NEW ORLEANS -- For a rookie tight end from a college program not known for its offensive prowess, Sam LaPorta has been a quick study in the NFL and is playing a prominent role in what could be a special season for the Detroit Lions.
LaPorta had career highs of nine catches for 140 yards, including an early touchdown and a crucial first-down snag in the final minutes, and Detroit defeated the reeling New Orleans Saints 33-28 on Sunday to post its best record through 12 games since 1962.
"I'm as comfortable with him as anyone I've ever played with," Lions quarterback Jared Goff said of LaPorta, a second-round draft choice out of Iowa. "For a rookie, it's pretty tremendous. He's such a reliable guy and a guy I count on in those crunch times. I know he's a clutch player."
The Saints lost quarterback Derek Carr in the fourth quarter to back, shoulder and head injuries after he was hit by defensive lineman Bruce Irvin as he released a pass. Irvin was penalized for driving the weight of his body into Carr as they hit the turf.
Jameis Winston replaced Carr, who has left three games this season with upper-body injuries or concussion symptoms.
"Any time you have a concussion, it's concerning," Saints Coach Dennis Allen said, adding that he also was concerned about Carr's back and shoulder.
Goff passed for 213 yards and two TDs for the NFC North-leading Lions (9-3), who raced to a three-touchdown lead and then held off New Orleans' comeback bid that featured Chris Olave's five catches for 119 yards. The Saints (5-7) fell one game behind first-place Atlanta in the league's weakest division, the NFC South.
After falling behind 21-0 in the first seven minutes, the Saints pulled as close as 24-21 in the third quarter. New Orleans also had the ball at midfield with a chance to take the lead in the final three minutes, but turned the ball over on downs when Winston threw behind Olave.
Detroit ran out the clock from there, thanks to first-down catches by LaPorta and Josh Reynolds.
"We knew when we went back out there we wanted to finish with the ball in our hands," LaPorta said. "We converted those two third downs, and it was a good way to end the game."
Only six rookie tight ends have had 140 yards receiving and a TD in a game -- none since Jacksonville's Pete Mitchell in 1995.
Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu said the 6-3, 245-pound LaPorta "had two of the more clutch plays in this game."
"There was a few third downs in there where we had everybody covered, and you just put the ball on his body and now it's first down," Mathieu said. "Just crafty for a rookie -- the kinds of routes he runs, his frame, his length."
The Saints committed two turnovers and Detroit converted both into touchdowns.
Carr was intercepted on the Saints' first offensive play. He also lost a fumble in the fourth quarter when left guard James Hurst inadvertently knocked the ball from Carr's hands as the quarterback turned for a pitch play from the Saints 25.
Tracy Walker recovered Carr's fumble, setting up Jameson Williams' 19-yard TD on a reverse to make it 33-21.
The Saints got back within one score with 7:30 left when Alvin Kamara, who had 109 yards and two TDs from scrimmage, scored his 53rd career TD rushing to set a new franchise mark.
The Lions tied a franchise record with 21 first-quarter points.
David Montgomery's short run made it 7-0, capping a drive highlighted by Jahmyr Gibbs' 32-yard run to the 2.
Next came Lions defensive back Brian Branch's interception of a pass tipped by tight end Juwan Johnson, setting up Goff's 13-yard scoring pass to LaPorta.
Goff's 29-yard completion to LaPorta set up a 25-yard scoring strike to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who also passed Calvin Johnson for most yards receiving by a Lion in his first three seasons.