With their Super Bowl title, string of postseason appearances and record-setting offense, it might be easy to forget that the New Orleans Saints were once one of the NFL’s lowliest franchises.
When they begin their quest for another championship Saturday night at the Superdome, the Saints will face a Detroit Lions team that’s seeking to take another step in its turnaround.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Saints as 10 1/2-point home favorites, with the total set at a hefty 59.
From its inaugural season in 1967 until the end of the 2005 campaign, New Orleans posted the third-lowest winning percentage in the NFL (.403) behind Tampa Bay (.392) and the Houston Texans (.281), who had been in existence for only four years.
That changed with the arrivals of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees in 2006. The Saints have gone 62-34 since, and that 64.6 winning percentage is tied for the sixth-best over that span.
This season, New Orleans matched its 2009 Super Bowl-winning club’s franchise record of 13 wins and did so while Brees helped break a bevy of NFL offensive records. New Orleans (13-3) gained 7,474 yards, 399 more than the 2002 St. Louis Rams, and Brees blew away Dan Marino’s 27-yard-old single-season record with 5,476 passing yards.
He also completed a record 468 passes – 46 for touchdowns – and finished with more than 300 yards in each of his last seven games, topping a mark he already held.
One of those games was a 31-17 win over Detroit at the Superdome on Dec. 4 in which he threw for 342 yards and three TDs. Two of those scoring passes came in the second quarter as New Orleans built a 24-7 lead by halftime.
“A lot has happened over the last four weeks,” Brees said. “I feel we’re playing better football than we were then and they’re playing better football.”
At the time, Detroit was in the middle of a 2-5 stretch following its first 5-0 start in 55 years. The Lions rebounded with three straight wins to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999 and put their recent woes further behind.
Among those was the only 0-16 finish in league history in 2008. Before their four consecutive wins to conclude last season’s 6-10 campaign, the Lions had dropped 47 of 52, including an NFL-record 26 straight on the road.
Detroit (10-6) enters this game with one playoff victory since blowing out Cleveland for the 1957 NFL title.
“The goal is no longer to be good over a 16-game season,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “Whatever you have to do each week to advance is the only important thing. That’s what we need to do.
“If you polled the locker room, I don’t think anyone would say our goal is to just get into the playoffs. It’s not an end game for us.”
Earning another playoff win likely won’t prove easy with New Orleans having gone 8-0 at home for the first time and ending the season on an eight-game win streak.
The Saints, seeking their fifth straight playoff win at the Superdome, will try to atone for a 41-36 loss in last season’s playoffs to a Seattle team that was the first to reach the postseason with a losing record.
“If you don’t play your best, you’re out. There is no second chance. That was reiterated to us last year,” Brees said.
Brees will have one less option through the air after the team ruled out wide receiver Lance Moore on Friday due to a left hamstring injury. Moore was fourth on the team with 52 receptions and tied for second with eight TD catches.
The Lions, 5-3 on the road, bring in their own 5,000-yard passer, former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford. After dealing with injuries in each of his first two seasons, Stafford finished with 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, breaking Scott Mitchell’s single-season team records from 1995.
Top receiver Calvin Johnson finished five yards shy of matching Herman Moore’s franchise record of 1,686 from that same season but set a team mark with 16 touchdowns among his 96 catches.
“Calvin’s one of the elite players in our game right now,” Payton said.
Detroit is also expected to have safety Louis Delmas, a Pro Bowl alternate, and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh available this time around. Delmas hasn’t played since spraining his right MCL on Thanksgiving Day and Suh was serving the first of a two-game suspension when the Lions visited the Superdome last month.
“I’m in a position now that I can really help them. I look forward to doing that,” Suh told the Lions’ official website. “It’s a great opportunity to go against them. They obviously have a lot of Pro Bowlers on their offensive line, so it’s always a great challenge.”
The Saints have won all three meetings over the last four seasons. Brees threw for a career-high six TDs during a 45-27 home victory Sept. 13, 2009, and two in a 42-7 rout at Ford Field on Dec. 21, 2008.
In his three career matchups, Brees has 1,051 yards, 11 TDs and one interception. Stafford has four interceptions and only one TD in his two games against New Orleans, but he threw for 408 yards during last month’s loss.
The Lions, who have never faced the Saints in the playoffs, are 3-8 in New Orleans.