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Wild Card Free Pick: Powerhouse New Orleans Saints Host Detroit Lions

by Aengus Moorehead

Matthew Stafford - Wild Card Free Pick: Powerhouse New Orleans Saints Host Detroit Lions

Analysis:
Drew Brees and the red-hot Saints will go for their ninth consecutive victory when they host the Lions in a wild card matchup Saturday night. It will mark the first postseason game in NFL history featuring opposing quarterbacks who have each thrown for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns during the regular season.

New Orleans was a perfect 8-0 at home, including a 31-17 victory over the Lions on Dec. 4. Of course, the Saints were also overwhelming favorites a year ago before getting bounced by a seven-win Seattle team in the playoffs.

The Detroit Lions have waited 12 long years for the opportunity they'll be receiving this weekend, though the team's sorely- anticipated return to the playoffs could be a short stay if its defense duplicates its most recent performance.

The Lion's restored prominence came about in large part due to a dangerous offense that established franchise records for total yards (6,337), passing yards (4,814) and points (474) in a single year, with rising-star quarterback Matthew Stafford producing only the fifth campaign of over 5,000 yards through the air in NFL history.

But as good as the Lions were on that of the ball, they'll still be entering Saturday's high-stakes tilt as the statistically-inferior unit. That's because the Saints generated more total yards than any team ever in matching the similarly-potent 2009 Super Bowl champion squad for the most pre-playoff wins in a season by the organization.

The 2011 Saints accumulated an astounding 7,474 total yards and 5,347 net passing yards en route to their 13-3 record, eclipsing the 2000 St. Louis Rams of the famed "Greatest Show on Turf" era for the most in league annals for a season. Most of the damage came on the deadly-accurate right arm of quarterback Brees, with the fiery veteran racking up 5,476 yards over the 16-game schedule to shatter Hall of Famer Dan Marino's NFL standard that had stood for 27 seasons.

Brees threw for over 300 yards for the seventh straight contest to help New Orleans close out its banner regular season with a bang. Last Sunday's 45-17 shellacking of the Carolina Panthers was the Saints' eighth win in a row, and the team established a new single-game high with its 617-yard outburst.

New Orleans has recorded over 435 yards of offense in each of its last six triumphs, including a 438-yard display in a 31-17 besting of the Lions at the Superdome on Dec. 4. Brees ended that night with 342 yards and three touchdowns and no turnovers while completing a crisp 26-of-36 attempts.

The Lions had rebounded nicely from that Week 13 setback in New Orleans by ripping off three straight wins to officially end their playoff drought, but had a rougher time in last Sunday's finale at NFC top seed Green Bay. The Detroit defense was lit up for 480 yards and a Packers-record six touchdown passes by talented reserve signal-caller Matt Flynn as the reigning world champions came out ahead in an action-filled 45-41 thriller that dropped the Lions into the conference's sixth and final playoff position to set up Saturday's daunting matchup.

The Lions were without three key defenders, most notably difference-making tackle Ndamukong Suh, in last month's loss to the Saints. The 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year sat out that game serving a league-issued suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct, while cornerback Chris Houston and free safety Louis Delmas were sidelined by knee injuries.

Houston has since returned, while Delmas is on track to play for the first time since late November as Detroit gets a second crack at a New Orleans outfit that's gone 8-0 at home this regular season and has averaged a sizzling 41.1 points per game at the Superdome.

The Lions have done their share of scoreboard-lighting as well as of late. Detroit put up at least 34 points for the third time in four weeks in its shootout with the Packers, with Stafford amassing a career-high 520 yards and throwing for five touchdowns.

New Orleans took an 11-9-1 lead in its overall series with Detroit by virtue of three consecutive wins in the set. In addition to the previously-noted result at the Superdome last month, the Saints came through with a 45-27 home triumph of the Lions in the 2009 regular season opener and also routed Detroit by a 42-7 count at Ford Field in 2008. The Lions last topped the Saints in a 13-12 squeaker held at San Antonio's Alamo Dome in 2005 and haven't won in New Orleans since a 14-10 verdict on Sept. 3, 2000.

Sean Payton has come out on top in all three of his previous meetings with the Lions as a head coach, while Jim Schwartz fell to 0-2 all-time against both New Orleans and Payton with the Week 13 loss.

Payton sports a 4-2 composite record in postseason games, with the Saints having gone 3-0 at home in the playoffs under his direction.

Time & Venue:
- 8:00 PM ET, Saturday, January 7, 2012. Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana

Last Week's results:
- Detroit Lions (-3.5) loses to host Green Bay Packers 45-41.
- New Orleans Saints (-9) beats visiting Carolina Panthers 45-17.

Last week's ATS:
- Favourite Detroit Lions (10-6) loses outright
- Favourite New Orleans Saints (13-3) wins and covers.

NFL Football Odds: Saints -11, O/U 59.5

Team records:
- Detroit Lions: 10-6 SU, 7-8-1 ATS
- New Orleans Saints: 13-3 SU, 12-4 ATS

Detroit is in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and only three years removed from the only 0-16 season in league history. Stafford has a touchdown machine in superstar WR Calvin Johnson, who had 96 receptions for a league-best 1,686 yards and 16 scoring passes this season.

Stafford threw for 1,284 yards and 12 TDs in his last three games. Johnson had 24 catches for 560 yards and five TDs in that span. Suh, will need to apply inside pressure to Brees. Detroit committed 11 penalties for 107 yards in the first meeting.

The Saints were the No. 2 scoring team in the league behind Green Bay and put up at least 40 points in five of their eight home games.

Although rookie RB Mark Ingram went on injured reserve this week, the trio of Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles have provided great production. Sproles was the pickup of the offseason, accumulating a league-best 2,696 all-purpose yards. Jimmy Graham became the first tight end to top 95 receptions, 1,200 yards and 10 TDs in one season. WR Marques Colston had five TD passes in last four games en route to a fifth 1,000-yard season.

Two of the NFL's most established kickers will be on display in this one, with 42-year-old John Kasay handling those chores for the Saints and 41-year-old Jason Hanson the lone remaining member of Detroit's last playoff entry.

Both can still get it done at their advanced age, as Hanson knocked home 24-of-29 field goal tries and went 5-of-7 from 50 yards or beyond in his 20th season as a Lion and Kasay (28-of-34 FG's) finished second in the league with 147 points, though the veteran lefty was a shaky 7-of-13 on field goal attempts of 40 or more yards.

The Saints own a big advantage in the punting department, with the strong- legged Thomas Morstead (48.3 avg.) placing second in the NFL in net average (43.1) and Detroit rookie Ryan Donahue (42.7 avg.) winding up next-to-last in that category (35.6). Morstead is also an asset on kickoffs, producing a league-high 68 touchbacks over the course of the year.

Sproles was also a weapon in the return game, with the diminutive dynamo ranking fourth in the NFC in kickoff runbacks (27.2 avg.) and taking a punt 72 yards for a touchdown in the season opener at Green Bay. Detroit's Stefan Logan put up solid numbers (25.2 avg. on KR, 8.1 avg. on PR) as the Lions' return specialist, but also had six fumbles and lost two over the club's 16 games. Neither team was good in kick coverage this season, but the Saints allowed a league-low 118 punt-return yards while Detroit permitted a troublesome 13.4 yards per attempt.

Brees, who set a record with a 71.6 percent completion percentage, has thrown for 1,051 yards, 11 TDs and one interception in three games against the Lions.

Detroit set a league record by winning three games after trailing by at least 17 points this season.

After New Orleans jumped out to a 17-point lead in the first meeting, Detroit rallied to pull within seven points but had a missed field goal, punt and interception on its next three possessions.

The total has gone UNDER in 5 of New Orleans's last 7 games when playing at home against Detroit
The total has gone OVER in 5 of New Orleans's last 7 games at home
New Orleans is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games at home
Detroit is 2-4 ATS in its last 6 games when playing on the road against New Orleans
Detroit is 3-6 ATS in its last 9 games when playing New Orleans
Detroit is 1-5 ATS in its last 6 games

Last week's shoddy defensive display may have been a harbinger of things to come for the Lions, as Brees and his band of skill players have been virtually unstoppable on the fast Superdome turf during their march to an NFC South title and had their way with their opening-round opponent just over a month ago.

And there's no chance of New Orleans taking Detroit lightly either, not with the painful memory of an upset loss to a 7-9 Seattle team during last year's Wild Card weekend still fresh in the Saints players' collective minds.

Both passing attacks will click with considerable potency, but the more-experienced Brees will be a bit sharper than the fresh-faced Stafford and New Orleans' often- overlooked ground game will be a factor as well. The Saints simply have too many weapons for a Detroit squad that has its flaws will be able to handle but the Lions keep it close.

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NFL Football Pick: Take points and Lions.

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calvin johnson - carolina panthers - carolina panthers - chris houston - chris ivory - darren sproles - detroit lions - drew brees - green bay packers - jason hanson

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