Pictures of some of the Lions' top players.
The Detroit Lions' trip to Raymond James Stadium will be something like a family reunion, albeit an uncomfortable one after several years of lost contact.
The Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were members of the NFC Central family for 25 years, from 1997-2001. The NFL realigned in 2002 and the five-team Central became the four-team North, with only the Buccaneers to start over in the more geographically accurate NFC South. Despite that split, the Buccaneers and Lions still saw each other frequently in the years that followed. In fact, in the decade from 2005-14, the two teams met seven times, with the Lions holding a narrow 4-3 edge in that span.
In the rotating divisional matchup format that the NFL has been using to schedule games since 2002, NFC South teams meet NFC North teams once every three years. However, those gaps are sometimes filled by the two games that are decided annually by matching up divisional standings. That's how the Bucs and Lions met in 2007, 2010 and 2013. There were no such matchups following the last time the North and South were aligned in 2014, so it's been three years since the Buccaneers and Lions have played, matching the longest drought (2002-05) in the series.
When the Bucs and Lions do rekindle their rivalry on Sunday, it will mark their 57th meeting, matching the most times Tampa Bay has played any other opponent. The Buccaneers have also squared off against the Chicago Bears 57 times. Tampa Bay's 26 wins against the Lions (27 if one counts the 1997 playoff victory that closed Tampa Stadium) are its most against any team. Overall, Detroit leads the series, 30-26, and has a 14-13 edge in games played in Tampa.
The Buccaneers and Lions spent most of their shared 25 years in the NFC Central punting the series lead back and forth. The head-to-head record was tied at 5-5 after the first 10 games, 11-11 after the first 22, 15-15 after the first 30, and so on. Detroit did pull away a little bit in the first half of the 1990s by winning five straight, at a time when the great Barry Sanders was often tormenting the Buccaneers. The Bucs countered with a run of six wins in seven years in the seasons surrounding their 2002 Super Bowl run.
Perhaps the biggest game for the Buccaneers in the series was the aforementioned Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium finale. The Buccaneers broke a 15-year playoff drought that season by going 10-6 and winning a wild card berth, in a season that, incredibly, four teams from the "Black and Blue Division" made the playoffs. The Bucs and Lions had split during the regular season but the playoff game in Tampa on December 28 was all Tampa Bay in a 20-10 final that wasn't that close. RB Warrick Dunn and FB Mike Alstott combined for 140 rushing yards and Alstott's 31-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Bucs a 20-0 lead that was enough to send them to the next round of the playoffs at the home of yet another NFC Central team, the Green Bay Packers.
Even though that's the only time Tampa Bay and Detroit have met in the postseason, it wasn't the first time they played what was essentially an elimination game. The Buccaneers visited Detroit in the final week of the 1981 regular season, with each team owning an 8-7 record. The winner would take the NFC Central crown and a playoff berth; the loser would be eliminated. The Buccaneers won, 20-17, keyed by an 84-yard Kevin House touchdown catch and a 21-yard fumble return by DT David Logan after a sack by DE Lee Roy Selmon.
The situation was very similar a year later when the Bucs and Lions matched up in Tampa in the penultimate week of the regular season. Due to a players' strike that shaved seven games out of the middle of the season, the Bucs and Lions were each 3-4 with two games to go. Tampa Bay rallied from a 21-6 deficit to win 23-21, then won again the next weekend against Chicago to sneak into the playoffs. This time, however, the Lions also won their last game and made the playoffs, too, at 4-5.
The Bucs and Lions were rarely in playoff contention at the same time in the next decade and a half, until that memorable 1997 season. Two years later, both teams were 8-4 heading into the last quarter of the 1999 season, and that set up a dramatic Week 14 visit by the Lions to Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay had lost QB Trent Dilfer to a shoulder injury two weeks earlier and rookie Shaun King was at the helm in just his second NFL start. After the team fell behind early, Alstott scored once on a one-yard run and again on a 22-yard pass from King to complete a comeback victory. The Bucs would win eight of their last nine games to take the division crown while the Lions would lose each of their last four and back into a short-lived playoff appearance at 8-8.
The Lions were in a tough stretch at the time of the 2002 realignment, and they brought a 3-10 record into Tampa in Week 15 to face a Bucs team that was trying to lock down a first-round playoff bye. Detroit was missing four offensive starters coming into the game, and then lost QB Joey Harrington to an irregular heartbeat in the first quarter, but backup Mike McMahon led a comeback that was capped by his own two-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The Bucs had to follow with a rally of their own to set Martin Gramatica up for a 38-yard game-winner in a 23-20 decision that clinched a playoff spot for the Buccaneers.
This decade, the Buccaneers and Lions have met four times, the first two in Tampa and the more recent two in Detroit. Detroit visited Tampa in Week 15 of the 2010 season and won a 23-20 overtime decision that was part of a four-game winning streak to end the season after a 2-10 start. The Bucs had taken a 20-17 lead with 1:39 left in that contest but WR Calvin Johnson's falling 23-yard catch at the Bucs' 22 – part of a 152-yard day for Johnson – set up the game-tying field goal. Detroit won it five minutes into overtime on Dave Rayner's 34-yard kick. The following season opened with a Bucs-Lions rematch, and this time the Bucs couldn't quite complete a comeback during regulation, falling 27-20. Johnson had another 88 yards and two scores to lead the Lions to that win.
The two recent games in Detroit were also a split. The 2013 get-together was an exciting affair with six lead changes, the last coming on Mike Glennon's 85-yard touchdown pass to Tiquan Underwood early in the fourth quarter. That hookup on a deep post remains the fourth-longest completion in franchise history, but the Bucs' defense still had most of a quarter to kill to hold on to the resulting 24-21 lead. A blocked punt and a forced fumble, both by Danny Gorrer, helped the Bucs' cause on the next two Detroit drives, but Rian Lindell missed field goal attempts after both of those big plays. Fortunately, the defense had one more big play in it. With a minute left, Matthew Stafford hit Calvin Johnson at the Buccaneers' three-yard line on third-and-12, but Kelcie McCray hit Johnson at just the right moment to cause the ball to pop up in the air, where it was intercepted by Johnthan Banks.
The rematch a year later at Ford Field was less dramatic. Josh McCown hit then-rookie wideout Mike Evans on two touchdown passes and Vincent Jackson caught 10 passes for 159 yards, but Stafford countered with a huge day, throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns, one unsurprisingly caught by Johnson. The Lions won, 34-17.
Bucs-Lions Game-by-Game Record:
*Overtime * Postseason*
- Overall Season Series: Detroit Leads, 30-26
- Bucs' Home Record: 13-14
- Bucs' Road Record: 13-16
- Current Streak: Lose 1 (2014)
- Buccaneers' Longest Winning Streak: 4 (2001-2005)
- Lions' Longest Winning Streak: 5 (1994-96)
- Regular Season Point Total: Buccaneers 977, Lions 1,199
- Most Points in a Game, Buccaneers: Buccaneers 38-20 (2008)
- Most Points in a Game, Lions: Lions 38-7 (1992)
- Most Points, both teams: Buccaneers 38-21 (1990)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Buccaneers: Lions 11-0 (1983); Lions 23-0 (1993); Lions 27-0 (1996)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Lions: Buccaneers 28-10 (1981); Buccaneers 27-10 (1993); Buccaneers 31-10 (2000)
- Fewest Points in a Game, both teams: Lions 11-0 (1983)