Lions defeat Buccaneers to play for the NFC Championship

Detroit Lions Derrick Barnes after interception clinching win over Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jan. 21, 2024. Courtesy Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions Derrick Barnes after interception clinching win over Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jan. 21, 2024. Courtesy Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Lions, yes, the Detroit Lions, are now one game away from playing in the Super Bowl.

Cast away by the Los Angeles Rams three years ago in a trade for Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff was welcomed by the Lions and has since become a fan favorite at Ford Field, where the crowd chanted his name during a second straight home playoff triumph for the long-downtrodden franchise.

Goff threw his second touchdown pass with 6:22 left and the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 in the divisional round on Sunday, lifting Detroit into the NFC championship for the first time in 32 years and just the second time in franchise history.

After three straight victory kneels to run out the game clock, Ford Field erupted as fans twirled their white towels as they celebrated going to the NFC championship for the first time since 1991.

“I knew it would be the last one in front of our home fans this year, and I took it all in,” Goff said.

The Lions won two playoff games in a season for the first time since 1957, the last year they won the NFL title, and had two postseason games at home for the first time. They walked out of Ford Field for the last time this season 14-5.

Now they have to travel to face San Francisco, the NFC's top seed, next Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl, a game they have never played in.

“I envisioned that we would have a chance to compete with the big boys, and that’s where we’re at,” said coach Dan Campbell, who was hired shortly before Goff was acquired.

Rookie Jahmyr Gibbs broke loose early in the fourth quarter for a 31-yard tie-breaking touchdown. Goff made it a two-TD lead when he connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 9-yard score.

Goff finished 30 of 43 for 287 yards and directed an efficient second-half offense for the Lions, who had long touchdown drives on three consecutive possessions. St. Brown had eight catches for 77 yards, and his TD catch capped a masterful 10-play, 89-yard drive.

“In that fourth quarter, he really showed up and made some big throws,” said Campbell, who told Goff he was good enough for Detroit last week when he gave him a game ball after beating his former team in a wild-card game.

Gibbs, an electric rookie Tampa Bay didn’t have to face when it lost to Detroit in the regular season, had 74 yards rushing on nine carries and four receptions for 40 yards.

The Lions hope their second appearance in the NFC title game works out better than the first when Washington routed them 41-10 on Jan. 12, 1992.

Baker Mayfield threw three TD passes for Tampa Bay, including a 16-yard toss to Mike Evans that got the Bucs within one score with 4:37 left.

Detroit couldn't run out the clock on offense, giving Tampa Bay one last chance, but Mayfield's pass over the middle was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Barnes, the quarterback's second pick of the day.

Mayfield was 26 of 41 for 349 yards. His early pick went off Mike Evans' hands, and his late one was an ill-advised throw. “It comes down to limiting the mistakes and I didn't do that,” Mayfield said.

Detroit and Tampa Bay traded field goals and touchdowns to enter the fourth quarter in a 17-all tie.

The Lions went ahead for a third time with 3:48 left in the third quarter, when Campbell went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and Craig Reynolds ran up the middle for a score that ended a 10-play, 64-yard drive.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson picked off Mayfield’s pass that went through Evans’ hands to end Tampa Bay’s first drive. Goff almost gave it back, underthrowing a pass into the end zone that defensive back Jamel Dean dropped, and two snaps later, Michael Badgley made a 23-yard field goal.

Goff converted a third down with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Josh Reynolds early in the second quarter.

In the end, the NFC South champion Buccaneers came up short, ending a season where they surpassed modest expectations. “It feels like my heart just got ripped out,” Mayfield said.

Some key injuries were tight end Brock Wright, who suffered a forearm injury, was knocked out of the second half, and guard Jonah Jackson, who left the third quarter with a torn meniscus. Both are expected to miss the NFC championship but could be back for the Super Bowl, if necessary.