The Detroit Lions are heading to the NFC Championship Game after defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-23, at home on Sunday night.
The Lions head to San Francisco next week to face the 49ers.
It was an inauspicious start for both teams on their first drives. The Lions wanted the ball after winning the coin flip, but they went three-and-out to start the game.
But the Lions’ defense would step up when quarterback Baker Mayfield took the field for the first time with the Bucs’ offense. Mike Evans, Mayfield’s usual trusty target, couldn’t haul in a ball he should’ve on 3rd-and-long, tipping it in the air where safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson intercepted it to flip the field.
And Gardner-Johnson even flipped the ball back to Mayfield, showing everyone watching that this game was going to be both sides going blow for blow. The Lions were the first to get points on the board following the interception with a short field goal, making it 3-0. However, the Bucs matched them with a field goal of their own.
It wasn’t until the third Lions drive that quarterback Jared Goff really settled in and delivered a 14-play masterpiece that ended with a Josh Reynolds slant across the back of the end zone for the score.
Tampa Bay couldn’t match that score, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. They kept leaving free rushers that forced Mayfield to either get rid of the ball, or worse, fall to the turf for a sack. Then, Chase McLaughlin missed a 50-yard field goal by banging it off the left goal post.
All the momentum was with the Lions, but with less than two minutes to play in the half, the Bucs got the ball back with enough time to possibly get back into field goal range to cut into Detroit’s lead.
They decided to get into the end zone instead.
Evans was the key target for Mayfield on this drive, hauling in a 27-yard pass followed by a 29-yarder that put the ball on Detroit’s two-yard line. Mayfield would then fade one to his tight end Cade Otton in the back left of the end zone.
Just like that, the game was tied at 10 heading into the locker room.
The second half saw more back-and-forth play between these two teams battling for the right to play in the penultimate game of the season. Goff and the Lions were the first to break the tie, going 10 plays and 64 yards with a touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, where third-string running back Craig Reynolds busted into the end zone.
But while momentum again shifted to the home team, Mayfield delivered. On 3rd-and-10 from the Detroit 12-yard line, the Bucs called the perfect running back screen as the Lions weren’t ready for Rachaad White to catch a pass and have a convoy of blockers to run it into the end zone.
This set the tone for what the second half would be, and the scoring would continue on the ensuing Lions drive. The electrifying rookie running back, Jahmyr Gibbs, delivered a 31-yard touchdown run that left the crowd jumping as he used his speed to get past Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Detroit was finally able to get a stop on the Bucs after taking the lead once more, forcing a three-and-out. This was the moment Lions fans felt them pull away in the fourth quarter, and that’s what Goff delivered with an 89-yard drive that saw a perfectly placed pass to the back right of the end zone for Amon-Ra St. Brown.
That marked three touchdowns in a row for the Lions, and with time continuing to tick off in the fourth quarter, it was going to be a hard feat for Mayfield & Co. to battle all the way back.
However, Mayfield did his best to keep Tampa Bay in the game, finding Evans for a 16-yard touchdown to make it 31-23. The Bucs decided to go for two points, but Mayfield couldn’t connect with Evans to make it a five-point game.
The thought behind going for two points was having the ability to win it in regulation, but the Bucs still had a chance to tie the game when the defense got the ball back with 1:59 left to play.
But just two plays into the drive, Derrick Barnes read a route perfectly, jumping a pass from Mayfield to Otton to seal the victory for Detroit.
Looking at the stat sheet, Goff finished with 287 yards on 30-of-43 passing with two touchdowns. Mayfield was 26-for-41 for 349 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Evans led the game with 147 yards on eight receptions; St. Brown led the Lions with 77 yards and his score on eight receptions. The Lions also had 114 rushing yards to the Bucs’ 89.