Quarterbacks in spotlight as Lions visit Saints

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Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees

(File Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford may be separated only by age and career accomplishments, but two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks are primed to ignite an impressive fireworks show Sunday when it counts — in the fourth quarter.

Stafford’s 7-4 Detroit Lions won five of their past six games to move to the top of the NFC North, and Brees’ 5-6 New Orleans Saints, coming off a 49-point, 555-yard shellacking of the Los Angeles Rams last week, need a victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (1 p.m. ET, FOX) to climb back to .500 for the second time this season and into the NFC playoff picture.

But what makes this chess match so intriguing is what each quarterback is doing this season with the game on the line.

Despite trailing at some point of the fourth quarter in all 11 games, the Lions came back to win seven times, a tribute to Stafford’s gunslinger arm and efficiency under pressure.

Stafford, 28, has a 70 percent completion rate with five touchdowns and two interceptions in the fourth quarter, good enough for a fourth-quarter passer rating of 102.2.

Brees, who at 37 is having one of the greatest seasons of a stellar career, has been even more on point in the fourth quarter. Brees leads the NFC with a 113.4 fourth-quarter passer rating, throwing for 11 touchdowns and completing 72 percent of his passes.

Brees completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each of the past six games — a career-best streak — and his uncanny accuracy prompted Lions coach Jim Caldwell earlier this week to reference the incredible “Sports Science” clip on ESPN (available on YouTube) of Brees throwing a football more accurately than an Olympic archer hitting the bull’s-eye at 30 yards.

“You better be able to play defense well across the board because he spreads it around quite a bit,” Caldwell said. “You can tell by his numbers he’s difficult to handle, difficult to manage. … He was 32 of 39 against us (the Indianapolis Colts) in the Super Bowl (XLIV in February 2010), and he’s still obviously performing great. Every single game, he’s going to put numbers up. He’s as good as they come.”

Brees said Stafford, a fellow Texan, has “some of the best arm talent in the league — top three for sure.”

“He can make some throws that most guys can’t or certainly couldn’t even attempt to make,” Brees added. “He has got some moxie and savvy to him. He just has that playmaking ability in critical situations. I feel like he’s always had that.”

That ability is even more apparent this season as Stafford — with a strong assist from the powerful right leg of placekicker Matt Prater — repeatedly led the Lions back from the brink of defeat.

Stafford is doing it despite the retirement of star wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

“You evaluate a quarterback often when you want to see how he does when he’s behind,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Stafford. “He has had an outstanding season. His numbers are fantastic. I think he’s playing as well as he has in his career. He’s found different ways to win, and everyone’s involved.”

Brees is the master at spreading the ball around, although there was a rare — for the Saints — mini-soap opera after their 49-21 rout of the Rams last week. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks went to Instagram seemingly to bemoan Brees not targeting him once in his 49 snaps.

Cooks, who has the longest scoring reception in the NFL this year (98 yards), was used twice as a decoy on jet sweeps that resulted in huge running plays. Brees tried to quell any sense of discontent.

“We talked about it after the game,” Brees said. “If we can go out and score 49 points, play like that and win every week, then I think everyone will be OK with it. The statement it makes is that we can win games in a lot of different ways. Just because Brandin Cooks didn’t catch a ball doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a huge role and responsibility in the game.”

Both teams are relatively healthy. Detroit could be on the verge of welcoming back linebacker DeAndre Levy (knee), who practiced the past two weeks. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew also is working his way back from the physically unable to perform list.

Saints running back Mark Ingram, selected the NFC offensive player of the week for amassing 167 yards from scrimmage and two TDs against the Rams, did not practice Wednesday due to a lingering toe injury. Starting left tackle Terron Armstead is battling knee and quad injuries.

The Lions won the last two against the Saints (24-23 in Detroit in 2014 and 35-27 last season in New Orleans). Detroit faces the Saints, the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys on the road in the next four weeks.

ACCORDING TO STATS

  1. Detroit won for the sixth time in its last seven games last week, with Matt Prater’s 40-yard field goal as time expired giving the Lions a 16-13 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Vikings. The Lions are the only team in NFL history whose first 11 games in a season were decided by seven points or fewer.
  2. The Saints had lost two in a row before a 49-21 home win over Los Angeles last week, setting a season-high in points scored. New Orleans also had 555 total yards in the win, its NFL-high fourth game this season with 500 or more; only the Redskins (three) and Falcons (two) have more than one such game.
  3. The all-time regular-season series between the Lions and Saints is tied, 11-11-1, with Detroit winning each of the previous two matchups (24-23 at home in 2014; 35-27 in New Orleans in 2015).
  4. Over his last seven games, Matthew Stafford has 12 touchdown passes and just one interception. For the season, his interception rate of one every 78 pass attempts (391/5) is the best of his career, excluding the 2010 season in which he played only three games. Stafford’s 99.3 passer rating is also a career best.
  5. With four TD passes in last week’s home win over the Rams, Drew Brees now boasts 218 career touchdowns in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the most all-time by a quarterback in a particular stadium. He surpassed Brett Favre’s mark of 214 TD passes at Lambeau Field.
  6. The Lions rank 30th in the NFL with 80.8 rushing yards per game. They have gone a franchise-record nine straight games without reaching 100 team rushing yards.
TEAM COMPARISON

DETROIT

NEW ORLEANS
22.5 Points 30.4
262.1 Pass Yds 330.6
80.8 Rush Yds 114.6
11 Takeaways 17
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