Sunday night's game between the Lions and Saints followed a script similar to Thanksgiving for Detroit. The Lions committed a number of drive-killing penalties in both games, and they once again had a problem keeping their composure. Overall the Lions played quite well considering they are dealing with a number of injuries and didn't have Ndamukong Suh, but the end result was a 31-17 loss to New Orleans and another embarrassing showing on national TV.
Sunday night's game got off to a somewhat promising start. After Mark Ingram rumbled for 13 yards on the first play of the game, the Lions defense put the clamps down and kept New Orleans from moving the chains again on that drive. Unfortunately, the Lions were unable to do anything on offense after Titus Young ran for 11 yards on their first offensive play of the game. They had to punt, and New Orleans took over at their own 38-yard line.
The ensuing possession for the Saints was quite odd. The Saints ran 5:08 off the clock and gained only 37 yards on 13 plays. Despite struggling to move the ball in big chunks of yardage, New Orleans kept picking up first downs on third down and eventually got into field goal range. John Kasay connected on a 39-yard kick after the drive finally stalled, giving them an early 3-0 lead.
Just like their first drive of the game, the Lions were able to move the chains once with an 11-yard gain by Young. They had to punt after thanks in part to a holding penalty on Kevin Smith. It negated a 14-yard pass to Tony Scheffler on third down and put the Lions in a third-and-long situation. They were able to put the Saints on their own three-yard line after a good punt, but it was the first of several missed chances because of penalties.
Unlike the Saints last drive where they moved the ball but not in big chunks, their next one was the complete opposite. New Orleans picked up 38 yards on a Drew Brees pass to Robert Meachem on the first play. The drive looked like it was about to stall, but a pass interference penalty on Eric Wright kept it alive after an incompletion on third down. The Saints then got 18 yards on a pass to Marques Colston and 14 on the ground by Ingram, who ran into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Lions were able to move the chains on third-and-17 before ultimately having to punt the ball away, and once again the Saints wasted little time in going right down the field. After Pierre Thomas picked up eight yards on first down, Brees found Meachem wide open. Meachem proceeded to run circles around Wright, and he went 67 yards for another Saints touchdown. Suddenly it was 17-0 New Orleans and this game was in danger of becoming a blowout.
17-point deficits haven't seemed to bother the Lions in the past, and the joke about the Lions having New Orleans right where they wanted them seemed like the reality of the situation on the next drive. Detroit put together an outstanding possession and moved down the field with ease. They didn't face a single third down and went 80 yards in 10 plays. The last play of the drive was a two-yard touchdown run by Smith, and just like that the Lions were back in this game.
The Saints quickly answered the Lions' touchdown with another one of their own. It took New Orleans five plays to get to midfield from the 20-yard line and then only three plays to get from midfield to the end zone. Brees found Darren Sproles for 22 yards and 12 yards and then Lance Moore for 20 and a touchdown, and now the lead was back to 17 points.
Despite having only 22 seconds on the clock before halftime, the Lions had a shot at cutting into the lead. Somehow Young got behind the Saints defense and went 49 yards on a big pass. This put the Lions in position to kick a field goal, but it was blocked by New Orleans' Patrick Robinson. The Lions wanted a flag for offside, but the referees ruled that Robinson simply got a great jump, which allowed him to dive in front of Jason Hanson to get a hand on the ball. The score remained 24-7 going into halftime.
The Lions continued their recent trend of being able to move the ball with ease on the opening drive of the second half. They once again quickly moved down the field and didn't even face a third down until they were inside the red zone. It wasn't going to be a tough third down since Maurice Morris got within a yard of the first down, but then Young decided to push a Saints player in the head right in front of a referee. The moronic action drew a flag and made it third-and-16 instead of third-and-one. The Lions were unable to move the chains and had to settle for a 31-yard Hanson field goal.
After getting a stop, the Lions offense picked up where it left off before the penalty and again torched New Orleans' defense. Stafford was slinging it to a variety of targets and capped off the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Morris. The Lions overcame a weak pass interference call on Nate Burleson that negated a 24-yard pass (it was one of three offensive pass interference calls on Burleson) and also got some help in the form of an illegal contact penalty on third-and-14 that kept the drive alive.
Now trailing by only a touchdown, the Lions had all of the momentum on their side, especially after the defense forced a three-and-out. Stefan Logan committed a moronic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by throwing the ball at a Saints player after the punt, but the Lions shook that off and the momentum continued building when Stafford hit Burleson for a 47-yard pass on the first play of the ensuing drive. Had Burleson kept his balance, he could have scored and tied the game, but he wasn't able to and went down at the New Orleans 35-yard line. Unfortunately, the Lions were unable to move the ball after that, and they actually went back two yards. This set up a 55-yard field goal attempt, and Hanson missed it wide left.
After dodging a bullet, the Saints offense capitalized on the good field position and quickly extended their lead back to 14 points. Brees went to Jimmy Graham on four of the seven plays on this drive and the Lions couldn't stop him. Eventually it was Sproles who scored on a six-yard pass from Brees to give the Saints a 31-17 advantage.
With nearly 10 minutes left in this game, the Lions were far from dead. In fact, the Lions seemed to be well on their way to again making this a one score game. They were moving the ball with ease until Burleson was again flagged for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty. The call backed Detroit up 10 yards, and after Morris dropped a pass on a screen that could have gone for a touchdown, the Lions had fourth-and-13 and elected to punt.
A quick three-and-out by the Saints kept the Lions alive, but penalties prevented any real chance they had of making a comeback. A 42-yard pass to Burleson on the opening play of the next drive was negated because of another bogus pass interference call. The Lions got those 10 yards back with a pass to Morris, but Brandon Pettigrew decided to get into it with a Saints player and was flagged for 15 yards after he put his hands on a referee. He merely swiped the refs hand away when he was being restrained, but it was another moronic penalty that cost the Lions. Stafford was sacked on third-and-25, but thankfully Cameron Jordan decided to hit him late, which gave the Lions a free first down. They were unable to move the chains by themselves, though, and Stafford was picked off on fourth down, effectively ending the game.
The most frustrating part about this game is that despite missing three defensive starters and having injury issues with Kevin Smith and Nick Fairley (who was outstanding) during the game, the Lions could have won. The offense was tremendous, especially at quarterback. Stafford went 31-of-44 and had 408 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Did the defense play great? Not exactly, but to me the defense made enough stops against one of the most explosive offenses in football to put the Lions in position to win.
The reason the Lions didn't win is penalties. The Lions just kept shooting themselves in the foot with penalties, many of which could have been avoided. The referees certainly gave them no help considering there were several weak or completely bogus calls that cost them big plays (seriously, when has one receiver ever been flagged three times for offensive pass interference?), but to have three different guys take stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalties is inexcusable. Young was benched after his penalty cost the Lions a shot at a touchdown, but I don't know if that's enough to send a message to the rest of the team.
Despite all of the crap that went on with Ndamukong Suh last week, it's obvious that many players on this team haven't received the message to stop it with the stupid penalties. There's not much the Lions can do when Burleson is flagged three times for something that happens every pass play, but taking unsportsmanlike conduct penalties can be avoided. It's simple, really: don't push an opposing player's head in front of a ref, don't throw a ball at an opposing player after a play, don't put your hands on a ref and don't stomp opposing players. It's not rocket science, and Jim Schwartz has got to get things under control. Not only are these penalties costing the Lions yards, but they are feeding into the notion that this is an undisciplined team. To me this is why referees seem so willing to call penalties on every little thing the Lions do wrong. At this point it's clear the Lions have a discipline problem, and it seems referees aren't even remotely hesitant to throw a flag on close calls that other teams aren't penalized for.
Despite all of the negatives that came out of last night's game, the good news is the Lions are still in the playoff hunt. In fact, despite falling to 7-5, Sunday went quite well for them since the Giants, Cowboys, Bears and Falcons all lost. With three winnable games coming up (vs. Vikings, at Raiders and vs. Chargers), the Lions have a chance to lock down a playoff spot. Will they succeed in making the playoffs? It remains to be seen. They certainly have the talent to win and make the postseason, but they have to stop beating themselves with dumb penalties in order to even think about making a playoff run.