Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions hope this December will be different.
Stafford threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, and the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-17 to keep pace in the NFC's postseason race. Detroit had lost nine straight December games before handling the Bucs with relative ease.
The Lions had not won a December game since beating San Diego in 2011. That was the win that wrapped up a postseason spot for Detroit, its only playoff appearance since the 1999 season.
The Lions lost six of their last seven games last season, wasting another good chance to make the playoffs.
"We're not the same team as last year," tight end Joseph Fauria said. "We're a new Lions team and we're going to keep on rolling. Our fate's in our hands."
Detroit (9-4) is a half-game behind NFC North-leading Green Bay, which plays Monday night. If Detroit wins its next two games — at home against Minnesota and at Chicago — the Lions would almost surely be in the playoffs.
"It's getting fun around here," center Dominic Raiola said. "The more we just worry about what's going on right now, handle the day, the better off we're going to be."
Tampa Bay (2-11) was technically still in the playoff picture until Sunday, when the Bucs were finally eliminated.
"This is one of the roughest years that I've been a part of and the thing I can take out of it is the fact that our guys played hard," Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson said. "Guys are still fighting, nobody's pointing fingers in this locker room, this organization and that's saying something. It's the quality of men that we have here."
Here are a few things we learned from Detroit's victory:
SHARP STAFFORD: The competition hasn't been great, but over his last two games against Chicago and Tampa Bay, Stafford has a passer rating of 123.4. With Johnson looking healthy and fellow receiver Golden Tate still contributing, the Lions have looked better offensively lately.
SOFT STRETCH: Detroit has won two in a row — the Lions beat Chicago on Thanksgiving by the same 34-17 score. Detroit also figures to be favored next weekend when it faces Minnesota in the Lions' final home game of the regular season.
Detroit would love to take care of business in that game, then beat the Bears again the following week. The Lions finish the regular season at Green Bay, where they have not won since 1991, so Detroit could be in trouble if it needs to win that game to make the playoffs.
TOUGH TO HANDLE: The main bright spots for the Bucs were Jackson and Mike Evans. Jackson had 10 catches for 159 yards, while Evans caught two touchdown passes.
LUCKY BOUNCE: Stafford's fourth-quarter pass hit someone at the line of scrimmage — Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy was in the area — and bounced right back to running back Joique Bell, who grabbed it out of the air and ran in for a 5-yard touchdown.
"We were on the sidelines, we drew that up and we knew exactly what the D-line was doing," Bell joked. "Matt knew if he threw the ball up that one of the D-linemen would tip it up and it was a designed play. We went out there and we executed the play."
Bell was solid all day. He rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown.
PRESSURE: Stafford was sacked four times, but it was Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown who took the brunt of the punishment. He was sacked six times, and that doesn't even count a number of other hits he took from Ndamukong Suh and the rest of Detroit's pass rushers.
"They got too much pressure on the quarterback and we know that," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "I think it's reasonable to say that we've got to do something to give ourselves a chance. Offensively we couldn't protect the quarterback, we couldn't run the ball and didn't get anything going throughout."
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