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NFL playoffs: Four things to watch for in Buccaneers-Lions in NFC Divisional Round

At this time three years ago, the Buccaneers were in the midst of their march to a triumph in Super Bowl LV, while the Lions were making final decisions in yet another coaching search. They tabbed Dan Campbell, a former Lions player who became a temporary punchline with his unorthodox introductory press conference performance, in which he referenced kneecap biting to indicate the type of tough team he intended to build.

Three years later, Campbell's vision has become reality. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have seen football nirvana, and also learned just how fleeting it can be. Tom Brady's retirement flung the team into uncertainty, and when Baker Mayfield arrived to replace him, few thought much of the Buccaneers' chances in 2023.

That doubt was exactly what Mayfield, a quarterback cast aside by two teams in 2022, needed for motivation. He's done nothing but deliver since then, posting a career year with his new team and leading them to a division title that most didn't see the Buccaneers securing back in August. They certainly didn't envision Mayfield and the Buccaneers taking the defending NFC champion Eagles behind the woodshed on Super Wild Card Weekend, either, setting up for a matchup full of pleasant surprises.

After finishing 2022 on a hot streak that nearly saw them reach the playoffs, the Lions expected to be here. They likely didn't expect, however, to meet Tampa Bay, a franchise with championship-winning experience still on the roster, setting up an incredibly intriguing showdown between revived contender and the block's new bully.

Who prevails? Well, that's why we play the games on the field, and not on paper. We'll find out Sunday, when this matchup kicks off at 3 p.m. ET at Ford Field.

Here are four things to watch for when the Buccaneers visit the Lions in Sunday's Divisional Round:

1) Can Mayfield continue baking? Baker Mayfield is one of two former No. 1 overall picks in this matchup discarded by the teams that drafted them, and as we've all known for quite some time, he carries himself with a massive chip on his shoulder. That chip (plus some necessary humble pie) has powered the best season of his career, one in which he's propelled an inconsistent Buccaneers offense into the playoffs despite finishing in the bottom 10 in total offense in the regular season. Despite this low ranking, Mayfield enters the Divisional Round on a heater, becoming the first Buccaneers quarterback to throw for 300-plus yards and three-plus touchdowns in a playoff game in franchise history. He's 2-1 in the postseason, and to this point, he owns Super Wild Card Weekend. His past in the Divisional Round, however, isn't as encouraging: He completed 23 of 37 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a road loss to the Chiefs in the 2020 postseason. With vastly different circumstances surrounding Mayfield Sunday, comparing the two is a waste of time -- that is, unless he falters again. He's already written quite a story in 2023 by proving doubters wrong and giving the Bucs a good reason to keep him around for years to come. A second straight strong performance -- this time, in hostile territory -- would only further justify Tampa Bay's eventual pursuit of a long-term deal with him, and shock the NFL world in the process.

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2) Pressure produces diamonds -- and bursts pipes. Simply stating "Team X needs to protect the quarterback" seems overly reductive, but it truly could determine the outcome of this matchup. Jared Goff has executed Detroit's offense at a remarkably high level through most of 2023, so much that he's now seen as the long-term option under center. But ample time to throw is essential to the operation, and if he isn't afforded such protection, things can go haywire. Lions fans likely won't want to remember their upset loss to the Packers on Thanksgiving, but they should revisit it to prepare themselves, because it gave us a prime example of Goff's mortality as a quarterback. Green Bay blitzed Goff at a rate of 36 percent and logged a pressure rate of 42 percent, forcing three turnovers (all fumbles) committed by Goff and undercutting the Lions' offense. Statistically, Goff is significantly worse when pressured, owning the largest dropoff in passer rating between unpressured and pressured attempts in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. And Detroit is facing another team in Tampa Bay that loves to blitz with reckless abandon. Just last week, the Buccaneers blitzed the Eagles 21 times (53.8 percent blitz rate), and while they didn't force any turnovers, they threw a pipe wrench into the Philadelphia offense. The same outcome could come in Detroit, where the Lions own a better offensive line (and better play-caller), but will need to be prepared to give Goff secondary options in the event of relentless pressure. It could be the difference.

3) Lions' two-headed backfield meets a brick wall. Detroit's offense is at its best when the ground game is cooking. David Montgomery paced this offense in the regular season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground. But they're running into quite a challenge in Tampa Bay, which owns a defense that finished in the bottom 10 in total defense in 2023, but lost in that ranking was a top-five finish against the run. The Bucs have allowed just two rushers to break 100 yards on the ground this season, with the last coming in Week 13. They've blossomed as a defense in the front seven, enjoying contributions from the likes of rookies YaYa Diaby and Calijah Kancey, and are coming off a performance in which the Buccaneers effectively eliminated the ground game from Philadelphia's options, surrendering just 42 total rushing yards in the win. Can they do the same to a Detroit backfield that flirted with finishing with two 1,000-yard rushers in 2023, and includes a rookie in Jahmyr Gibbs who scored 12 scrimmage touchdowns in 2023? If they can, expect Bowles to turn up the blitz even more, because they'll find themselves in third-and-long scenarios in which their rushers can feast. And if they can't, Mayfield might have to try to carry them in order to avoid being buried by the Lions' offensive avalanche.

4) One playoff win was great, but it shouldn't be enough for the Lions. The vibes at Ford Field were incredible on Sunday night. Eminem was in the stands, and fans were rapping his hit Lose Yourself in unison just before kickoff. Many of the same fans were shedding tears of joy at the sight of a reality they may have thought they'd never witness: The Lions won a playoff game. But one win should not be enough to satisfy Dan Campbell's group, not after the grueling road they've traveled to this point. Sunday erased a 31-year drought and gave Detroit a second home playoff game, in which they'll be the favorite. Now is not the time to rest on their laurels, or underestimate an opponent that needed all 18 weeks to get into the playoffs but is soaring after a dominant showing on Super Wild Card Weekend. It's time to ride that home-field advantage to even greater, once unimaginable heights: A trip to the NFC Championship Game.

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