Much like last week's loss to the Green Bay Packers, penalties were not the story of the game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday. That was the case many times earlier in the season when the Lions lost games, but the bigger issues on Saturday were bad defense and some questionable calls by the referees not involving flags on the Lions.
Similar to the Packers game at Lambeau Field, the Lions were unable to overcome the combination of things working against them. Had a couple of bad calls gone in their favor, the complexion of Saturday's game may have been much different. Then again, considering how poorly their defense played, it might have been a moot point anyway. The Lions were unable to stop Drew Brees when it mattered most, and in the end that is the main reason why they lost 45-28 and saw their season come to a close on Saturday night at the Superdome.
If you went off of only the first two drives of the game, you would have thought it was a blowout in favor of the Lions. Detroit came out and went right down the field on offense and scored on a 10-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Will Heller. It was Stafford's fourth pass of 10 or more yards on the first drive alone, and the Lions quickly took a 7-0 lead with the score.
The Lions looked to build their lead by making a big play defensively. After Brees had little trouble moving the Saints down the field and into Lions territory, the defense needed a turnover to keep New Orleans off the scoreboard. When Marques Colston fumbled the ball after catching a pass, the Lions got that turnover with Justin Durant falling on the ball.
Unfortunately, the Lions failed to capitalize on the fumble recovery and had to punt after getting to midfield. The missed chance to go up by two scores would come back to bite them, as New Orleans responded by going 89 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a two-yard run by Darren Sproles.
Although the touchdown tied things up, the Lions quickly changed that with another stellar drive of their own. Stafford continued playing at a very high level, and he moved the Lions 87 yards in only nine plays and capped off the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson in the back of the end zone, putting Detroit back on top by seven points.
One of the biggest moments in the game happened on the next Saints drive. After once again letting the Saints easily move down the field, the Lions defense came up with another very timely turnover. Willie Young sacked Brees, who couldn't maintain control of the ball. It was recovered by Durant, who would have been gone for a touchdown had a whistle not been blown. Because one referee apparently thought Brees' arm was moving forward, there was a whistle, stopping the return before it even got started. Instead of having a two-score lead, the Lions merely took over at their own 38-yard line, and the offense, naturally, went three-and-out.
The Saints closed out the first half with a 14-play, 85-yard drive that ended in only a field goal. A bad call in the end zone that gave the Saints a touchdown was reversed, and the Lions managed to keep New Orleans from tying things up by making stops on first-and-goal and second-and-goal from the six-yard line. (The Saints moved to the six after a very questionable contact to the head penalty that was called because Amari Spievey's hand touched the receiver's helmet.) The Saints didn't have enough time for another shot at the end zone, so they settled for a field goal and went into halftime down 14-10.
The second half of the game got off to as bad of a start as possible for the Lions. New Orleans scored on the fourth play of the opening drive of the third quarter on a 41-yard pass from Brees to Devery Henderson. Then, after the Lions had their drive killed by a holding penalty (by the way, Nate Burleson was hit in the head on the same play and there was no flag thrown), the Saints took over and added another touchdown. This time Brees found Jimmy Graham, who had nobody on him because of a mix-up in coverage, from three yards out. The touchdown came after New Orleans got a very generous spot on the third play of the drive to move the chains and then later went for it on fourth-and-one from their own 38. Jim Schwartz should have challenged the first questionable spot, but based on how incompetent the officials were, who knows if it would have actually changed anything.
Now trailing 24-14, the Lions responded with a big touchdown of their own to make sure this didn't get out of hand just yet. Stafford found Johnson for 15, 21 and 42 yards, and later in the drive on third-and-goal from the one, Stafford scrambled to the right pylon and dove for the touchdown to make this a three-point game.
This was as close as the Lions would get, because the defense just wasn't able to make a stop. Unlike the first half, when they bailed themselves out with turnovers, the defense just couldn't get off the field. On the next drive, for example, the Lions defense held the Saints to third-and-eight, fourth-and-two and third-and-two. New Orleans converted a first down each time and eventually scored a touchdown on a 17-yard run by Sproles. The Lions' downfall in this game was being unable to make stops on third and fourth down, and this drive was a perfect example of that.
The wheels came off for the Lions when Stafford threw a bomb to Titus Young on the first and only play of the next drive. It was an ill-advised pass, and after Young fell down the Saints made an easy interception. Brees followed the turnover up with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem, making the score 38-21 in the Saints' favor.
The Lions didn't surrender the game by any means, as they responded with a nine-play touchdown drive. Stafford found Johnson for a 12-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 10 points. While a comeback seemed unlikely, the Lions at least had a chance to make things interesting. That chance ended after Jason Hanson's onside kick went right to a Saints player, though.
The Saints only needed four plays to score since Brees found Meachem for 41 yards on the second play of the drive. Pierre Thomas punched the ball in from a yard out a couple plays later, making it 45-28. The Lions' last hopes for a miracle comeback disappeared after Stafford was picked off again on the next drive, and the Saints were able to take a knee and run out the clock after nearly scoring again.
The story of the Lions' 2011 season will be missed opportunities. That was especially the case on Saturday night in New Orleans. The Lions had numerous chances to either extend their lead or get back in the game, but they were unable to do so. Sometimes bad calls were the culprit, and that fumble return for a touchdown could have changed everything had it been allowed. At the end of the day, though, it's tough to put the blame on the referees when the Lions gave up an NFL record 626 total yards. Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and Thomas, Sproles and Chris Ivory combined for 164 yards on the ground. It was just a bad effort defensively, and unfortunately that has been far too common as of late.
The biggest positive that came out of this game was that it gave the Lions playoff experience. Guys like Stafford and Johnson, who had 12 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, certainly didn't play like they had never been in the playoffs before, but the experience will be a good thing going forward for them and the entire team. The Lions have the look of a team that can become serious contenders with another strong offseason, and ending the season with a playoff loss is much better than not being in the playoffs at all. It does sting to think about what could have been, but I'd rather the Lions bow out of the playoffs than be one of the 20 teams that didn't even make it this far.
Next season, the expectations will change and simply making the playoffs won't be good enough. Considering what it took to even make it to this point, though, the Lions as a franchise took a big step in the right direction with all they did this season.