NEW ORLEANS — Matthew Stafford's accuracy and poise sparked the Detroit Lions to a big lead and helped prevent them from squandering it, too.
Stafford passed for 254 yards and three touchdowns, and the Lions held off a late surge by New Orleans to defeat the Saints 35-27 on Monday night.
Detroit (5-9) raced to a 28-3 lead, but Drew Brees threw a pair of touchdown passes — one shortly after a Lions fumble — to help New Orleans (5-9) pull to 28-20 with about 10 minutes left.
Brees passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns, becoming only the fourth quarterback to surpass 60,000 yards in a career while also eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark for the 10th straight season. Brandin Cooks caught 10 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown.
But New Orleans' loss guaranteed consecutive losing seasons for the first time since Sean Payton became coach in 2006.
Golden Tate caught two touchdown passes for Detroit. The Lions' last-ranked running game accounted for 150 yards and two TDs against New Orleans' last-ranked run defence.
Stafford played nearly mistake-free, completing 22 of 25 passes without turning the ball over.
Still, both teams took turns making the kinds of mistakes that losing teams do, producing a close game after it initially looked as if Detroit would run away with it.
The Lions led 28-3 when Ameer Abdullah scored on a 15-yard run around the left end early in the third quarter. New Orleans responded with Brees' 27-yard touchdown pass to Cooks and closed the gap a little more on Kai Forbath's short field goal after the Lions made a clutch stop on a third-and-goal from the 4.
But Abdullah fumbled on Detroit's next play from scrimmage, and the Saints capitalized on Brees' 11-yard scoring strike to Marques Colston.
Yet, when Detroit looked ripe to self-destruct, the Lions put together a clutch scoring drive that included Abdullah's 27-yard run and Joique Bell's short rushing TD.
Brees' late touchdown to Ben Watson closed the gap with 1:55 left, but New Orleans' onside kick was recovered by Detroit star Calvin Johnson, and the Lions marched deep into Saints territory before Matt Prater missed a field goal with 9 seconds left.
The Lions led 21-3 by halftime on Tate's touchdown catches of 1 and 5 yards and fullback Michael Burton's first career touchdown from 4 yards out on his fourth catch this season.
The Saints thought they had found the end zone three times on their final drive of the first half but came away with no points.
First, Cooks made a spectacular one-handed catch of Brees' 28-yard pass and was initially ruled to have scored as he was tackled near the goal line, but the call was changed after a video review, marking Cooks down at the 1.
Soon after, running back Tim Hightower found the end zone with a second-effort run, but New Orleans was flagged for illegal formation, with officials saying lineman Senio Kelemete failed to report as an eligible tight end. After two short runs, the Saints kept the offence on the field on fourth down and Brees connected with Marques Colston in the end zone, but New Orleans was flagged for an illegal man downfield, and the required 10-second runoff ended the half.
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Brett Martel, The Associated Press