NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees thought he had led the Saints to a momentum-shifting touchdown three times late in the first half, only to wind up with nothing.
A video review changed what was initially ruled a touchdown catch by Brandin Cooks, putting the ball on the 1-yard line. Then came a pair of disputed flags, the second as time expired in the second quarter, and New Orleans never fully recovered in a 35-27 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday night.
"Tough scenario there at the end of the first half where you feel like you have a touchdown," Brees said. "I'm sure there will be explanations and maybe apologies about that."
Soon after Cooks' catch, Tim Hightower reached the end zone with a second-effort run, but New Orleans was penalized for illegal formation, with officials saying lineman Senio Kelemete failed to report as an eligible tight end. On fourth down, Brees hit Marques Colston at the goal line, but New Orleans was flagged for an illegal man downfield, ending the half.
The Saints asserted that Kelemete reported on the play before he was penalized and should not have had to report again.
"Senio is one of the smartest guys on our team," coach Sean Payton said.
On Colston's catch, the official had to make a judgment call on whether veteran right guard Jahri Evans was too far into the end zone when the pass was thrown on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Ending that drive without points was going to be tough to overcome, with Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford having one his most efficient performances. He completed 22 of 25 passes for 254 yards and three TDs.
Brees passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns, becoming 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 made a career-high 10 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
But the defeat guaranteed New Orleans (5-9) consecutive losing seasons for the first time since Payton became coach in 2006.
Brees also injured his right foot in the second quarter, though he never missed a snap. Wearing an immobilizing boot after the game, he said he would have an MRI on Tuesday.
"I don't know what exactly we've got going on here," Brees said of his injury. "It was getting stiff, but we were able to manage."Detroit (5-9) raced to a 28-3 lead, but Brees threw a pair of touchdown passes — one shortly after a Lions fumble — to help New Orleans pull to 28-20 with about 10 minutes left.
The Lions' last-ranked running game accounted for 150 yards and two TDs against New Orleans' last-ranked run defense, with Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell each scoring a TD and rushing for more than 70 yards.
Not one of Stafford's touchdown strikes went for more than 5 yards, but he was poised, accurate and did not turn the ball over.
"Obviously, if you complete 88 percent, that's rare," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's very difficult to do that versus air. He was huge for us and spread it around quite a bit."
The Lions led 21-3 by halftime on Golden Tate's touchdown catches of 1 and 5 yards and fullback Michael Burton's first career touchdown from 4 yards out. Abdullah's 15-yard run widened the lead even more in the third quarter.
New Orleans responded with Brees' 27-yard touchdown to Cooks and further closed the gap on Kai Forbath's field goal after the Lions made a stop on third-and-goal from the 4.
But Abdullah fumbled on Detroit's next play from scrimmage, and the Saints capitalized with Brees' 11-yard scoring strike to Colston.
Detroit looked ripe to self-destruct, but instead put together a clutch scoring drive that included Abdullah's 27-yard run and Bell's short rushing TD.
"We knew we had to stay on the field and be able to score points," Stafford said. "You play Drew Brees in this place, it's like an NBA basketball game. You know they are going to make a run."
Brees' late touchdown pass to Ben Watson closed the gap with 1:55 left, but New Orleans' onside kick was recovered by Detroit's Calvin Johnson, and the Lions marched deep into Saints territory before Matt Prater missed a field goal with 9 seconds left.
NOTES: Johnson, nursing an ankle injury, had one catch for 19 yards, his second straight game with just one reception. ... Lions safety Glover Quin left the game with a concussion. ... Saints receiver Willie Snead had a career-high 10 catches for 76 yards.