As unbelievable as it sounds, either the Detroit Lions or Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play in the NFC championship game.

When the season kicked off in September, neither team seemed destined for a deep playoff run but for very different reasons.

The Lions were picked by many to win the NFC North, but they still needed to overcome a team history full of disappointment.

Over the last three decades, a bad season for the Lions was as bad as it gets, with an 0-16 mark in 2008 as low point. A “good” year in Detroit recently has ended with a swift – and often uncompetitive – first-round playoff exit.

The Lions broke their nine-game postseason losing streak last week, beating the Los Angeles Rams 24-23 for the franchise’s first playoff win since the 1991 season.

The 66,000-plus fans at Ford Field, some of whom cried tears of joy last Sunday, will now see their Lions host a Buccaneers team that came a long way in 2023.

Tampa Bay opened training camp looking to fill the GOAT-sized void at quarterback left by Tom Brady’s retirement. Playing for his fourth team in three seasons, Baker Mayfield was unable to separate himself from second-year youngster Kyle Trask until the end of preseason.

Expectations were low, with the Bucs having the longest preseason odds of winning the NFC South. But Mayfield shattered those low expectations and led Tampa to a division title.

On Monday, Mayfield played one of the best games of his career in leading the Bucs to a stunning 32-9 wild-card rout over the Philadelphia Eagles.

For either the Buccaneers or the Lions, an unexpectedly successful season will come to an end on Sunday in the divisional round (on NBC), but the winner will step even closer to a Super Bowl appearance.

Sportsbooks opened the week by listing the Lions as 5.5-point favorites over the Bucs, and that line has moved to 6.5 points as public sentiment for Detroit has grown. But our supercomputer gives red-hot Tampa a 52.9% chance of winning on the road.

Projected Winner: Buccaneers

Win Probability: 52.9%

The Lions beat the Bucs 20-6 at home in Week 6, though both teams have evolved plenty since then, and Detroit could have its hands full with a Bucs team that has won six of its last seven games.

Tampa Bay Key: Protect Baker

It would be hard to overstate the impact Mayfield has had on Tampa Bay this season.

The former top-overall pick started all 18 games for the Bucs, setting career highs in passing yards (4,044) and touchdowns (28) while getting better and batter as the season went on.

In the Bucs’ wild-card victory over the Eagles on Monday, Mayfield threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns. After that sterling performance, Mayfield has a playoff career passer rating of 102.7, the second highest among active quarterbacks with at least 100 postseason attempts.

All signs point to head coach Todd Bowles needing another big game in the NFL playoffs from his quarterback to keep Tampa Bay’s season alive.

Rachaad White rushed for 72 yards on 4.0 per carry against the Eagles, but the Buccaneers have struggled on the ground for most of the season.

Tampa Bay has a success rate of 29.1% on designed run plays (including the playoffs), ranking 31st in the NFL. The Bucs’ 3.5 yards per play on designed runs also ranks 31st.

To further complicate the situation, Detroit’s defense has been stout against the run all year with a 31.9% success rate (fifth in the league) allowed on run plays.

Opponent Average Rushing Yards Per Game

  1.  Chicago Bears (86.4)
  2.  Detroit Lions (88.8)
  3.  San Francisco 49ers (89.7)
  4.  New England Patriots (93.2)
  5.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers (95.3)

With such a heavy mismatch on the ground, the Bucs will likely need to let Mayfield carry the offense on Sunday, but there should be opportunities in the passing game if the protection holds up.

The Lions defense allows 7.1 yards per passing play – tied for the second-worst mark in the league, but has the fourth highest pressure rate at 40.8% – thanks largely to Aidan Hutchinson and his team-leading 11.5 sacks.

Pass protection has been a strength of this Bucs team, though, setting up a crucial strength-on-strength matchup. Tampa’s offensive line has allowed pressure on 33.9% of drop backs, making them a top-10 unit in that regard.

If Tampa Bay can protect Mayfield, there should be some matchups to exploit in the Lions’ secondary.

Mike Evans has been the model of consistency since he entered the league in 2014 but may have put together his best all-around season in five years. The former first-round pick finished the regular season with 79 catches for 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Evans is fourth in the NFL among those with at least 75 targets (including the playoffs) with a 38.4 big-play percentage and seventh with a 65.0 burn percentage.

big play percentage leaders

Evans’ big-play opportunities may come against Detroit cornerback Cameron Sutton, who has a 60.4 burn-allowed percentage and has allowed 13.4 burn yards allowed per target – third most among corners with at least 200 coverage snaps.

Detroit Key: Convert in the Red Zone

As much the Lions needed to exorcise the demons of past generations, this year’s team always had enough talent for a playoff run, especially on offense.

Dan Campbell’s team ranks sixth in the league with a 41.7% overall success rate, including a No. 7 ranking in rushing (37.8% success rate) and fourth in passing (44.4%).

The Lions flexed their offensive efficiency early in their wild-card win over the Rams last weekend, scoring touchdowns on each of their first three drives and gaining 248 first-half yards.

Jared Goff’s 121.8 passer rating in the wild-card round was the highest of his playoff career, while running back duo David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs each found the end zone.

With a talented group on offense, including star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, the Lions will almost certainly gain yardage against Tampa Bay.

But this divisional-round game could be decided by situational success.

The Lions have one of the best first-down offenses in the NFL and frequently set themselves up for advantageous second- and third-down plays.

Average First Down Yardage

  1.  San Francisco 49ers (6.98)
  2.  Detroit Lions (6.61)
  3.  Miami Dolphins (6.53)
  4.  Green Bay Packers (6.00)
  5.  Baltimore Ravens (5.94)

Tampa’s defense is below average on first downs with a 36.7% success rate allowed, and Detroit could find success by staying on schedule for most of the game.

Other key moments could come when the Bucs decide to blitz, which they have at the third-highest rate in the league (43.7%). Goff, however, has performed well when blitzed with a 69.7% completion rate. With 195 adjusted attempts, Goff has thrown more passes than anyone in the league this season while being blitzed.

Sunday’s game, however, will likely be decided where so many others are – in the red zone and extended red zone (inside the opponent’s 30).

All three of Detroit’s touchdowns last weekend came in the red zone after long drives, and each of the scoring plays was 10 or fewer yards. Tampa’s defense has been very good close to the goal line this season and will hope to force the Lions into kicking field goals.

Opponent Goal to Go Scoring Efficiency

  1.  Tennessee Titans (42.9)
  2.  Baltimore Ravens (57.7)
  3.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers (58.6)
  4.  Los Angeles Chargers (62.5)
  5.  Atlanta Falcons (63.0)

The Bucs have been especially good at defending the pass in the red zone, with a 31.6% success rate allowed on passing plays from inside the 20.

The extended red zone has been Detroit’s most efficient area to throw, and the Lions have done it better than anyone in the league this season.

Passer Rating Inside the 30-Yard Line

  1.  Detroit Lions (113.5)
  2.  San Francisco 49ers (112.4)
  3.  Buffalo Bills (111.1)
  4.  Denver Broncos (110.1)
  5.  Cincinnati Bengals (108.1)

Rookie tight end sensation Sam LaPorta scored another touchdown in last weekend’s playoff game but is dealing with a knee injury. With the red zone likely to be such a pivotal area, his availability will be crucial.

If the Lions can ensure that their productive drives end in seven points instead of three, they will likely advance to play in Championship Sunday with their eyes set on the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.

If Tampa Bay’s blitz-heavy defense can get red zone stops, Mayfield could find enough holes in a suspect Detroit secondary to extend the team’s unlikely run through the NFL divisional round.

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