NEW ORLEANS -- Whether it was before the whistle or after, a lack of discipline continued to plague the struggling Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford passed for 408 yards and a touchdown, but a slew of drive-stalling penalties and defensive lapses cost the Lions in a 31-17 loss to the surging New Orleans Saints on Sunday night.
"We lost to the Saints, but we beat ourselves today. Our offense continued to get derailed by penalties," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We need to act accordingly. We need to be a team that doesn't beat ourselves. We have talent. We have good schemes, good coaching. We cannot afford to be selfish and put the team at risk of taking points off the board and there was way too much of that today."
The Lions hurt themselves with 11 penalties for 107 yards, including three offensive pass interference penalties and a personal foul on tight end Brandon Pettigrew for shoving an official who was trying to get between him and Saints safety Roman Harper after the whistle.
The mistakes made it impossible for the Lions (7-5) to keep pace with the league's No. 1 offense, and Detroit missed a chance to take a one-game lead over Chicago and Atlanta in the NFC wild-card race.
"We had a great opportunity to do what we wanted to do," Stafford said. "Obviously, we did not do it tonight. Smart football teams are still playing in January. Teams that make smart decisions don't beat themselves."
Detroit's defense also struggled to slow down Drew Brees, as just about every team has. He passed for 342 yards and three touchdowns as the Saints (9-3) won their fourth straight.
Although the Lions were without Ndamukong Suh because of his two-game suspension, and also without injured defensive backs Chris Houston (left knee) and Louis Delmas (left knee), Schwartz said that was no excuse for several defensive lapses, particularly in the first half, when New Orleans scored its first three TDs en route to a 24-7 lead.
Brees' touchdown passes went for 67 yards to Robert Meachem, 20 yards to Lance Moore and 6 yards to Darren Sproles. He also connected eight times with tight end Jimmy Graham for 89 yards.
"We played poorly on defense. We never gave ourselves a chance," Schwartz said. "We didn't get the job done in coverage, we didn't get the job done rushing the passer."
Still, Detroit got more pressure on Brees than the Saints' recent opponents, sacking him twice, including rookie Nick Fairley's first career sack. Brees had not been sacked in three previous games.
"We are capable of being a really good defense," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "At times we show that and at times we have big lapses. We gave up too many big plays."
Stafford completed 31 of 44 passes, but was sacked three times and intercepted by Tracy Porter.
Nate Burleson had five catches for 93 yards, while Calvin Johnson had six catches for 69 yards.
Meachem caught three passes for 119 yards.
Mark Ingram scored New Orleans' first touchdown on a 14-yard run. The Saints then built a 24-7 halftime lead on the touchdowns to Meachem and Moore before Detroit showed signs of mounting a comeback in the third quarter.
Jason Hanson's 31-yard field goal made it 24-10. The Lions pulled within one score on Maurice Morris' 9-yard touchdown reception from Stafford, capping a nine-play, 88-yard drive.
Hanson lined up for 55-yarder early in the fourth quarter that could have pulled the Lions even closer, but missed it wide left.
"We've got a lot of work to do still ... but I like the fact that we're playing with confidence," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I like the fact that we answered in the second half when the momentum shifted."
That answer came on Sproles' TD, which capped a seven-play, 55-yard drive on which Brees found Graham four times for 46 yards.
Detroit was down 17-0 after Meachem's TD, but responded with an 80-yard scoring drive on which Stafford completed all six of his passes. Kevin Smith's 2-yard TD run made it 17-7.
Moore's score with 22 seconds left in the first half increased the lead to 24-7, but the Lions had a chance to get some points in the final seconds after Titus Young beat Saints defensive back Patrick Robinson deep down the left sideline for a 52-yard gain to the Saints 24.
Robinson saved a touchdown by pushing Young out of bounds, then made amends for his earlier mistake in coverage by coming off the end to block Hanson's field-goal attempt as time expired in the half.Notes: Lions T Jeff Backus set a franchise record with his 172nd consecutive start, surpassing Hall of Fame CB Dick LeBeau. ... Schwartz said Fairley was limited by pain in his left foot, which he'd injured during training camp, but X-rays were negative.