NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees makes setting records sound so simple.
"Every guy on our team knows that just get where you are supposed to be and we'll find the open guy and continue to move the ball down the field," Brees said.
The Saints' star quarterback did just that Sunday night, completing 26 of 36 passes for 342 yards and touchdowns to three different receivers in a 31-17 victory over the Detroit Lions.
The performance gave Brees 4,031 yards this season, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to eclipse the 4,000-yard mark in a season's first 12 games.
"We were able to spread the ball around and come up with some big plays," Brees said. "I hope our hopes and aspirations are bigger than setting records."
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 as the Saints (9-3) improved to 6-0 at home while taking a two-game lead over Atlanta in the NFC South.
"He's a surgeon out there and makes me look good," Graham said of Brees. "When your quarterback has confidence in you, it raises you to a new level."
During the Saints' three touchdown drives in the first half, Brees completed 12 straight passes for 216 yards.
Matthew Stafford passed for 408 yards and one touchdown for the Lions (7-5), who have lost five of their last seven, but remain in playoff contention.
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.
"We beat ourselves today. Our offense continued to get derailed by penalties," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "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 mistakes made it impossible for the Lions 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."
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.
Jason Hanson's 31-yard field goal made it 24-10. The Lions pulled within one score on Maurice Morris' 9-yard touchdown reception.
Hanson lined up for 55-yarder early in the fourth quarter that could have pulled the Lions even closer, but missed it wide left. That set up the Saints' decisive seven-play, 55-yard scoring drive on which Brees found Graham four times for 46 yards before hitting Sproles for his score.
"I like the fact that we answered in the second half when the momentum shifted," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
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.
"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.
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. Kevin Smith had a 2-yard touchdown run in the first half.
Meachem caught three passes for 119 yards, and the Saints' defense was bolstered by the return of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had missed three games with left knee injury that required surgery. He had a team-leading 10 tackles.
Notes: Lions T Jeff Backus set a new 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. ... Brees is the second quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 or more yards in six straight seasons. Peyton Manning did it from 1999-2004. ... Graham now has 1,046 yards this season, making him the first Saints tight end to have more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season.