Adorned in their iconic “blueberry” jerseys, the Detroit Lions were ready for their second consecutive playoff showdown at Ford Field. They were buoyed by a roaring crowd of 66,201 fans injecting electricity into the atmosphere. Their adversaries, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, steered by quarterback Baker Mayfield, braved the chilly Sunday afternoon in Detroit. Thankfully, the game’s indoor setting mitigated the impact of the biting cold. With the 49ers having triumphed over the Packers on Saturday night, the stage was set: a victory in Detroit would catapult the victor to San Francisco for the NFC Championship game, one step closer to the coveted Super Bowl.
Here’s how the action unfolded:
First Quarter: Lions’ Defense Sparks Early Momentum
The Detroit Lions’ opening drive was one to forget. Winning the coin toss but quickly succumbing to the Buccaneers’ defense, they suffered an immediate three-and-out. Fortunately, seeing the defense take the field re-ignited a crowd ready to explode.
The atmosphere at Ford Field was deafening, yet the Buccaneers began their drive with decisive plays. Momentum seemed to be in their favor until Lions Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn made a bold move. He unleashed safety Ifeatu Melifonwu, who sacked Baker Mayfield and set up a critical 3rd and 16. Mayfield’s next pass, aimed at WR Mike Evans, got tipped at the line. Lions safety C.J. “Ceedy Duce” Gardner-Johnson, fresh from a week of verbal sparring with Mayfield, snatched the interception mid-air. The stadium erupted, the crowd’s roar reaching fever pitch as Detroit regained control.\
Seizing the opportunity, the Lions began to chip away at the Buccaneers’ defense. Ground assaults led by David Montgomery set the stage for a pivotal 12-yard catch by WR Jameson Williams. A facemask penalty against the Bucs further aided Detroit, setting up a first-and-goal. After a stifled run, a near interception by Goff, and another contained run, the Lions opted for a field goal. Michael Badgley, the Wild Card round hero, delivered a 27-yarder, edging the Lions ahead 3-0.
Determined to counter, the Lions’ defense faced a tough Buccaneers offense. Early in the drive, Mayfield found Evans for an 18-yard gain, following a 29-yard reception by Trey Palmer. A sack by Brian Branch, however, turned the tide. The Lions’ defense stood firm, forcing the Buccaneers to settle for a field goal. Chase McLaughlin’s 43-yard kick leveled the score at 3-3.
2nd Quarter: Momentum Swings and Missed Opportunities
Jared Goff and the Lions’ offense initially moved the ball with ease. They methodically moved the ball up the field with tough runs from Montgomery and Gibbs, and big first-down catches from St. Brown and LaPorta. Ultimately, on third and short from the nine-yard line, Goff found WR Josh Reynolds open in the back of the endzone and delivered a strike to him for the touchdown. The Lions took a 10-3 lead after this drive that ate up 6:43 of the clock.
The game’s tempo intensified as the Buccaneers took over. Their offense, with a newfound vigor, began slicing through the Lions’ defense. A notable 23-yard completion to Mike Evans highlighted their advance. As they edged into field goal range, the Lions’ defense mounted a critical stand on third down. Buccaneers kicker Chase McLaughlin, facing a 50-yard attempt, missed his first non-blocked field goal of the season, much to the delight of the roaring Ford Field crowd. The Lions were handed a golden opportunity with excellent field position.
However, Detroit couldn’t capitalize on this break. The Buccaneers’ defense forced the Lions into a punt after a crucial sack. Jack Fox, continuing his impressive performance, pinned the Buccaneers deep in their territory at the eight-yard line. Surprisingly, the Buccaneers responded with remarkable efficiency. Spearheaded by Mayfield, their offense rapidly navigated downfield with multiple completions to Evans. This surge set them up for a first-and-goal from the two-yard line. In the waning seconds of the half, Mayfield connected with TE Cade Otton for a touchdown, equalizing the score at 10-10 as both teams headed into the locker room.
Third Quarter: Defensive Dominance and Gritty Offense
As the second half commenced, both teams initially struggled to gain momentum, a testament to the stellar defensive efforts on display. The Buccaneers capitalized on a lapse in the Lions’ secondary for an early first down, yet their progress was short-lived. Detroit’s defensive line, led by Aidan Hutchinson, showcased their tenacity. Hutchinson’s impressive sack on Mayfield forced a Buccaneers punt.
The Lions offense faced similar challenges. Their drive began with two incomplete passes and was further hampered by a chop block penalty, negating a 12-yard catch by Josh Reynolds. A subsequent modest gain by Sam LaPorta wasn’t enough, resulting in a punt back to Tampa Bay.
The Lions’ defense, however, rose to the occasion. They forced a Buccaneers three-and-out, highlighted by standout plays in the secondary. Safety Brian Branch delivered a 4-yard tackle for loss on RB Rachaad White, then Kerby Joseph disrupted a Mayfield pass aimed at Otton. Cornerback Cam Sutton’s tight coverage on Evans further stifled the Buccaneers’ offense on this drive. A subsequent penalty for illegal formation against the Buccaneers during their punt gave Detroit additional yardage on Donovan Peoples-Jones’ punt return.
When the Lions regained possession, they orchestrated a gritty, effective drive. With Amon-Ra St. Brown and David Montgomery making key contributions, they steadily advanced. Offensive Coordinator Ben Johnson revisited a successful play from last season, calling a pass to TE Brock Wright, resulting in a 29-yard gain. The drive culminated in a first-and-goal situation. After Montgomery’s 4-yard rush and two incomplete passes, the tension mounted. On fourth down, RB Craig Reynolds powered through for a 1-yard touchdown, his first in the playoffs, giving the Lions a 17-10 lead.
The Buccaneers swiftly responded, marching back to level the score. Hindered by penalties, the Lions’ defense struggled with the Mayfield-to-Otton connection. Eventually, Buccaneers RB Rachaad White broke through for a 12-yard touchdown run. With 10 seconds left in the quarter, the game was tied again at 17-17, setting the stage for an intense final quarter.
Fourth Quarter: Lions’ Explosive Finish Seals Victory
The Detroit Lions unleashed an explosive start to the fourth quarter. The offense delivered a series of dynamic plays: a 12-yard completion to Jahmyr Gibbs, an 18-yard catch by Josh Reynolds, and an 8-yard dash by Gibbs. Then Gibbs, with electrifying speed, dashed 31 yards to the endzone, outmaneuvering a defender near the pylons for the touchdown. This play amplified the energy at Ford Field, propelling the Lions ahead 24-17 with over 13 minutes remaining.
Following the kickoff, the Lions’ defense clamped down, offering nothing for the Buccaneers to work with. Mayfield’s back-to-back incomplete passes, followed by a modest 6-yard gain by Rachaad White, culminated in Tampa Bay’s fourth punt of the game.
Jared Goff and the Lions offense then embarked on a methodical drive. Spanning 10 plays and chewing up nearly six minutes, the Lions covered 89 yards, culminating in a touchdown. Goff, showcasing his precision, connected with Montgomery and Williams, then seamlessly involved Gibbs, St. Brown, LaPorta, and Reynolds. The climax was a spectacular pass from Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown in the corner of the endzone, pushing Detroit’s lead to 31-17 with just over six minutes to play.
Bucs Not Walking The Plank…Yet
The Buccaneers, however, were not ready to concede. They answered with a swift drive, capped by a 16-yard touchdown catch by Mike Evans. Despite their rapid progression behind Mayfield’s sharp passing, their two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, leaving the score at 31-23.
As the game ticked closer to zero, the Lions regained possession. They began with a 15-yard reception by St. Brown and an 11-yard run by Montgomery. Despite their efforts to maintain control, Detroit was eventually compelled to punt, turning the ball back to the Buccaneers shortly before the two-minute warning.
In a last-ditch effort, Mayfield connected with Evans for a 5-yard gain, igniting a flicker of hope for Tampa Bay. But with 1:33 left, Mayfield’s pass, intended for Otton was intercepted by Lions LB Derrick Barnes. It was a spectacular play by the Lions linebacker that effectively sealed the game.
With the turnover, Jared Goff and the Lions’ offense returned to the field, confidently adopting the victory formation to close out a thrilling playoff win.
Lions’ Unified Strength Sets Stage for NFC Championship
In a display befitting of Coach Dan Campbell and the 2023 Lions, Detroit clinched the game with unmistakable grit. While the game wasn’t devoid of rough edges, the Lions executed crucial plays on offense and pivotal stops on defense at the most critical moments. Offensively, they led in time of possession, controlling the ball for 32 minutes compared to the Buccaneers’ 28. A vital aspect of their victory was the absence of turnovers, a crucial factor in winning a playoff game.
Defensively, the Lions excelled, securing two key takeaways that not only disrupted the Buccaneers’ rhythm but also provided their offense with additional opportunities to dictate the game’s pace. Special teams also played a significant role in Detroit’s win. Kicker Michael Badgley was flawless, converting his lone field goal attempt and all four extra points. Punter Jack Fox, true to form, delivered an outstanding performance, pinning the Buccaneers inside their 20-yard line on three of his five punts. This victory was a testament to a collective effort, with every unit contributing to the win.
The Lions’ journey is remarkable but far from complete. With the Packers’ defeat at the hands of the 49ers, Detroit now sets its sights on San Francisco. The upcoming NFC Championship game against Brock Purdy and the 49ers promises to be a battle of epic proportions. The stakes are high: a ticket to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas awaits the victor, and the Lions are more determined than ever to claim it.
- QB Jared Goff: 30/43, 287 yards, 2 TD
- RB Jahmyr Gibbs: 9 rushes, 74 yards, 1 TD, 4 catches, 40 yards
- RB David Montgomery: 10 rushes, 33 yards, 3 catches, 14 yards
- RB Craig Reynolds: 1 rush, 1 yard, 1 TD
- WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: 8 catches, 77 yards, 1 TD
- WR Josh Reynolds: 2 catches, 27 yards, 1 TD
- TE Sam LaPorta: 9 catches, 65 yards
- S Brian Branch: 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QBH, 2 TFL
- S Iffy Melifonwu: 9 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 TFL
- LB Alex Anzalone: 6 tackles
- LB Derrick Barnes: 4 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PD
- DL Aidan Hutchinson: 4 tackles, 1 sack, 3 QBH, 1 TFL
- S Ceedy Duce: 1 tackle, 1 INT
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
Tweet: @WoodwoodSports or comment on your favorite social media platform!
Original Photo Credit: © Lon Horwedel – USA TODAY Sports