The blowout that wasn't: Making sense of Lions' loss to Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- Where to begin?

The Detroit Lions looked blown out. Then they came back, leaving the question of why the Lions -- again -- can’t start games the way they reel off second-half comebacks. Then, two straight possessions with interceptions ended any Detroit chance for a comeback, but only after the Lions cut a 35-point deficit to seven.

The New Orleans Saints beat the Lions 52-38 on Sunday in a wild, weird game that almost defies explanation. The Lions have played in some wacky games before. A bunch of controversial ones too. This one might be the strangest of them all.

"That was one of the most bizarre games I have ever been a part of," running back Ameer Abdullah said. "So, you know, hopefully it’s the first and last."

The Lions trailed by 35 points in the third quarter yet cut it to seven (45-38) by the middle of the fourth quarter after Detroit defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson returned a Drew Brees pass for a touchdown. But the Lions' comeback was thwarted on their next offensive drive. Detroit was on its own 1-yard line when QB Matthew Stafford's pass was batted -- and then intercepted -- by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan in the end zone for a zero-yard interception return and the game's final score.

There were four defensive touchdowns Sunday between the two teams. Detroit’s Jamal Agnew had a punt return for a touchdown too, and was then flagged for taunting. New Orleans, after a touchdown, was flagged for illegal formation on an extra point twice in a row.

"It was a different one, for sure," Stafford said. "I talked to Drew [Brees] about that after the game. He came up and said, 'Yeah, that was a weird one, huh?' And yeah it was, it was crazy. We've got to find a way to start a little bit faster and make that thing a little bit more competitive early on."

And despite the score, it was one of the ugliest games Detroit has played under Jim Caldwell, which made the fact that the Lions were down only a touchdown in the fourth quarter so baffling. It's the first time the Lions have given up 50 points in the Caldwell era -- and the first time since the then-San Diego Chargers scored 51 points against them on Dec. 16, 2007.

The Lions barely appeared competitive for three quarters. The score, of course, can be deceiving. But nothing was going right for the Lions -- particularly when the Saints led 45-10 midway through the third quarter soon after Lions safety Glover Quin, the team’s emotional defensive leader, was ruled out while being evaluated for a concussion.

It was a rough day for the Lions from the start.

Stafford, who injured his hamstring and right ankle last week, took every snap against the Saints in either the pistol formation or out of the shotgun, limiting some of what Detroit could do offensively with its run game.

Stafford had a tough day on his own, losing two fumbles, including one in the end zone for the Saints’ first touchdown. He also threw the Jordan interception in the end zone. He was hit seven times, and hurried a few others. He had 16 passes batted or broken up by the Saints' defense -- the most by a team since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information. By the end of the game, he was playing behind the Lions’ third-string right guard (Tim Lelito) and left tackle (Brian Mihalik).

The defense allowed scores on five of seven Saints possessions from the middle of the first quarter until the middle of the third, when the Lions began their comeback that never quite got there.

"There were a lot of non-normal football plays that happened and sequences of plays that kind of threw you off," receiver TJ Jones said. "But at the end of the day, if we play better, maybe a lot of those plays don’t happen. Again, that probably has something to do with us and our play."

Lost in all of the insanity of Sunday is this: Detroit’s loss puts its playoff hopes in a potentially precarious position. The Lions are 3-3 heading into their bye week, but all three losses are to NFC South teams they could be competing with for a wild-card berth. Detroit will need to finish at least one game better than at least one of the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Saints because all would hold tiebreakers over the Lions due to head-to-head record.

And in reality, with the combination of the Lions’ loss and what happened around the rest of the NFC North, Detroit’s easiest path to the playoffs might be to do something the team hasn’t done since the 1993 season: win the division. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone Sunday and the rest of his season is in question, so the NFC North is wide open.

"We've had some good moments and some bad moments," Stafford said. "I think we've been up-and-down. We've got to work that out. We've got to be trending in the right direction at all times and playing at a higher level."

The Lions could have the talent to pull it off. They showed flashes of it throughout the first month of the season. But the Lions can’t play as they did Sunday, when they were blown out before staging an incomplete rally. If they do that, they’ll likely have little chance at all.