Both the Saints and Lions made some uncharacteristic mistakes in Saturday night’s wild-card playoff game in New Orleans, but the Saints were good enough to compensate for their errors, while the Lions were not.
New Orleans turned the ball over twice in the first 25 minutes. Yet Detroit, who had a league-high 139 points off of turnovers during the regular season, failed to score after both takeaways, missing out on an opportunity to take advantage of a strangely quiet Superdome. And on at least three other occasions, Lion defenders simply failed to capitalize on would-be picks from Drew Brees.
Meanwhile, the Detroit defenders appeared to be allergic to Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, who combined to break from enough tackles that they must have been dipped in butter pre game. On third down, the Saints were 7-for-10. On fourth down, they were 3-for-3. That means that they ended up with a conversion every single time they had a third down. No punts. No turnovers on downs.
You just can’t lose with factors like those in your favor. Not in New Orleans, where the Saints won all eight of their regular-season games by an average of 23 points per.
The Lions, who were the third-most penalized team in the league this year, also failed to overcome their violations. They had taken six penalties to the tune of 41 yards before the Saints had taken any.
Would the Lions have won had they taken advantage of those turnovers and had been been more disciplined and had they been able to wrap up on defense? Maybe. They’ll surely kick themselves over those miscues and shortfalls, and they might even ask Ndamukong Suh why he decided to take the night off.
They’ll regret that they weren’t able to put a grip on the game by getting a grip on Brees with an early lead after superstar-esque performances from Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. They’ll even think twice about not challenging what appeared to be a bad spot on a first down early in what ended up being a 92-yard New Orleans touchdown drive.
But both sides made errors tonight, and the Saints were the better team in almost every way imaginable.
Too bad, because Stafford was on. He and that offense were methodical on the game’s opening drive, and it’s important to note that his two interceptions came in garbage time with the Lions trying to play catch-up. Johnson, too, was a force, and Titus Young, Nate Burleson, Kevin Smith and Brandon Pettigrew were stellar complements.
So if the red-hot Lions can’t beat these Saints — if they can’t even come within two touchdowns of New Orleans — then who can? I mean, the 49ers are a strong enough defensive team that they won’t give up 45, and San Francisco and Green Bay (if that matchup comes to fruition) have home-field advantage versus New Orleans, but right now it’s hard to envision this team losing to anyone.
I’d argue that they’re better than they were when they won everything in 2009. Graham and Sproles weren’t on that team, and Thomas is playing the best football of his career. That tackle-breaking machine of Sproles and Thomas wasn’t in the Bayou last January, when the Saints didn’t have half the firepower they do now.
The Packers and the Niners and the Patriots and the Ravens are all scary right now, but the Saints are scarier.