After a week of speculation but not much real doubt, the Detroit Lions made it official on Sunday, 90 minutes before kickoff at Raymond James Stadium: quarterback Matthew Stafford will start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There was legitimate concern about Stafford given that he had his hand stepped on near the end of last Sunday's game in Baltimore, causing him to be quite limited during this week of practice. Still, Stafford has shown his toughness before and he'll do so again, making his 109th consecutive start.
In doing so, Stafford could show something else to Buccaneer fans at Raymond James Stadium: the future. Stafford was the first pick in the 2009 draft, and after some struggles in his early years – in his case much of it injury-related – he has settled in as one of the NFL's most dangerous passers. Stafford is closing in on his seventh straight 4,000-yard passing season and he has a fine 22-7 TD-INT ratio this season.
Jameis Winston was taking with the first pick in the draft six years after Stafford, and he is in this third year as the Buccaneers' starter. Having just returned from a shoulder injury to reclaim his starting spot last week in Green Bay, Winston is trying to finish the final month of the season strong to continue his development. Winston will then turn 24 in the month of January.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Lions.
The Buccaneers believe that Winston will solidify their quarterback position for many years, just as Stafford has done in Detroit.
"For our fans, Matthew Stafford is a great guy to watch," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We're getting asked all the time about Jameis's development. Matthew Stafford was the first pick of the draft, much like Jameis, went through some tough times early in his career and he has gotten better and better and better. He is playing at an incredibly high level right now."
Stafford played through a finger injury in December last season and helped the Lions make it to the playoffs, although Detroit still lost its last three regular-season games. Stafford threw five picks in less than four games after suffering the injury, but he continued to rack up big yardage totals. Even if he's not at 100 percent on Sunday, he's got enough firepower around him to keep the chains moving. That's especially true at wide receiver, where the Lions boast downfield threat Marvin Jones, yards-after-the-catch specialist Golden Tate and rising rookie Kenny Golladay.
"Marvin Jones plays big – he's bigger than you think he is and he plays big," said Koetter. "He's the guy who goes up and gets the ball. Then they have a rookie named Kenny Golladay who we liked a lot coming out – he also plays big. And then Golden Tate has been a good player in this league for a long time. He plays in the slot, he's their underneath guy and he actually leads the NFL in yards after the catch. Their receivers are their strength. They're a team that has not run the ball very well this year and their strength is in their quarterback, their tight end and their wide receivers."
The Buccaneers are coming off their best pass-defense performance of the season in Green Bay, albeit against a far less experienced quarterback. Tampa Bay allowed just 77 net passing yards to the Packers, and rookie safety Justin Evans provided the top highlight with a first-half interception of a Brett Hundley deep ball. That was Evans' third pick of the season, making him the team's leader in that category. Evans continues to develop into one of the top playmakers in the Bucs' secondary.
"When we drafted Justin the second round, you draft a guy there expecting him to be a starter," said Koetter. "Justin got off to a little bit of a slow start this season, he missed a lot of time in the offseason, had to have a procedure done, so it forced him to miss some time earlier. But he has steadily gotten better all year and he's playing real solid for us right now."
The Bucs also had their best rushing attack of the season on offense against the Packers, running for 165 yards. Second-year back Peyton Barber, making his first start of the season while Doug Martin was out with a concussion, led the way with 102 yards, plus four catches for another 41 yards. Martin is back this week to play the Lions but the Buccaneers still like what they see from their younger running back.
"I think Peyton's getting better all the time," said Koetter. "For a guy that was undrafted, made our team a year ago as an undrafted free agent, has worked his way up through the ranks, been a special teams player, still is, got his first 100-yard game and hopefully many more. He did a good job in Green Bay making yards after contact. He got hot and we kept giving it to him."
Martin and Barber will be running behind the same offensive line the Buccaneers started last week after Demar Dotson and Ali Marpet went to injured reserve. Evan Smith steps in at center and Caleb Benenoch starts again at right tackle. Joe Hawley is available after missing last week's game due to illness but will serve as a reserve.
The Buccaneers do have four players who will miss the game due to injury: cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, safety Josh Robinson and safety T.J. Ward. In addition to those four, the Bucs also deactivated quarterback Ryan Griffin, offensive lineman Mike Liedtke and wide receiver Bobo Wilson.
Though the Lions have Stafford on Sunday they don't have one of his primary protectors, as starting right tackle Ricky Wagner is out due to injury. That will force Detroit to start its eighth different O-Line combination of the season, and that continued upheaval has surely contributed to the 39 sacks Stafford has absorbed this year. Detroit will also be without running back Ameer Abdullah and cornerback Jamel Agnew, the league's leading punt returner.
In addition to Abdullah, Agnew and Stafford the Lions also deactivated wide receiver Bradley Marquez, running back Dwayne Washington, linebacker Nick Bellore and tackle Emmett Cleary.
The Bucs begin the final quarter of the season at home on Sunday. The rest of December will feature home games against Atlanta and New Orleans and a trip to Carolina. That run begins on a crisp and clear Sunday in Tampa.
"It's going to be great to be home three of these last four games, and three of the last four are division games," said Koetter. "It's going to be a fall day in Tampa, so it's a great day for football today."
The Buccaneers and Lions kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.