TAMPA, Fla. – The Detroit Lions have lofty expectations, and a healthy Matthew Stafford could give them a chance to meet them and end a decade of futility.
The third-year quarterback who's struggled to stay on the field early in his pro career threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, helping the Lions withstand several critical mistakes and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 for their fifth consecutive victory dating to the final month of the 2010 season.
"It's a good sign," Stafford said after Detroit opened a season with a win for the first time since 2007, overcoming the young quarterback throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown, a long kickoff return that set up a Tampa Bay field goal and several costly penalties.
"Obviously, you don't want those mistakes to keep coming back," Stafford added. "You've got to fix those, iron those out."
Jim Schwarz, beginning his third season of a rebuilding project that began after the Lions went winless in 2008, agreed.
"I don't want to discount the value of a win, particularly a win on the road, but we've got to play a lot better than we played today," Schwartz said. "We had way too many mistakes that kept Tampa in this game. I guess a sign of a good team is you can have those mistakes and still come out with a win. But we did some things that are inexcusable, and they will not continue."
Stafford completed 24 of 33 passes, including TD throws of 36 and 1 yards to Calvin Johnson and 11 yards to Tony Scheffler. The only interception he threw glanced off the hands of intended receiver Will Heller and was returned 28 yards by Aqib Talib for the only touchdown Tampa Bay managed until Josh Freeman threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Mike Williams with less than two minutes to go.
The Lions, who haven't finished with a winning record since 2000, lost four straight to begin 2010. Stafford was hurt in the opener and went on to miss 13 of the team's remaining 15 games.
Stafford, who was not sacked, led four scoring drives of at least 70 yards against a defense that was on its heels most of the day. The Lions outgained the 147 yards to 4 in the opening quarter and finished with 431 yards total offense to Tampa Bay's 313.
Johnson had six receptions for 88 yards. His 36-yard TD reception came on a perfectly thrown ball on fourth-and-2, and the 6-foot-5 receiver reached above Talib to make an acrobatic grab on a lob throw for the 1-yard TD that put Detroit up 27-13 in the third quarter.
"We have so much confidence in him," Johnson said of Stafford. "He puts it up there for me, I've got to go get it. He's our coach on the field."
Freeman, selected 16 spots behind No. 1 overall pick Stafford in the 2009 draft, was 28 of 43 for 245 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked twice by Detroit's improved defense.
"It's really frustrating because we felt like, for sure going into it, it was a winnable game. ... We just have to find a way to score points earlier," said Freeman, whose growth a year ago during his first season as a starter keyed a surprising 10-6 finish that nearly produced a playoff berth.
"You hate to start the season out 0-1, but it's the first game of the year," Freeman added. "It's not going to make or break anybody."
In addition to a pregame tribute to Sept. 11, a moment of silence was observed for Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, the first-ever player drafted by the expansion Buccaneers in 1976. The team's all-time sack leader with 78 1-2 died on Sept. 4, two days after suffering a stroke.
The Bucs also arranged a surprise reunion during the two-minute warning in the first half for family and close friends of U.S. Army Sergeant Scott Osborn, who was returning from active duty in Afghanistan.
The Lions won their last four games of 2010, including a 23-20 overtime win over Tampa Bay, with Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill playing quarterback while Stafford was sidelined with the second of two shoulder separations that kept him out of 13 games last season. Stafford had surgery on his throwing in January and had an outstanding preseason, when he was the NFL's top-rated passer.
Detroit was one of just two teams that went unbeaten in the preseason, scoring a league-high 114 points. Teams ordinarily don't put too much stock in exhibition results, but Stafford's play fueled optimism for what the Lions hope will be their first winning season in a decade.
Jahvid Best rushed for 72 yards on 21 carries for the Lions. Tampa Bay's running game was non-existent, with Freeman leading the way with 26 yards on four attempts, thanks to a big scramble on the Bucs' final possession.
Freeman has led seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, but he couldn't rally his team this time.
The Bucs marched to the Lions 42 in the closing seconds before time expired on a wild play that began with Freeman completing a pass to Earnest Graham. Four laterals and a fumble later, it ended for no gain.
"We almost had that momentum switch at the end. We should've put it away," Johnson said. "In the past, I don't know (what would've happened), but this is a different team. I never felt like we were going to lose, but it shouldn't have been that close."
Notes: The Lions limited Bucs RB LeGarrette Blount, a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie last season, to 15 yards on five carries. ... Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, last year defensive rookie of the year, had one tackle. ... Bucs second-year DT Brian Price left the game with a hamstring injury in the third quarter and did not return. ... Freeman went to the locker room for treatment for a leg cramp late in the third quarter. He missed four plays.