Tampa, Fla. — The Detroit Lions scored their first first-quarter touchdown in more than a month, forced a season-high five turnovers, but still barely got by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, 24-21.
“A lot of great effort,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Gave up a few yards along the way, but certainly that’s a team that doesn’t give the ball away very often, so commend our defense for that.”
Detroit’s inability to take care of the ball throughout the first half, combined with multiple drive-killing penalties, kept it close before Matt Prater connected on the winning 46-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining.
The Lions (7-6) opened the scoring by taking their second possession 74 yards in seven plays. Leaning exclusively on tight ends and running back on the drive, quarterback Matthew Stafford completed all four of his passes — part of a 12-for-12 start to his day — for 65 yards. Theo Riddick capped the series with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone to put the Lions up, 7-0.
It was the first touchdown the Lions had scored in the opening quarter of a game since Nov. 7 against the Green Bay Packers.
“I think you guys put more importance to that than I do,” Caldwell said. “Winning’s the most important thing to me. You’d like to be able at least to keep your opponent within striking range, and I think our guys did it.”
Tampa Bay (4-9) wasted little time countering, tying the game with an 11-play, 75-yard possession. Jameis Winston completed five passes for 63 yards on the drive and the Bucs finished it off the ground with a pair of Doug Martin runs — the first stopped just short of the goal line and the second getting the job done.
The teams would trade turnovers on the next two possessions. Tight end Eric Ebron, who led the Lions with 10 receptions for 94 yards, fumbled the ball near midfield. But on the ensuing drive, safety Quandre Diggs' big hit to tight end O.J. Howard gave the ball back to the Lions.
Initially, the pass to Howard was ruled an incompletion and Diggs was flagged for unnecessary roughness against a defenseless receiver. But a Lions challenge showed Howard had established possession, exonerating Diggs and giving the ball to the Lions.
“Never have seen anything quite like that,” Caldwell said. “I just made certain they cleared it with exactly what the consequences were, what the benefits were if we challenged it. And they spelled it out well enough for me to know that it was a play that we should challenge at least.”
Detroit worked into field-goal range, but were driven back out by a pair of holding penalties, leading to a punt. But the defense came up with another turnover when cornerback Darius Slay made a sliding grab near the sideline on a pass intended for DeSean Jackson.
“I saw (Winston) rolling out and I thought there was no way he was going to (throw) a post,” Slay said. “I just used my football IQ, knew he was probably going out and just jumped it.”
A holding penalty put the Lions in an unfavorable second-and-20 situation, only to see Stafford connect on a deep pass to Marvin Jones for 38 yards into the red zone. On the next play, the quarterback found Golden Tate for a 5-yard score to put the Lions back in front, 14-7, with 7:36 left in the second quarter.
After a week of nursing a bruised throwing hand, Stafford finished 36-for-44 for 381 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Our guys on the training staff did an unbelievable job of helping me out, getting a feeling as good as I possibly could and our guys today did a great job of keeping me upright,” Stafford said. “They did that, allowed me to kind of sit in there and throw the ball around and make the game feel pretty good.”
The Bucs again looked to respond, driving into Lions territory, but safety Glover Quin chased down Martin from behind and popped the ball loose. Cornerback D.J. Hayden came up with the fumble recovery, his second of the season.
The Lions twice blew chances to extend their lead before the break due to turnovers. Stafford was intercepted twice, forcing passes into coverage. The second, in the closing seconds of the second quarter, came when the Lions were in field-goal range.
“Went into the game saying I’m not gonna let (cornerback Brent) Grimes wreck the game, and I just got too aggressive,” Stafford said. “I bet if I check that ball down to Theo we get a bunch of yards and we’re still moving. I just got a little bit impatient.
“Really the same kind of thing on the second one. We’ve got the field goal. We’re in range, just take the three or four yards and get out of bounds and kick it. Let Prater do his thing.”
The turnovers didn’t stop after the half. On the opening possession of the third quarter, Winston badly overthrew Howard, putting the ball directly into the arms of Diggs. It was the first interception of the defensive back's career.
And on the Bucs next possession, linebacker Jarrad Davis knocked the ball from Winston's grasp on a blitz, which Tahir Whitehead pounced on.
Taking advantage of that turnover, Jones hauled in a 17-yard, third-down pass that had been tipped by a defender. A roughing the passer call put the Lions into the red zone and Riddick burst through a hole between left tackle Taylor Decker and tight end Michael Roberts for an 18-yard score to push the advantage to 21-7 with 3:11 left in the third quarter.
But it was short-lived. The Bucs worked into the red zone by the end of the third quarter and Winston found Howard, out of play-action, from a yard out to cut the Bucs’ deficit to seven.
After another holding penalty forced the Lions to punt, the Bucs tied it up. A 40-yard pass interference penalty against Hayden and a 16-yard Peyton Barber run put the Bucs at the shadow of the goal line where Winston turned to play-action again to connect with backup offensive tackle Leonard Wester, who lined up as a tight end, with 8:05 remaining.
“Detroit, for all the good things they do, they’ve had an issue with play-action on the goal line this year,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “We hit the first one to O.J. and that was just simple. …When we looked at the picture, we noticed Leonard was wide open on the backside. So we said if we get down there again, we were going to do it again.”
The two sides traded punts, before the Lions got the ball with 2:54 remaining and Stafford went to work. He completed all six of his throws on the drive for 53 yards, setting Prater up to knock home winner.
Prater is now 27-for-27 in his career on field goal attempts in the fourth quarter that would either tie it or give his team the lead.
The Bucs had one final shot, but defensive end Ziggy Ansah sacked Winston to end the game.