When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the NFL in 1976, they played in the AFC West, and as everyone already knows, they went 0-14 in their inaugural year to become the first team in the modern NFL to go winless in a season. (Technically, nine teams finished a season winless before the Bucs, including the '42 Detroit Lions, but Tampa Bay was the first team to do so after the AFL-NFL merger.) After '76, the Bucs moved into the NFC Central -- which included all of the teams currently in the NFC North -- and lost 12 more consecutive games before gaining their first NFL win in the penultimate week of the '77 season.
Before that first win, the Bucs traveled to the Pontiac Silverdome to face the Lions for the first time in history. Detroit took the meeting by a score of 16-7, and with the game, a divisional rivalry was born. Until 2002 when the NFL realigned to account for the Houston Texans, the Lions and Bucs played as Central Division foes, going back and forth by trading victories and winning streaks through the years. The overall series record illustrates the to and fro nature of the matchup, as the Lions hold a slim lead at 29-26-0. It's interesting to note that Detroit's three-game lead in the series record is thanks to a three-game edge in home games. Yes, this means for once the Lions don't suck on the road against their opponent since they've gone 14-14 at Tampa Bay.
The series never really favored one team more than the other until Barry Sanders tipped the scales in favor of Detroit by helping the Lions to a five-game winning streak against the Bucs in the mid-90s. However, Tampa Bay bounced back in the late 90s to early 2000s -- which included a Super Bowl win in 2002 -- to win six of seven from 1999-05. Nevertheless, heading into Sunday's game, the Lions have won three of the last four against the Bucs, which includes a two-game winning streak thanks to wins in 2010 and 2011.
As for notable games between both squads, the 1997 NFC Wild Card game comes to mind first, even though it ended in defeat for the Lions. In what ended up being the final game played at Tampa Stadium, the Bucs jumped out to a 13-0 halftime lead, a deficit the struggling Detroit offense couldn't close as the Lions lost 20-10. Another critical game against the Bucs that didn't end well for the Lions occurred in the final game of the regular season in 1981. Detroit entered the game undefeated at home, with an overall record of 8-7, and in need of a victory to win the division and make the playoffs. The Bucs were the only thing in Detroit's way. However, Tampa Bay hoped to accomplish the same task as the Lions -- at 8-7, the Bucs could also win the division and go to the postseason with a victory. I'll spare most of the details, but what ended up costing the Lions was a fourth quarter fumble returned for a Buccaneers touchdown. The score gave Tampa Bay a 20-10 lead, effectively ending the game (the final score was 20-17).
But enough about losses; let's take a look back at a good win. Seeing as there are many home victories to choose from, it wasn't as easy as it's been in past weeks. Rather than pick a "pretty" game, I decided to pick a game that, at first look, was a low-scoring, fairly boring football match. However, it's more memorable than the others due to another spectacular showing by Barry Sanders. (Note: I might as well rename this piece "The Barry Diaries" since he's been a theme lately.)
Nov. 13, 1994 - Detroit Lions 14, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9
Coming into this game, the Lions were in desperate need of a victory after falling to 4-5 to start the season, including a loss against the Bucs. On the other sideline, Tampa Bay hadn't won a game since beating Detroit in Week 5 and simply looked to end its four-game losing streak since they had already fallen to 2-7 on the year. Considering the state of both teams before the game, everything after the opening kickoff went as one would expect in a match featuring two troubled squads: minimal offense and boring football. That is, except for Barry Sanders.
In the first half, nothing happened. I wasn't at the game, but my dad was in attendance, and based on his recollection, I think both teams stood on the sidelines, staring awkwardly across the field at each other like teenagers at a middle school dance. Or maybe the Flyin' Lion crashed at midfield, and it took two quarters to pick up all the stray pennants. In any case, some form of football did take place since the Bucs took a 3-0 lead into the locker rooms. At halftime, Barry had accumulated a mere 37 yards on the ground. Keep this in mind as you read on.
Before heading back on the field, I have a feeling Wayne Fontes put on some Mickey Mouse ears to lighten the mood and explained in simple terms what the Lions had to do in the second half to win the game: "Get the ball to
the Italians Barry." Needless to say, the game plan worked.
Following the break, Barry helped set up two Detroit touchdowns in the third quarter as he exploded for 200 more yards to end the game. When the final buzzer sounded, Sanders had rushed for 237 yards on 26 carries -- his career high. The win kept playoff hopes alive for the Lions (they wouldn't end up making the postseason) and added another page to Barry's history book.
After the game, in regards to Barry, here's something that I'm 100 percent certain Wayne Fontes said:
"God ain't made a better back in this lifetime. Maybe one will come along someday. But it hasn't happened yet."
Unfortunately, I couldn't track down video of the game, but here are some highlights from Barry's '94 season, which include a little snippet near the end from the Buccaneers game.