DETROIT — Here in the Motor City, where they know about recalls all too well, the New Orleans Saints have a simple question:
Can they have a do-over? Hit the reset button? Bring this defective lemon of a team back to the factory and fix the parts that always seem to go kerflooey?
You see, this season wasn’t supposed to be an Edsel. It was supposed to be a Cadillac. A season that would run fine as wine all the way to Super Bowl Big Roman Numeral out in the Arizona desert. The Saints would ride to Phoenix with the top down, just to better enjoy the scenery.
But instead of getting their kicks on Route 66, the Saints are just getting kicked in the head. Or more accurately, the Saints are kicking themselves in the head, as was the case against the Lions.
The losses keep mounting, and in more and more incredulous ways.
If you’re a Saints fan, you’re probably beyond red-faced angry. You’ve gone, to borrow a line from the movie “Spaceballs,” to plaid.
Sunday’s 24-23 defeat was the astonishing showstopper. It was a bit like — if you can stand one more tortured automobile metaphor — playing catch with your child in the front yard. They’re in the groove for toss after toss, and you’re feeling pretty proud because you must have taught them something right. That is until they uncork a wild one that whistles through the arched brick of your chimney top and dents the fender of your brand new car, which still has the temporary tag in the back window.
You would be so astonished that you might not be mad as much as you’d want to know how, by the laws of physics and Walter Chrysler, that could happen.
That was what it was like watching the Saints throw a connecting rod Sunday.
This was a game New Orleans almost couldn’t lose. Almost. For nearly 56 minutes, this was the Saints’ best effort of the season, win or lose.
The Saints forced turnovers and took advantage of Lions mistakes. They overcame the limiting of their previously powerful ground game with a potent passing attack. Their defense tackled securely and got pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford — they sacked him three times, a Saints season high — all while gritting their teeth through a painful and steady headwind of injuries.
And then, kaboom! Stafford found receiver Golden Tate — whom defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will see in his nightmares and think he should have lunged out and tried to tackle himself — on the Saints’ sideline as Corey White went for the pick instead of the tackle. Tate outraced the rest of the secondary 73 yards to the end zone to whittle a once snug and secure 23-10 Saints lead to 23-17 with 3:38 left.
But that play wasn’t enough to doom the Saints. They still needed another huge mistake to crack the engine block.
Drew Brees showed over and over in this game that, at age 35, he still has the arm. But one wonders what is going through his head sometimes, like when he tried to shovel out a ball while being sacked two weeks ago against Tampa Bay that turned into a pick-six.
This time, he mistakenly thought lurking Lions free safety Glover Quin, in what Brees appropriately described as “robber” or “thief” coverage, would slide left. In steps Quin to Brees’ right to pick off his pass for Marques Colston and return it 23 yards to the New Orleans 14.
You know the rest. The beleaguered Saints secondary, which by game’s end was trying to stop Stafford with rookies Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Brian Dixon working the corners, watched helplessly as Corey Fuller caught the game-winning 5-yard strike with 1:48 left.
It was Fuller’s first career touchdown catch, by the way.
It just had to be.
Deconstruct the self-destructive nature of New Orleans’ road losses and you reveal a picture that is almost too painful to bear.
The Saints got blown out at Dallas, yes, but the Cowboys are the best team the Saints have played. The other three losses are by three points at Atlanta, two at Cleveland and one here. You halfway expect the Saints will lose their next road game at Carolina in a fractions pop quiz.
This season is turning into a nightmare from which the Saints can’t wake themselves, at least not before it’s too late.
“Losing games at the end is the worst way to lose them, and that’s how we keep doing it,” said right tackle Zach Strief, who called the team’s leadership (including himself) into question.
“I put myself at the top of the list,” he said.
Brees put himself at the top of his own list.
“The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down,” said Brees, sounding about as forlorn as the perpetually-peppy No. 9 can sound. “That’s the way I feel right now with that interception.”
Turnovers are going to happen. So are losses. And the Saints can still bounce back to win their sponge cake division even with three or four more defeats. On Sunday, NFC South leader Carolina lost to Green Bay (the Saints’ next opponent) to fall to 3-3-1.
But losses like this can leave a mark on your spirit, sap your hope, make you wonder how the bogeyman will bite you next. New Orleans has now lost nine of 10 regular-season road games since last season, a significant problem that isn’t getting solved.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.