NEW ORLEANS (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton has experienced clutch envy while studying the Lions this season.
It’s got nothing to do with fashionable, hand-held bags, but everything to do with Detroit’s repeated triumphs in close contests.
“Listen, I’m jealous,” said Payton, whose team has lost five games by six or fewer points. “Obviously, to credit Detroit, they’ve been able to win those games and I think that there’s a little bit of confidence, if you will, when that starts happening. You expect it to happen.”
The Lions (7-4), who visit the Saints (5-6) on Sunday, lead the NFC North thanks to five victories by four or fewer points, including last week, when a late interception set up a winning field goal against Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day .
The Saints opened the season with a one-point loss because of their inability to stop Oakland’s last minute TD and bold, 2-point conversion . New Orleans then lost by a field goal to the New York Giants, largely because of blocked a Saints field goal returned for a Giants TD.
New Orleans was lining up for a go-ahead extra point kick in the final minutes against Denver last month, only to see that try blocked and returned for two points the other way for the Broncos’ margin of victory.
“Those are gut-wrenching losses and tough ones to bounce back from,” Payton said. “It tests your grip a little bit.”
Yet, when quarterback DREW BREES and the Saints’ league-leading offense are in synch, and if the defense is even just decent, the result can be leads large enough to render the final minutes irrelevant. That’s what happened last week against Los Angeles, when the Saints piled up 555 yards in a 49-21 rout of the Rams .
So while the Lions remain confident about their competence in the clutch, it might not matter if they can’t keep it close for four quarters.
“I don’t know why they’ve lost six games,” Lions safety GLOVER QUINsaid. “The thing I know is it’s DREW BREES. It’s the New Orleans Saints. They’re in the Superdome. They’re going to be fired up and we have to match the intensity.”
Here are some other top story lines surrounding Detroit’s visit to New Orleans:
SUPERIOR STAFFORD: One big reason the Lions are winning close games is because QB MATTHEW STAFFORD isn’t losing them with poor decisions and turnovers. Stafford has thrown one interception in his last seven games and just six in his last 18. Stafford’s arm, meanwhile, is considered among the league’s best by none other than Brees.
“He can make some throws that most guys can’t make – can’t even attempt to make,” Brees said. “He’s got some moxie, got some savvy. … He’s just got that playmaking ability in critical situations.”
This season, Stafford has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,883 yards and 19 TDs against five interceptions.
BETTER BREES: The Saints’ record-setting QB, who turns 38 on Jan. 15, is arguably having his best season in five years. If he maintains his completion percentage of 71.5, he’ll break the NFL record of 71.2 he set in 2011. He currently leads the NFL with 3,587 yards and 30 TDs passing. Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said he can live with lots of completions as long as they’re more lateral than vertical. That’s why he was pleased with how his defense played against Minnesota QB SAM BRADFORD (31 of 37) last week.
“He can go 36 of 36, as long as they don’t throw the ball over our heads and as long as we get them off the field on third down,” Austin said.
ROARING LIONS: The Lions have won six of seven for the first time since 1995, when they won six of the last seven to earn a playoff berth for the fourth time in five years. Since then, Detroit has been in the postseason four times, most recently in 2011, when it was eliminated in the wild-card round by New Orleans. The Lions also are in a position to win their first division title since 1993, when they were part of the NFC Central before divisions were realigned in 2002.
ANGRY MARK: Two games ago, MARK INGRAM‘s night was cut short when he was briefly knocked unconscious and placed in the NFL concussion protocol. Just 10 days later he gained 146 yards rushing on just 14 carries, including a 10-yard TD, against Los Angeles. He also scored on a 21-yard screen and was selected NFC offensive player of the week. However, Ingram also has been bothered by a toe injury this week.
“Every time that dude touches the ball it’s like he’s running angry,” Brees said. “Man, he’s like ferocious. You can feel it. That inspires the whole group.”
INSIDE PRESSURE: Each team fields a defensive tackle it selected early in last spring’s draft. New Orleans’ SHELDON RANKINS, taken 12th overall out of Louisville, recently returned from a broken leg that sidelined him for New Orleans’ first eight games. He has two sacks in his last three games and a forced fumble.
Detroit’s A’SHAWN ROBINSON, drafted 46th out of Alabama, has two sacks, four tackles for losses and has batted down a handful of passes in 11 games.
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AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Allen Park, Michigan, contributed to this report.