Back by popular demand this summer, it's the Detroit Lions "Ten Best" countdown. Every Monday over the next two months, we'll not only be counting down the best games, but also the best plays of last season. All of this will lead into our positional previews, which should take us through training camp and the preseason. Then, its finally time to play some football!
Though the Detroit Lions had plenty of tough physical battles in 2011, perhaps the toughest mentally would arrive right away in Tampa Bay during the first week of the regular season.
Fighting several months of local excitement, loftier than usual expectations and talk of a turnaround, the Lions were faced with the difficult task of being prohibitive favorites against the Buccaneers, a tough young team which had come within an eyelash of making the playoffs in 2010. For a franchise not used to winning, the pressure could have proved too much right off the bat.
As things got underway at Raymond James Stadium, that certainly appeared to be the case. The Lions found themselves in an early hole, courtesy of an ugly throw by Matthew Stafford that tipped off the hands of Will Heller and was returned for a touchdown by Aqib Talib. Detroit was facing an early 10-3 deficit. After not being able to move the ball or get much on offense, the Lions trailed 10-6 as the second quarter began. Panicked football fans around the Motor City had to feel like they were being duped.
Except they weren't. Showing a trait the team would display all season, the Lions battled back and put together a much better second quarter. Stafford tossed a gorgeous 36 yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson, and then hit Tony Scheffler for a swashbuckling score just before halftime. Though Tampa Bay got a field goal as time ran out, the Lions defense had done an excellent job of stiffening, holding Josh Freeman and LeGarette Blount in check. Positive momentum was built for the second half.
That theme would continue. In a tight third quarter, the Lions finally extended their tenuous seven point lead when Stafford hit Johnson on a fade route for an amazing catch in the corner of the end zone. The defense continued to harass Freeman, sacking him twice and intercepting him once while preventing him from getting into a groove in the pocket. Though the Lions were unable to score again, they did an excellent job managing the game and keeping the Buccaneers at bay. Tampa Bay got a late touchdown from Mike Williams, and tried to mount a charge to tie the game driving into Detroit territory as regulation ended. Instead of a calamity or collapse, the Lions calmly covered Freeman's last ditch effort at knotting the score, snuffing out his wild, lateral filled play. The first victory of the season could officially be considered under the belt.
This win meant plenty for Detroit's long suffering fans, who knew they might have a justifiable reason to be confident in their new look Lions team. From a mental standpoint, however, this game was much bigger for Lions players themselves. Had they allowed the early deficit to snowball and things to get uglier, they may not have survived. Mentally, that would have been taxing, especially on the heels of the most optimistic preseason in years around Detroit. Had they lost, the "here we go again" mentality might have set foot in the locker room, and who knows what ugly things could have happened the rest of the way, especially with expectations higher than ever.
Fortunately, though, nobody has to spend time pondering that extensively. The Lions notched a huge win, used momentum to play well the very next week, and rolled through a very nice season. As Bruce Springsteen once sung, "you can't start a fire without a spark," and 2011's mental spark was definitely provided courtesy of this victory over Tampa Bay.
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