of the game when the Lions rushed for 8 and 7 yards.

CB Jabari Greer was a defensive star for the Saints on Saturday night, making two good stops on the opening drive and often was on the island against speedy rookie WR Titus Young as the rest of the Saints defense triple-teamed Johnson.  Young beat Greer early on a 3rd and 7 slant, Greer would intercept Stafford twice in the fourth quarter to smother the Lions' comeback bid, including Stafford's final pass of the season.

The Saints drove to respond to the Lions' initial touchdown, leading with a 23-yard strike to a wide open Devery Henderson running to the right sideline. But a knifing hand from LB Steven Tulloch forced the ball free from WR Marques Colston, and much like the Saints' first game of the season in Green Bay, a Colston fumble killed a key early drive and gave momentum to the opponent.  Colston's fumble was recovered at the Detroit 18 by LB Justin Durant.

The Lions drove to midfield with passes of 9 and then 22 to Johnson, but stalled on a 3rd and 11 when Stafford, under heavy pressure from DE Junior Galette, fired incomplete for Johnson, his favorite target.  Taking over deep in their own territory, the Saints faced a 3rd and 10 when Pierre Thomas turned what looked like a well-read screen play into a hard-fighting 11 yard gain.  It was Thomas' first touch on a night when he would lead the team with 66 yards rushing and add another 55 on six receptions.  His one-yard plunge for the game's final score with 3:38 put the nail in the coffin of the Lions' sixth straight playoff loss.

Thomas ripped off a 31-yard run, then Sproles gashed the Lions for 9, and Brees hit FB Jed Collins for a rumbling 15 yards to put the Saints into the red zone.  An end-around to Devery Henderson two plays later nearly scored, but then Darren Sproles bounced off the piled and scooted into the end zone around left end with 14:06 to go in the second quarter. Both of the Saints' All-Pro guards, Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, got to the second level and took a linebacker out of the equation on that play.

Stafford regained the momentum of the game with an immediate 18-yard strike to Calvin Johnson, who was uncoverable even in the blanket of triple coverage.  The Saints tried a number of strategies and often gave press coverage to Malcolm Jenkins, who played cornerback at Ohio State.  A 21-yard strike to a fired-up Nate Burleson was a beautiful outside shoulder throw by Stafford, who beat Tracy Porter's coverage.  Three plays later Calvin Johnson beat Jenkins and Patrick Robinson to the back of the end zone for another of Stafford's excellent throws from 13 yards out and the 14-7 lead.

After catching no touchdowns and 69 yards in the first Saints-Lions game, Johnson had a score and 74 yards in five catches with 9:18 left in the second quarter.

Needing to keep firing on the next drive, Brees moved the Saints to the Detroit 37 when DE Willie Young beat RT Zach Strief badly and sacked Brees as he raised his arm, knocking the ball free.  The home team was spared when a ref inadvertently blew the whistle, but the refs awarded possession to the Lions who scooped up the fumble.

The whistle killed the play and a scoop-and-score for Durant, who recovered both of the Saints' first half fumbles.  After losing on five fumbles all season, the Saints lost two in the first half of their playoff game.  Not counting a premature snap in Minnesota, Brees had not lost a fumble all season.

The Saints defense held after the second turnover, allowing only five yards and forcing a bad throw by Stafford on third down and 4 from the Lion 44.  Taking over with 5:03 left in the first half, the Saints would hold serve and now allow Stafford back on the field until after halftime, crucial clock control and the perfect strategy to stopping a red hot Stafford-to-Johnson.

A 23-yard strike to Colston got the Saints moving again on the next snap, and three plays later the Saints converted a key 3rd and 1 with a power run by Chris Ivory, who finished with 13 carries for 47 yards, who would keep this drive alive five plays later by converting a 4th and 1 with a tough inside carry.

All Pro and Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks led the pregame "who dat" chant and was named a team captain, symbolic of his role against the Lions' best defender, defensive tackle Ndakumong Suh.  Suh got solid hits on Brees in the first half, and got half a credited sack in the third quarter, but Nicks helped the Saints win the battles on short yardage, including a three successful fourth-and-short conversions, all running plays.  Taking advantage of Suh's power, the Saints would regularly ambush him in the backfield with a perpendicular block from a back or tight end and he was engaged with Nicks.

Two plays after Ivory's fourth down conversion, Brees hit Jimmy Graham for 11 yards to the Lion 17, and two plays later, after the Saints' final timeout, hit Colston for an apparent touchdown at the back of the end zone with :21 left on the clock.  The back judge threw a flag into the air then signaled touchdown with Colston  at his feet.  The flag was for a blow to the head against Amare Spievey, who hit Colston's head with a flailing arm on the way down.   The Saints declined that penalty, but then a replay review was initiated from the booth.

A replay review however showed that Colston had bobbled the ball and allowed it to touch turf, ruled incomplete.  The Saints then accepted the penalty, giving them first and goal at the six.   That incompletion was only Brees' third on the night in 21 pass attempts, but his next two passes were dangerous near-interceptions into the end zone.  Brees under pressure from the Lions' defensive line couldn't afford a sack or wasted time and made two poor throws.  John Kasay kicked a 24-yard chipshot field goal with :04 left and the half ended with the visiting Lions up 14-10.

Both teams were excellent on third down in the first half, with the Saints converted 3 of 4 and the Lions 4 of 6.  The difference was a pair of Saints turnovers and a pair of missed 3rd down throws by Stafford that forced punts.  It was Brees who had seen all the pass rushing pressure, and more than a couple times ended up with Suh driving him into the turf.

After winning the toss and choosing to receive, the Lions kicked to the Saints to start the second half.  Brees seized the momentum, the lead, and never gave it up.  This despite the Lions with a 5-0 record when leading at halftime during the regular season.

After Pierre Thomas ripped off an 18-yard rush to start the half, Brees tossed for Robert Meachem downfield on a cross to the right sideline.  Meachem dropped the ball, having it go through both hands.  It was an unpleasing showing for the soon-to-be free agent, but the Saints' first round pick in 2007 would atone for his gaffe.

A 19-yard run by Ivory moved the Saints into Detroit territory.  On that play, a great stutter by Ivory allowed him to run right up the gut, as Carl Nicks allowed DT Corey Williams right past him and into backfield, where he missed Ivory.  On the next play, Brees hit veteran speedster Devery Henderson over the top, launching a 41-yard bomb over Amare Spievey.  Henderson caught the ball in stride, having gone in motion inside the formation of TE Jimmy Graham, then ran right up the middle.

The four play drive had taken less than two minutes off the clock and the Saints were ahead and ready to run away with the game.  A holding penalty on T Gosder Cherilus on the next drive forced a 3rd and 19 and a punt, and taking over at their own 8, Brees led the Saints on a demoralizing drive.

Taking a heavy hit on a sack on second down, Brees dusted himself off and calmly hit Colston for 11 yards and the first down.  Facing 2nd and 13 after a three yard loss by Sproles, Brees hit Graham for 14.  After a near interception by CB Eric Wright, the Lions defense might have thought they'd stopped the Saints on 3rd and 1 with Chris Ivory stuffed for no gain.  Brees lined up for an apparent 4th and 1.  With the Lions thinking he'd try to draw them offsides at his own 38, Brees instead took the snap from under center, jumped and extended the ball high over the pile, and as he fell pulled the ball in safely.  It was a gutsy play and a gutsy call that gained two yards and kept possession, and the same play that Brees used to score a touchdown during the Saints' epic comeback to win in Miami against the Dolphins in 2009.

Pierre Thomas gashed the Lions for 10 then Brees hit Adrian Arrington for a 7 yard gain before launching a bomb to Colston, who hauled it in over his shoulder and in stride at the Detroit 3 yard line, a perfect throw and catch.  Catching the Lions offguard again, Brees quick-snapped the next play, as the Lions had failed to cover Graham lined up with left for the easy touchdown.  Graham's 180-degree dunk over the goalposts put the stamp on the Lions - they were not going to stop the Saints this night.

The 92-yard, 6:27 drive was a killer for a Lions defense who had so many near victories.  But while the defense was beat, Matt Stafford and the offense weren't giving up.  He fired to Johnson for gained of 15 and 21, then launched a schoolyard bomb to the sideline which Johnson tracked down and caught despite double coverage by Greer and Jenkins.  With first and goal at the 3, the Lions were in good shape to respond.  Three plays later on 3rd and short Stafford rolled right and with rookie DE Cam Jordan in hot pursuit, he kept it and dove for the front right pylon, beating Roman Harper by a split second.  The replay review showed that the Elway-esque Stafford tipped the ball over the goal line and inside the pylon right before his knees hit the ground and Harper knocked the ball free.

Up 24-21, Brees kept the accelerator slammed, and converted a 3rd and 2 with a five-yard strike to Meachem, and three plays later on 3rd and 8, hit Colston for 17.   When he was stopped on the next 3rd and 2 with a drop by Jimmy Graham, Brees tossed to Darren Sproles, who raced around left end and scooted up the field on fourth and 2, escorted by Pro Bowl-bound LT Jermon Bushrod.  Three plays later, 3nd and 2, and Brees sprung Sproles for a gain of 12 down to the Detroit 17.

On the next snap, Sproles ran untouched up the middle, burning up the turf for a touchdown and the 31-21 lead.  The vaunted Detroit defensive line was smashed.  The Lions defense had another devastating drive, missing countless opportunities to stop Brees, who willed the Saints offense to four crucial first downs and a 14-play drive that took 6:15 off the clock.

CB Jabari Greer took out some frustrations on the next snap, stepping in front of an underthrown bomb to Titus Young.  Four Saints blitzers behind three down linemen got pressure on Stafford, who had Will Smith in his face as he released a fluttering long ball.  Young turned into the defender and tackled Greer immediately.  Five plays later, Brees allowed Meachem some atonement for his big drop earlier in the half, finding Meachem running alone in the secondary.  Brees' pass found Meachem standing alone at the 10 and running into the end zone ahead of exasperated Lions defenders.  S Louis Delmas crashed in on slot receiver Adrian Arrington but CB Alphonso Smith thought he was passing Meachem off to Delmas deep.  The 56-yard score put the Saints up 38-21 with 7:29 left.

Megaton caught his second score of the day, his 12th catch of the night, at the end of Detroits' next drive, Stafford throwing 9 straight passes often against three pass rushers by the Saints.  Stafford found Johnson in the end zone and threw a perfect high pass that only super-athletic Johnson could sky and snag between Robinson and Harper.

Jonathon Amaya, the product of the Reggie Bush trade, snagged the Lions' onside kick and set the Saints up at the Lion 42.  Two plays later, Brees pumped, stepped up and fired a bomb for Robert Meachem, who beat CB Aaron Berry and was ruled down just inches short of the goal line.  Pierre Thomas would finish off the Lions with the short yardage plunge up the middle.

Not without fight, Stafford went right back to the aerial attack, but fired another deep pass that would be intercepted by Greer with just over three minutes left.  Brees-to-Colston drew a defensive pass interference penalty on 3rd and 7, giving the Saints first and goal at the Lion 7.  Ivory would be tackled just short of the goal line on a rush up the middle, then the Saints kneeled with 2:00 left on the clock.  The clock expired

Not surprisingly, Brees' 466 passing yards are a new Saints playoff record and second most all-time in NFL history.  Only Bernie Kosar in a 1986 overtime playoff game had more, with 489.  636 total yards of offense was the biggest postseason output ever, smashing the Chargers' 47-year old playoff record of 610.  The Saints' 34 first downs in the game tied the NFL record.

The Saints are undefeated at home in the playoffs since Hakim dropped the ball in 2001, having won five straight now.

Notes: Seventh round pick LB Nate Bussey was active and in uniform for the first time, but drew a block in the back penalty in the third quarter that pinned the Saints deep... It appeared that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was back to calling plays instead of Payton... Thomas Morstead did not punt, instead relegated to sending five of seven kickoffs in for touchbacks... The Superdome maintenance staff began immediately tearing down the field and affects for Monday night's BCS National Championship game between LSU and Alabama...

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