DETROIT — Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints rolled up 626 yards of offense, turning Detroit’s return to the postseason into a defensive nightmare for the Lions.
Now, Detroit will face the Saints for the first time since that playoff game in January 2012 — and boy have things changed.
“You can see that it’s a team that’s playing with very good energy, you can see the pursuit to the ball,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “They’re playing with that confidence that you would see from a No. 1-ranked defense.”
Yes, the Lions are ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense — No. 2 against the run and No. 1 against the pass.
That’s a far cry from the disarray Detroit was in on that side of the ball when the team lost 45-28 to the Saints three seasons ago, in the Lions’ first postseason game in a dozen years.
When the Lions host Brees and the Saints on Sunday, they might not be able to rely much on star receiver Calvin Johnson.
Yet they still figure to have a decent chance to win. With Johnson sitting out last weekend with an ankle injury, Detroit won 17-3 at Minnesota.
“Our defense has stepped up and made some unbelievable plays, had some great performances,” Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said.
The Saints (2-3) might be the most potent test yet for Detroit’s defense. New Orleans is ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total offense, and two of its losses came by a combined five points at Atlanta and Cleveland.
The Lions (4-2) shut down Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, but they lost to Cam Newton and Carolina. Now, they face another top quarterback in Brees.
New Orleans is coming off an open date and has had plenty of time to prepare for Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit defensive front.
“I think every week it’s important to block the front four,” Payton said. “When you watch them on tape, these guys have done a great job and it’s allowed them to be a little bit more flexible in coverage. They do come with certain dogs and pressures, but just in the four-man rush they’re a handful.”
Here are a few more things to watch:
Dating to last season, the Saints have lost six straight regular-season games on the road. All three of their losses this season have come on the road, though they were very competitive in the first two, losing slim leads late in their losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.
There is more to New Orleans’ second-ranked offense than Brees’ typically prolific passing. The Saints have run the ball much better this season than last, and that’s without Mark Ingram in the lineup for the past three games.
Now Ingram, who averaged 6 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns through the first two games of the season, says he’s ready to return from a broken hand.
New Orleans does have another injury concern, however. Tight end Jimmy Graham is dealing with a shoulder problem.
The Saints, who ranked fourth in total defense in 2013, expected to be even better in coordinator Rob Ryan’s second season. Instead, they’ve allowed nearly 380 yards per game.
The unit is coming off one of its better performances this season against Tampa Bay in Week 5. Now the well-rested Saints seem eager to test their progress against a Lions offense that, while not necessarily prolific, has an array of playmakers.
Reggie Bush was the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft by New Orleans, and he played five seasons with the Saints, helping them win a Super Bowl. He’s now in his second year with Detroit after spending two in Miami. This will be the first time he’s played against New Orleans.
“We had five really good years together and I think very highly of him,” Brees said. “He was a great player for us and he continues to be. It’s hard to believe this is his ninth year. It goes by fast, but he’s still playing at a high level.”
Bush missed last weekend’s game with an ankle problem, but he practiced this week.