- Ashley Fox
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NEW ORLEANS -- Carl Nicks heard the taunts.
"Run a play, run a play," a couple of Detroit Lions defensive players said. It was fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 38-yard line. The Saints had just taken a 17-14 lead, their first of the game, early in the third quarter. They had the momentum but not the best field position.
The call came in from Sean Payton. Go for it.
"Aw, man, I love it," Nicks said.
How do you know it is playoff time in New Orleans? Payton has dialed it up another notch. The Saints are aggressive by nature. In the postseason, they are unrelenting. It is Payton's way, and his players, to a man, said they love it, even if it means going for it in their own territory with another offense salivating on the sideline, waiting for a mistake.
In a 45-28 wild-card playoff win Saturday over Detroit, Payton went for it four times on fourth down. In the regular season, New Orleans had the best third-down percentage in the league at 56.7 percent, more than 20 percentage points better than the league average and almost eight percentage points ahead of second-place San Diego. Now, the entire field, it seems, is fourth-down territory.
The way the Saints convert on third down -- they were 7-of-11 (64 percent) against the Lions -- can they be stopped on fourth-and-short?
The only time New Orleans didn't convert on fourth down was when Drew Brees took a knee to end the game. The other three times came at critical points in the game, and the Saints got every one.
"We're trying to go for it every time, fourth-and-inches," Nicks said. "You look at us when we won the Super Bowl, we did stuff like that all the time."
That will be Payton's M.O. this time around, too. Since losing to St. Louis in Week 8, the Saints have won nine straight games. They now head to San Francisco for a divisional-round game against one of the best defenses in the league. The 49ers allowed teams to convert 35 percent on third down, tied for ninth best in the NFL.
But the Lions had been even better in the regular season, allowing teams to convert only 31 percent of third downs, and it didn't matter Saturday night inside the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints' first fourth-down attempt came late in the first half. The defense had struggled to find an answer to Matthew Stafford. The Lions held a 14-7 lead that should have been more, but Detroit could not convert a second New Orleans turnover into points.
With 5 minutes, 3 seconds left in the half, the Saints drove to the Detroit 36-yard line. But the drive stalled on third down when Brees threw an incompletion. On fourth down, Payton called for a run that Chris Ivory took for a yard. A couple of plays later, John Kasay booted a 24-yard field goal to pull the Saints within 14-10 at halftime.
New Orleans got the ball to start the second half, and the offense went 78 yards in four plays to take a 17-14 lead. After forcing Detroit off the field and sensing a serious shift in momentum, Ivory was stuffed on third-and-1 at the Saints' 38-yard line. Brees looked to the sideline. Payton said to go for it.
According to Nicks, Brees had two plays at the line of scrimmage and checked to a quarterback sneak. New Orleans doesn't run the QB sneak often, only when it really needs it. This was such a time.
"Obviously, that's a gutsy call, but we just know [Payton] makes those types of calls," Brees said. "We knew we could get it and we got it, and we didn't even want to think about not getting it, because obviously that would've put our defense in a tough spot."
Brees got it. He jumped over the offensive line and was actually credited with a 2-yard gain. Three plays later, Brees hit Marques Colston for a beautiful 40-yard gain that moved the Saints to the Detroit 3. A quick snap later, Brees hit an uncovered Jimmy Graham for a touchdown and a 24-14 lead.
Payton went for it again on the Saints' first drive of the fourth quarter, and Darren Sproles answered with a 3-yard run on fourth-and-2. The drive ended with a Sproles touchdown run for a 31-21 lead.
Keep coming. That was Payton's plan. Don't stop. Don't let up.
"I think we all know how Sean Payton is when it's playoff time," Graham said. "He's going to go for it, and he's going to do it. He has trust in our defense, and he has trust in us as a team, and you know throughout the playoff times he's always taken chances. He goes for broke, and it's awesome being on a team that has a coach that goes for it."
Added Brees: "We're pulling out all the stops. We play aggressive, and we are not going to apologize for that."
Neither was Nicks. After the Saints converted on the third-quarter play, he had a few choice words for the Lions.
"You got what you wanted, in a different kind of way," Nicks told the Detroit defensive linemen. "You have to be careful what you wish for. You seen what happened."
Yeah, everyone in the league saw what happened. With the most prolific offense in NFL history and the most accurate passer the league has ever seen, Payton went for broke. This is the postseason. Game on.
And you can bet there will be more of the same next weekend. San Francisco has been put on notice. New Orleans is playing to win.
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.