NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints, fresh from a week off and buoyed by consecutive victories over Carolina and Miami, are trying to sneak above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2013 season.
The Detroit Lions have lost twice in the last three weeks to Atlanta and Carolina by a combined seven points.
In a 27-24 home loss last week to the Panthers, the Lions lost their best defensive lineman, Haloti Ngata, possibly for the season with a first-half elbow injury, and watched quarterback Matthew Stafford limping badly in the fourth quarter with ankle and hamstring injuries as he almost sparked another late comeback.
When the Saints (2-2) host the Lions (3-2) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, they will be searching for their first three-game winning streak since October 2015, when they recovered from a 1-4 start to reach 4-4. But in missing the playoffs following three consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Saints have not had a winning record for 1,386 days.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said the optics of a younger, more defensively talented team breaking through the .500 psychological barrier are less important than stringing three wins together after a fourth consecutive 0-2 start.
“I’m not thinking about over .500 (or) anything (like that),” Brees said. “It’s the next game, but it’s a very important game. It would be a very important win, just in our maturation process and for our season. We need to play better at home. We haven’t. I know there was a time when I think teams dreaded coming and playing in the Dome, and there’s no reason it can’t be like that again.”
Since 2014, the Saints are only 11-14 at the Superdome, but with a younger, more talented defense, there are signs the team is beginning to rise above mediocrity. New Orleans is one of only three teams in NFL history not to have committed a turnover in the first four games of a season, but the Lions lead the NFC and are tied for second in the NFL with a plus-8 takeaway margin.
“It’s the No. 1 key to victory every time we go into a game,” Brees said. “You still dial up the plays and play aggressive, you still take shots when you can, but I also think it’s just understanding when it’s OK to take a chance and maybe when it’s OK to just make sure the ball stays in your hands. You can’t paralyze yourself, but I think it’s just smart football.”
The Lions have defeated the Saints in each of the last three seasons: 24-23 in 2014 in Detroit, and 35-27 in 2015 and 28-13 and 2016 in the Superdome. Stafford has been particularly effective, but he is hobbled despite going through full practice Wednesday.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell wasn’t elaborating about how Stafford’s leg might limit him in the game.
“Check the (injury) report,” Caldwell said. “Next question.”
Lions wide receiver Golden Tate acknowledged what everyone could see with the naked eye — that Stafford was less than 100 percent late in the game against Carolina.
“He was playing with one leg in that game and led us down for two big touchdowns, and I feel like if we got the ball back, we would’ve scored again,” Tate said.
Stafford’s lack of mobility and Detroit’s porous offensive line play have led to 12 sacks in the last two games. Stafford is averaging only 6.45 yards per attempt, a full yard fewer than Brees.
“We have guys on the outside we like to get the ball to,” Caldwell said. “But we’ve got to be able to protect. We haven’t done it well enough.”
The week off may have benefitted the Saints at two key positions. Left tackle Terron Armstead, who missed the first four games while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, appears ready to come back — “I want to play,” Armstead said. Wide receiver Willie Snead, suspended for three games for a DUI offense, returned to limited practice Wednesday.
Because of the strong performance of rookie running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints parted ways Tuesday with running back Adrian Peterson, sending the 32-year-old future Hall of Famer to Arizona for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2018. Peterson had only 81 yards on 27 carries in four games with New Orleans.
“This was done just using common sense,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We had a chance to get a draft pick next year. I know Arizona was short at this position. There’s a confidence level with the way Mark (Ingram) and Alvin are playing.”