The New Orleans Saints easily could have been a playoff team in 2008 if a few close games fell in their favor.
The Detroit Lions would have needed much more help than that.
The Saints look to begin rebounding from a season of missed opportunities Sunday when they host the lowly Lions, who will start rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) as they try for their first win in more than a year.
New Orleans was the most prolific offensive team in the NFL last season, leading the league with 28.9 points and 410.7 total yards per game. But the Saints missed the playoffs and finished last in the NFC South at 8-8, thanks in large part to five losses by three points or fewer.
The team doesn’t plan on letting narrow defeats come between them and the postseason again.
“If we can swing those games this year and win those games instead of losing those games, then obviously we’ll be right where we need to be,” receiver Lance Moore(notes) said. “We know we’re better than our record indicated last year, but that’s what our record was. We can’t justify that to anybody. We were 8-8 and sitting at home watching the playoffs.”
That was the second consecutive disappointing season for New Orleans, which had what looked like a breakout season in 2006. In their first year with the team, quarterback Drew Brees(notes) and coach Sean Payton led the Saints to a 10-6 finish and a trip to the NFC championship game.
Brees assessed the Saints of the past two seasons as “an inconsistent team that can be really, really good one week and then play poorly the next week and you never know what Saints team you’re going to get.
“That’s not who we want to be.”
Brees’ play largely dictates which New Orleans team shows up. The three-time Pro Bowler threw for 5,069 yards last season to become the second quarterback in NFL history to surpass the 5,000-yard mark. But he completed 60.1 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the Saints’ eight losses, compared to 71.7 percent with 21 TDs and three picks in the eight wins.
The Lions have been more consistent than the Saints, but not in a good way. They’ve suffered eight straight losing seasons, including last year’s unprecedented 0-16 record. Their most recent win came against Kansas City on Dec. 23, 2007, and that’s the only victory in their last 24 games.
As expected, Detroit made some major changes in the offseason, adding rookie coach Jim Schwartz and first-year general manager Martin Mayhew, who took over for the fired Matt Millen on an interim basis last season.
Though it’ll likely take some time to turn things around completely, Schwartz expects at least a little progress immediately.
“I don’t expect to get beat up and beaten down this year,” said Schwartz, defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans for the last eight seasons. “I expect a lot out of this football team and I’m not going to concede anything to expectations outside this building, outside this locker room.
“I know what we have here, and we expect to compete this year. So, let’s sort of throw that out right now.”
The Lions will be turning to an inexperienced quarterback in Stafford. The No. 1 overall pick out of Georgia signed a six-year contract that could be worth as much as $78 million, and he beat out veteran Daunte Culpepper(notes) for the starting job.
Stafford displayed flashes of promise in the preseason with his strong arm but also showed signs he’s still a rookie.
“I’ve had success and I’ve played poorly,” he said. “You have to take each with a grain of salt.”
Having Calvin Johnson(notes) downfield should help Stafford immensely. Despite inconsistent quarterback play and the limited weapons in Detroit’s offense, the 6-foot-5 receiver tied for the league lead with 12 touchdown catches and finished fifth with 1,331 receiving yards in his sophomore season.
One of the Lions’ losses last year came against the Saints. Brees completed 30 of 40 passes for 351 yards and connected with Marques Colston(notes) on both of his touchdown passes in the 42-7 rout Dec. 21.
Four New Orleans players rushed for touchdowns despite dynamic back Reggie Bush(notes) missing the game with a nagging knee injury that required offseason surgery. Bush played sparingly in the preseason, but he’s expected to be ready for the opener.
The lone bright spot for Detroit in that December meeting was rookie Kevin Smith(notes), who rushed for 111 yards - one shy of his season high - and a touchdown. Smith is expected to carry the workload out of the backfield after rushing for 671 yards and four TDs in the final eight games of 2008.