There are games that eventual playoff teams are expected to win, and then there's the Detroit Lions' matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in Detroit.
If the 6-4 and NFC North-leading Lions are serious about securing their first division title in two decades, opportunities for a win can't be wasted against teams like the 2-8 Buccaneers. Detroit already wasted a chance to separate in the division in Week 11, when the then 3-6 Steelers beat the Lions by 10 in Pittsburgh.
That loss could be partially excused, as the Steelers remain a tough out at home and still have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback at the helm.
There will be no acceptable excuses if the Buccaneers come into Detroit and leave with their third straight win on Sunday.
Yet the Lions are playing at home and possess the better quarterback and overall roster. Tampa Bay's season is all but over; Detroit's is just beginning, and there's only six games remaining to decide whether the Lions, Chicago Bears or Green Bay Packers will represent the NFC North as division champion.
Here are five questions that the Lions must answer to repel any upset bid from the Buccaneers on Sunday.
1. Will Calvin Johnson Shake Off a Ghostly Second Half With Darrelle Revis in Town?
When Calvin Johnson trotted into the halftime locker room last week in Pittsburgh, the NFL's most dominant receiver appeared to be well on his way to another one of his eye-popping stat lines. He had just waxed the Steelers secondary for six catches, 179 yards and two scores, which put him on pace to match or best his ridiculous 14-catch, 329-yard effort from just two weeks earlier.
While the Dallas Cowboys never did adjust to Johnson, the Steelers did. Facing less one-on-one coverage from Ike Taylor and more bracketed coverages, the Lions receiver caught zero passes on just three targets in the second half.
Coincidentally, Detroit failed to score over the final 30 minutes.
Now Johnson must try to put a ghostly second half in the rear mirror, and he'll have to do it against Darrelle Revis, who all but shut him down during their first meeting. Back in 2010, Revis and the New York Jets held Johnson to just one catch. It was one of only three times since his rookie season that Johnson has caught one or fewer passes in a game.
Despite tearing his ACL 14 months ago, Revis has remained one of the NFL's most stick-tight corners. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has allowed the least amount of yards (128) and the third-best opposing passer rating (45.8) among qualified cornerbacks this season.
Interestingly enough, the Lions haven't needed Johnson to post big numbers to win or score points. In the three games where he's posted four or fewer catches, the Lions are 3-0 and averaging almost 34 points a game.
Still, the Lions will want to involve Johnson, regardless of who is lining up opposite him or any previous results. And like any competitor, he should want to beat the very best. He'll have his chance on Sunday.
2. Can a Shaky Lions Secondary Limit Mike Glennon and Vincent Jackson?
To be fair, Mike Glennon is not Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback with two Super Bowl rings who torched the Lions for 367 passing yards and four touchdowns a week ago. But Glennon has been surprisingly effective for Tampa Bay recently, and that should be enough to worry a Lions secondary that isn't playing well.
Detroit has allowed 300 or more passing yards in three of the last four games, including two—to Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton—with more than 350. Glennon may not be capable of throwing for that many yards on Sunday, but he's proved to be an accurate and gutsy passer over his last three starts.
In November, Glennon is completing 71.6 percent of his passes and averaging more than eight yards an attempt. His five touchdowns and just one interception add up to a passer rating of 113.9 this month.
He also has one of the NFC's better receivers not named Johnson. Vincent Jackson's 827 receiving yards are seventh in the conference, and he's one of only three NFC receivers with 13 or more 20-yard catches and at least 40 first-down receptions (alongside Johnson and DeSean Jackson).
While Jackson is coming off a Week 11 performance that saw him catch 10 passes for 165 yards, the Lions are just a week removed from giving up 147 yards and two scores to Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown.
A better effort will be necessary against both first-year quarterback Glennon and Jackson, one of the game's more physically imposing receivers. The Buccaneers can score points in bunches if Detroit continues to let its pass defense rupture.
3. Which Defensive Tackle Makes a Bigger Impact: Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy?
Quickly rewind back to the 2010 NFL draft. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford was the No. 1 pick in a draft that featured 10 defensive players in the first 16 picks. The next two players off the board after him predictably came on the defensive side: Ndamukong Suh to Detroit and Gerald McCoy, Bradford's collegiate teammate, to the Bucs.
In 2013, the two former top picks are now battling for defensive tackle supremacy.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McCoy is currently leading all interior defensive linemen in total grade (plus-36.4) while trailing only Suh in number of pressures (49). The Lions' disruptive tackle has a plus-21.9 grade (seventh best) and the most total pressures at 50.
The DT who makes a bigger impact on Sunday's game could play a big factor in who wins.
McCoy has come on strong as of late, and his three sacks of Matt Ryan last week were a new career high. Tampa Bay's best pass-rusher will face rookie guard Larry Warford, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Suh might be enjoying his best season as a pro, despite the fact that his sack numbers aren't high. He's still creating consistent interior pressure and remains a boulder to move in the run game.
Overall, the Bucs still need more out of McCoy than the Lions do out of Suh. Keeping the former No. 3 overall pick out of Matthew Stafford's lap will go a long way in Detroit moving the football against an upstart Tampa Bay defense.
4. Will Detroit's Stout Run Defense Continue?
Speaking of upstart defenses, the Lions have suddenly become one of the NFL's best at stuffing the run.
After a string of three games where Detroit allowed 46.7 yards per—the league's second-best mark during that span—the Lions are now ranked fifth in the NFL against the run (94.7). Over the last four games, including a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit has stifled running backs such as Giovani Bernard, Matt Forte and Le'Veon Bell.
|The Motor City Wall: Lions Run Defense, Last 3 Games|
|Rush Yards Allowed|
|*Second in NFL|
Tampa Bay's new-look rushing offense gets the next shot. And this might actually be the toughest test that Detroit has faced over the last month.
Using a combination of Mike James (now on injured reserve), Brian Leonard and now Bobby Rainey, the Bucs have strung together a three-game stretch of averaging 177 rushing yards a game. Only the Washington Redskins, at 197 a game, have been better.
Part of Glennon's recent success has come thanks to the running game. Off play action, he has a passer rating of 106.1 this season, including back-to-back games over 110.0.
It's then probably no coincidence that close losses to the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks also featured the Bucs rushing for more than 150 yards. For Tampa Bay to be competitive against a good team like Detroit, the Bucs need to run the football.
5. Can Matthew Stafford Deliver a More Even Performance?
For three quarters against the Steelers, Stafford was a liability for the Lions. He was erratic early on, missing throws and overshooting open receivers. Several interceptions were dropped. And in the third and fourth quarters, the Steelers held him to just 35 yards passing.
The Lions can lean on the run game more so now than ever before, and Reggie Bush and Joique Bell should be able to find holes against a front that has allowed 100 or more rushing yards in three of four games. But Detroit is still a pass-first offense that relies on Stafford to get the ball into the end zone.
Obviously, no one is expecting him to be as razor sharp as he was during the second quarter last Sunday, when the Lions scored on all five of their possessions.
A more even performance could be warranted, however, especially in the accuracy department. The Bucs have five interceptions in the last three games and seven takeaways overall.
And how will he respond if Revis takes away Johnson? The Lions offense might need to spray the football around. Like most games, how the best quarterback on either side plays will likely be the biggest difference.
Prediction: Lions 31, Buccaneers 20
Revis might be the best match in the game for Johnson, but the Lions can otherwise stop the run and pressure a one-dimensional offense. We'll take Stafford over a rookie on the road, too. At home, Detroit will be expected to keep pace in the division race.
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