They led Drew Brees and the mighty New Orleans Saints at halftime. They were still right in the game heading to the final period.
But Brees and the Saints blew it open, turning Detroit's postseason return into a one-and-done affair with a 45-28 NFC playoff victory that was much closer most of a raucous Saturday night at the Superdome.
Having already eclipsed Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season, Brees turned in his best performance yet by shredding the Lions for 466 yards through the air, the most ever in a playoff game that didn't go to overtime.
Detroit simply couldn't keep up, despite putting on an impressive offensive showing of its own. The teams combined for 1,038 yards, tying an NFL postseason record set by Buffalo and Miami in 1995.
Matthew Stafford threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, plus scored himself on a 1-yard bootleg and dive. All-Pro Calvin Johnson had a huge game with 211 yards receiving, hauling in a pair of TD passes. But Detroit, after forcing a couple of fumbles in the first half but also getting hurt by an inadvertent whistle, finally wore down against a team that hasn't lost at home all season.
"This is a learning experience for the whole team," Stafford said. "We'll get better. We'll be back. Obviously it hurts right now, but we'll be ready to go."
Brees threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem with 7 1/2 minutes remaining that gave New Orleans (14-3) a commanding 38-21 lead. The Lions (10-7) had one last hurrah - Stafford's 12-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 4:40 remaining - but New Orleans recovered an onside kick, quickly drove for another TD and the celebration was on in the Big Easy.
"We were pulling out all the stops," Brees said. "We play aggressive. We're not going to apologize for that. We always have. It gives guys confidence. We had a lot of confidence. We're not going to pull the reins back. It's pedal to the medal."
Still, the Lions gave themselves plenty of reasons for optimism after their first playoff appearance since 1999, though they'll have to wait even longer for their first postseason win in more than two decades.
This is a franchise on the rise.
But it's not Detroit's time just yet.
"I have a lot of confidence in the guys around me, a lot of confidence in myself, a lot of confidence in the whole team," Stafford said. "We had a good year. I'm proud of the guys in that locker room, getting where we've gotten to. Obviously next year, we're looking to take steps forward to get that much better."
Defense - especially when opposing teams drops back to pass - is likely to be the next area of focus in a rebuilding effort that already took the Lions from a historic 0-16 debacle three seasons ago to a wild-card berth.
In the regular-season finale, Detroit surrendered 480 yards and six touchdowns to Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who set franchise records while filling in for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers won 45-41, leaving the Lions with a tougher playoff pairing against New Orleans instead of the New York Giants.
The Saints broke the postseason mark for total yards with 626, beating the record set 49 years ago and sending Detroit to its seventh straight playoff loss since its last postseason victory in 1991.
Fiery coach Jim Schwartz lamented his defenders letting at least three possible interceptions slip from their grasp, not to mention their dismal attempts to get the Saints off the field. New Orleans was 7 of 11 on third-down opportunities, and converted three straight times on fourth down.
"It had everything to do with missed opportunities on defense," Schwartz said. "We were awful on third and fourth down. We dropped chances to make interceptions."
New Orleans dominated on the ground, outgaining the Lions 167-32. Pierre Thomas rushed for 66 yards and one touchdown, while Darren Sproles added 51 yards, two scores and several other clutch plays.
Marques Colston overcame an early fumble with seven catches for 120, including a 40-yarder to set up Jimmy Graham's short TD grab.
Robert Meachem had four catches for 11 yards, including a 56-yard score. Devery Henderson added a 41-yard touchdown reception.
New Orleans showed guts and got a little good fortune on a 14-play, 80 yards scoring drive in the fourth quarter. The Saints ran Sproles around the left end on fourth-and-2 at the Lions 40 and gained 3 yards. Soon after, Brees' pass as he was clobbered by Nick Fairley went right through the hands of defensive back Aaron Berry.
Berry would regret that drop two plays later as Sproles bolted 17 yards for a score to make it 31-21.
Stafford tried to get some of that back quickly, throwing deep for Titus Young, but Jabari Greer ran under it for the first of his two fourth-quarter interceptions. Four plays later, Brees spotted Meachem behind blown coverage for his long score.
The Lions became only the second visiting team all year to lead at halftime in the Superdome, going to the locker room up 14-10.
However, the Saints opened the second half by driving 78 yards to take its first lead on Brees' 31-yard touchdown pass to Henderson. New Orleans then widened its lead to 24-14 with a 92-yard drive that included what may have been a favorable spot on Colston's third-down grab at the Saints 18. Later, Brees converted a risky dive over the pile on fourth at 1 at the New Orleans 38 to sustain the drive before finding Colston for a 40-yard gain to the Detroit 3. Brees hit Graham for a score on the next play.
Brees was impressed. He wouldn't be surprised to face the Lions in another playoff game somewhere down the line.
"That's a playoff-caliber team," the Saints quarterback said. "I have a lot of respect for their coaches and players. They had a great season. They showed a lot of grit in a lot of comeback victories.
"I'm sure we'll be facing those guys again in the near future."
Indeed, the future looks bright in the Motor City.
Notes: Bernie Kosar still holds the playoff passing record with a 489-yard performance for Cleveland vs. the New York Jets in 1986, a game that went to overtime. ... Kevin Smith was Detroit's leading rusher with just 21 yards on six carries. The Lions ran it only 10 times, their longest gain a mere 9 yards. ... Brees finished the regular season with seven straight 300-yard passing games.
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