So bad, in fact, it took the ugliest of kicks in the final seconds to win it.
Jason Hanson rushed on to the field and kicked a 39-yard knuckleball field goal as time expired, giving the Lions a 13-12 victory Saturday in a game that, for three quarters, featured two of the NFL's tailenders.
There were six field goals, no offensive touchdowns, dropped passes and spotty play by two quarterbacks still trying to figure out where they fit with their teams.
"Winning like this shows character," said Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington.
New Orleans, which lost on a bizarre penalty and rekick on the final play two months ago against Atlanta, figured to have this one locked away when John Carney kicked his fourth field goal for a 12-10 lead with 1:52 to play.
Harrington, who had been benched twice this season, struggled most of the game before connecting with Roy Williams for two big completions on the Lions' final drive.
The first came on fourth down, a 40-yard sideline catch. On the second, with about 13 seconds left, Williams caught the ball in the middle of the field.
"I knew it was going to come my way," said Williams, who had dropped two passes earlier. "I told myself, 'You better not drop it, they'll make fun of you the rest of your life."'
The Lions were a bit lucky. Coach Dick Jauron considered spiking the ball to stop the clock, but Hanson and the kicking unit were already running on the field. That meant everyone else had to hustle off.
As the last seconds ticked off, Hanson launched a low kick that knuckled through the uprights for the win.
"It was done like it should have been, but I would have liked to have killed the clock and given them time to set up," Jauron said. "I was watching the clock because that would have been a bad way to lose the game."
Until that drive, the Lions had done little on offense. Hanson's two fourth-quarter field goals were their only offensive points. The Lions also got a 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive tackle Shaun Rogers in the second quarter.
For the Lions (5-10), it was an amazing victory in a season in which their fans protested their bad play and the management of team president Matt Millen. The win snapped a five-game losing streak.
"There have been times the coaches have not believed in me, and there have been times the players didn't believe in me," said Harrington, who was 17-of-30 for 210 yards in his third crack as the starter. "But I never lost faith in myself."
For New Orleans (3-12), it was just another tough loss in a season full of mistakes. It was also eerily reminiscent of the defeat against Atlanta, when the Falcons missed a kick in the final seconds, but were awarded a retry when the Saints were flagged for holding.
"We have fumbles returned for touchdowns other teams make plays and we don't," said safety Dwight Smith.
The Saints have lost 10 of their last 11 in a season in which they played "home" games in New Jersey, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La., after Hurricane Katrina.
Harrington's return began with an efficient 16-play drive that took Detroit to the Saints' 4 before the threw his 12th interception. He underthrew the 6-foot-3 Williams on a fade route and 5-9 cornerback Fred Thomas picked it off. After picking up five first downs, the Lions would get only two more until the fourth quarter.
Todd Bouman wasn't much better at the beginning of his second start for New Orleans. A week after committing five turnovers in a loss to Carolina, Bouman was sacked and fumbled.
He kept a lid on the turnovers as the game wore on, twice leading drives to take the lead in the second half. Carney kicked field goals of 35, 47, 33 and 20 yards.
"We had chances to score touchdowns all day. I missed some guys," said Bouman, who was off by inches on several deep passes. "It's just a disappointing loss."
"The defense played well enough to win all day, except at the end," said Saints coach Jim Haslett. "In this league you can't kick field goals and win."
You can if it's the last one of the game. Now maybe the folks back home will quiet down a bit.
- Saints Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley did not play because of an elbow injury.
- Rogers' TD return was his first career touchdown.
- Hanson's final kick was the 16th winner of his 14-year career.
- The announced crowd of 63,747 was the second largest of the Saints' three games at the 65,000-seat Alamodome.