The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions haven't met since 2002, so it's easy to forget that this is one of the most competitive series the Bucs have played in their 30-year franchise history.
In fact, Tampa Bay's 23 wins against the Lions are their most against any team. Twelve of those 23 victories have occurred in Tampa; counting one postseason decision, Detroit has been the team most often vanquished by the Bucs in front of their home crowd.
The Lions, you might also recall, were the last opposing team to play in Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium before it was razed to make room for the Bucs' current home and one of the NFL's best venues, Raymond James Stadium. On Dec. 28, 1997, in the Buccaneers' return to the playoffs after a 15-year drought, Tampa Bay downed Detroit, 20-10, in the Wild Card round.
In 1981, the Bucs went to Motown and won a winners-take-all showdown for the NFC Central title and the last conference playoff spot. In 2002, the heavily favored Bucs barely escaped their first trip to Detroit's new Ford Field with a 23-20 victory and their division title hopes still alive. In 1999, a 20-3 loss at Detroit on Halloween dropped the Bucs to 3-4 and led one local writer to suggest Tampa Bay wouldn't win another game all year. Behind first resurgent QB Trent Dilfer and then heady rookie QB Shaun King, the Bucs simply won nine of their next 10 games, advanced to the NFC Championship Game and came within four minutes of qualifying for the Super Bowl.
Of course, bound together in the NFC Central for 25 years, the Bucs and Lions were sure to share some seminal moments along their crossing timelines. But there is one man who probably meant more to that ongoing rivalry than any other: Detroit running back Barry Sanders.
Sanders, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, was the focal point every time the Bucs and Lions met from 1989 through 1998, after which he abruptly retired while still in his prime. Sometimes the Bucs would meet the Sanders challenge, such as on Sept. 7, 1997, when they held the electric back to 20 yards on 10 carries and won in Detroit, 24-17. Other times, Sanders would be too much, such as the rematch later that year, on Oct. 12 in Tampa, when he became the only player in NFL history with two runs of 80 or more yards in the same game en route to 215 yards by the end of the game.
Sometimes it was a bit of both, such as the game in Detroit on Nov. 13, 1994. The Bucs limited Sanders to 37 yards in the first half and took a 3-0 lead into the intermission. In the second half, Sanders exploded for 200 yards and finished with a Buc-opponent record 237 yards in a 14-9 Lion victory.
A couple years after Sanders' retirement, the Bucs and Lions parted divisional company and the two teams have met just once since, in that aforementioned 2002 game. Now the Lions are back in town for the first time in four years, and the series might have a new and at the same time familiar focal point.
Buccaneer rookie Cadillac Williams might be putting together the most exciting debut by an NFL running back since Barry Sanders began dazzling Silverdome crowds in 1989. Sanders ran for 18 yards on his first NFL carry, scored a touchdown in each of his first three games and finished the '89 season with 1,470 yards, the most in the NFC. The third pick in the draft, he was the consensus choice for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Williams has rushed for 434 yards through his first three games, the most by any player in NFL history. He has three straight 100-yard games to start his career – also a first in league annals – and he seems like a good bet to challenge the Bucs' long-standing single-season rushing record of 1,544. The fifth pick in the draft, he's the clear early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.
Sanders and Williams have different styles, though both were considered too small by some analysts. Able to stop, start and burst in any direction seemingly at will, Sanders was the king of the two-yard loss followed by the 50-yard burst. Williams, on the other hand, always seems to be moving forward, and he's proving to be a very powerful runner for his size.
Williams is no Sanders yet – he's a mere 14,835 yards behind the Hall of Famer at this point – but he's making the same sort of instant impact, and he's almost certain to be at the center of the Lions' defensive game plan this week, just as Sanders always was for the Buccaneers.
Detroit comes into Tampa this weekend ranked sixth in the league in total defense, but only 22nd against the run. However, the Lions should be fresh, coming off their bye week, and they have a very imposing set of run-stoppers in the middle of their line in defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson. The game will be another serious challenge for Williams, who has certainly met every one in front of him so far.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions may have their best replacement for Sanders yet in second-year man Kevin Jones, who's coming off a 1,133-yard rookie season. He led the league in rushing in the month of December last year and is counted on to be the engine that drives the Detroit offense this season.
The 1-1 Lions are off to a slow start on offense, however, ranking 30th in the league with 244 yards of total offense per game. Jones and the rushing attack has produced just 65.5 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. They'll have to try to get untracked against the NFL's best run defense through three weeks; the Bucs are allowing just 51.7 ground yards per game thus far.
The Bucs have not trailed at any point since tying the season opener at seven apiece five seconds into the second quarter at Minnesota. While protecting leads, Tampa Bay has been able to keep the ball on the ground and force its opponents into the air, leading to an NFC-high six interceptions already. If the same thing happens to Detroit on Sunday, they're going to need an elevated performance from fourth-year quarterback Joey Harrington, who has yet to hit a groove this year. Harrington has a 52.3 passer rating through two games and has tossed five picks while completing only 52.3% of his passes.
The Buccaneers will be eager to get after Harrington, because only the third 4-0 start in franchise history is on the line. The Lions, at 1-1, need to keep pace with the 2-1 Chicago Bears at the top of a wide-open NFC North. The Bucs and Lions may not have divisional ties anymore – and the series no longer has Barry Sanders at its center – but there are new stars rising in the rivalry and as much at stake as ever.