Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS ― The Saints survived a third quarter in which they had the ball for only one possession, holding off Detroit for a 31-17 win Sunday night, New Orleans’ fourth-consecutive win.
Combined with Atlanta’s loss to Houston earlier in the day, New Orleans grabbed a two-game lead over the Falcons in the NFC South with four games to play.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fought,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It wasn’t perfect. There is a handful of things that we have to get corrected to get where we want to go. Fortunately we have time to do that.”
Quarterback Drew Brees was 26 of 36 for 342 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Mark Ingram carried the load, tallying 16 carries for 54 yards and a score.
More importantly, the Saints (9-3) didn’t turn the ball over, the third game in a row that has been the case.
Still, the Saints allowed Detroit (7-5) to gain 466 total yards, including 408 through the air by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Hard to complain, though, when the defense held the Lions to 2 of 11 on third down.
“They’re going to get some points,” linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “They’re going to get some yards. They’re going to make some plays, which they did. But it was really about us weathering that storm, getting back to basics and coming out with the victory.”
The teams traded punts to open the game before the Saints started to get going. New Orleans drove 41 yards in 13 plays, but was held to a field goal when it couldn’t convert a third-and-11 from Detroit’s 11. John Kasay hit a 39-yard field goal for a 3-0 Saints lead with 5:52 to go in the opening quarter.
Penalties thwarted Detroit’s following drive and punter Ben Graham seemingly put the Saints in bad field position.
But quarterback Drew Brees drove the Saints 97 yards in nine plays, a drive capped by a 14-yard Mark Ingram touchdown run aided by a key edge block by receiver Robert Meachem. Aiding the drive was a 38-yard catch by Meachem on third-and-four early in the drive.
New Orleans didn’t slow down.
After coming up with a defensive stop, Brees needed only 48 seconds to lengthen the lead to 17-0. On second-and-two from the Saints’ 33, Brees used all the time he was given by his line to hit wide open receiver Robert Meachem, who did the rest. Meachem cut left, then cut right and then back left, leaving Detroit cornerback Eric Wright confused and behind him for a 67-yard touchdown.
New Orleans couldn’t maintain the three score lead for long. Detroit drove 80 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 2-yard touchdown run by Kevin Smith and with 2:28 to go in the opening half, the Saints lead was down to 17-7.
Not that New Orleans’ offense really cared. Despite starting from its own 20 with just 2:28 to play in the half and only one timeout, Brees calmly led the offense down the field, tossing a 20-yard touchdown strike to Lance Moore to extend the lead to 24-7.
Even mistakes turned up roses for the Saints on Sunday night. Cornerback Patrick Robinson allowed Lions receiver Nate Burleson to get behind on first down, setting Detroit up at the Saints’ 24 with 8 seconds to go in the half.
But Robinson burst around the left edge on Jason Hanson’s 42-yard field goal attempt, blocking it as the first half clock expired, sending the Saints to the locker room up 24-7.
The Lions came out of the break using dinks and dunks to move down the field. But the drive stalled when receiver Titus Young was called for a personal foul inside the Saints’ 5. Hanson kicked a 31-yard field goal and the Saints lead was 24-10.
New Orleans was held to a punt on its first position of the third quarter and the Lions took advantage. New Orleans gave up just one third-down conversion, but it was a big one. Cornerback Jabari Greer was called for illegal contact on third-and-14, giving Detroit a first down. The penalty was New Orleans’ first of the night.
Three plays later, quarterback Matthew Stafford hit running back Maurice Morris for a 9-yard touchdown, cutting New Orleans’ lead to 24-17 with 43 seconds to go in the third quarter.
Detroit tried to continue its comeback, attempting a 55-yard field goal. But it sailed wide left and Brees took advantage of the opportunity and field position.
He hit tight end Jimmy Graham on third-and-seven for 16 yards, then four plays later, hit running back Darren Sproles for a 6-yard touchdown pass and a 31-17 lead with 9:44 to go in the game.