New Orleans, LA (Sports Network) - It took a while to get on track, but once they did, Drew Brees and the Saints showed the upstart Detroit Lions what it takes to win a playoff game.
Down 14-10 at the half, New Orleans completely dominated the second half to take a 45-28 win over the Lions in an NFC Wild Card game at the Superdome.
Brees, who set a single-season record with 5,476 passing yards, threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns on 33-of-43 passing to help the Saints advance to the NFC Divisional Round and exorcise the ghosts of a wild card loss to a 7-9 Seattle team last season.
"Their defense was very patient in the first half and it can get frustrating when you come up against that," said New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. "But, I thought we were able to fight through and did a great job of protecting the ball and keeping it in the second half."
The New Orleans backfield of Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory combined for 164 rushing yards on 31 carries with three touchdowns and also had 10 catches for 89 yards and a score for New Orleans, which went 13-3 in the regular season to win the NFC South.
"I thought he played with good energy and his balance was great because he got a ton of yards after contact," said Payton about Thomas. "We had a good rotation with those three guys and I was very pleased with our balance."
New Orleans, which got seven catches for 120 yards from Marques Colston and four catches for 111 yards and a score by Robert Meachem, will travel to San Francisco for a divisional round matchup with the 49ers next Saturday.
The Lions, meanwhile, were in a playoff game for the first time since 1999 and were just three seasons removed from the first and only 0-16 season in the history of the NFL.
Much of the reason for the turnaround for the Lions, who went 10-6 on the season, is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who passed for 5,038 yards in 2011, third-best in the NFL.
His playoff debut was not so bad as he tossed three touchdowns and ran one in while passing for 380 yards on 28-of-43 passing, but he did have two interceptions in the fourth quarter when the game was still undecided.
"I'm proud of the guys in our locker room for getting us to where we finished this season," said Stafford. "Of course we didn't want to lose, but we haven't finished what we started."
Stafford's main target all season was Calvin Johnson and that didn't change in this game as the premier wide receiver caught 12 passes for 211 yards and two scores in the loss.
As expected, the offenses were prolific in this game as they set a combined yardage record for a playoff game with 1,038 -- 626 of which came from New Orleans.
The Saints started the second half with the ball, trailing by four. Brees needed just four plays to change that as he hit Devery Henderson over the middle near the five and he took it in on a 41-yard score for a 17-14 lead less than two minutes in.
After forcing a punt, the Saints were pinned back at their own eight, but that didn't faze Brees as he converted a 3rd-and-11 with a pass to Colston. A 4th- and-1 play saw Brees leap over the pile and extend his arms to get the first down. Three plays later, Colston caught a deep ball for 40 yards and the next play saw Jimmy Graham wide open for a three-yard score and a 24-14 lead.
"That game had everything to do with missed opportunities on defense," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "Three potential picks that we missed, all of which took points off the board. But we were awful on third and fourth down and that killed us."
Stafford answered on the Lions' next touch with an eight-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a roll out to the right and just touch the pylon with the ball before going down on a one-yard score with 1:08 left in the third. Johnson caught passes of 15, 21 and 42 yards during the drive.
The Saints came right back with a 14-play, 80-yard trek that was finished when Sproles went up the middle untouched on a 17-yard score for a 31-21 advantage with 9:53 to play.
Stafford was intercepted on the first play of the Lions' next touch and that led to a 56-yard touchdown catch by Meachem to essentially seal the win with 7:29 left.
Detroit didn't quit and Stafford quickly marched his team down the field, capping the nine-play, 79-yard drive was a 12-yard scoring strike to Johnson.
But the onsides kick attempt failed and Thomas' one-yard touchdown run with 3 1/2 minutes left capped the game and the New Orleans win.
The Lions started the game with the ball and put together an impressive drive. Stafford caught a 22-yard pass and Titus Young later advanced the chains on a 3rd-and-7 play with a 15-yard catch. It was a 7-0 game as Will Heller caught a pass over the middle and banged his way into the end zone on a 10-yard score with 10:58 left in the first.
New Orleans drove on its ensuing possession and got into Detroit territory, but Colston fumbled a catch and Justin Durant recovered the ball at the Detroit 18.
Detroit, though, was unable to take advantage, as the team had to punt after getting to midfield.
Starting at their own 11, New Orleans' first two plays went for no yards, but Thomas broke a couple of tackles on an 11-yard pass to move the chains. Three plays later, Thomas again came up with the big play as he took a handoff 31 yards to the Detroit 35. On the third play of the second quarter at the Detroit two, Sproles took a handoff, bounced off the line and went around the left side into the end zone to tie the game.
The Lions had an answer on their next touch with a nine-play, 87-yard drive that was capped on a leaping catch in the left corner of the end zone by Johnson for a 13-yard score and a 14-7 lead with 9:11 to play in the first half.
The Saints got into Detroit territory again, but turnovers continued to plague them as Willie Young got his hand on the ball as Brees was drawing arm hand back and the Lions recovered the ball at their own 38.
The play was not without controversy, though, as it was whistled dead while the ball was still in play. Detroit was given possession, but Durant, who recovered the ball, had an open field to run if the play hadn't been whistled down.
"The one turnover that would have been nice to capitalize on was the sack and forced fumble," said Schwartz. "That should have been a touchdown because every other time in this league they've let that play go and they don't blow the whistle. We were a victim of that last week with them continuing plays, and for some reason the decided to blow the whistle, that would have been seven points."
Ultimately, the Lions were unable to take advantage as the team went three- and-out and New Orleans got the ball back at its own 16.
After a defensive offside, Brees hit Colston for 23 yards and methodically marched his team down the field, including a 4th-and-1 conversion. With the ball in the red zone, Brees appeared to get a score as Colston caught the ball in the back of the end zone, but the ball came out as he hit the ground. New Orleans wound up settling for a 24-yard field goal from John Kasay as time expired to make it a 14-10 game at the break.
Over four games against the Lions, Brees has 14 touchdown passes and one interception...Johnson set a Detroit playoff record for most receiving yards in a playoff game...Detroit has won just one playoff game since winning the last of three championships in 1957...The Lions managed just 32 rushing yards...Thomas had 66 rushing yards and 55 receiving, Sproles had 51 on the ground and 34 receiving while Ivory had 47 rushing yards...The Saints controlled the ball for 37:36 and went 3-for-4 on fourth down...The Lions were penalized seven times for 64 yards.