There is no mystery or secret formula needed to understand what is immediately at stake for the Lions.
Two games in 100 hours – from kickoff against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 1 p.m. Sunday through Thursday’s traditional Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers – will have a major impact on the Lions’ race to win a division title for the first time in 20 years.
The setting for the next two games couldn’t be better for the Lions. Playing both games at Ford Field gives them the benefit of home-field advantage, with a fast, dry track that suits their high-octane offense.
The opportunity at hand is obvious. Winning twice guarantees at least remaining in a tie with the Bears for first place in the NFC North. Both are 6-4, with the Packers a game back at 5-5. The Bears are at St. Louis on Sunday while the Packers host the Vikings.
And the mission could not be clearer: take care of their own business and not get caught up in what the Bears and Packers are doing.
The Lions have shown the ability this year to bounce back from losses. They have to do it again after last week’s defeat at Pittsburgh to avoid their first two-game losing streak of the season.
Every second of the next two games is crucial in the playoff race. Step one starts with the kickoff against a Bucs team that started 0-8 but has won its last two games and can play the role of spoiler the rest of the year.
"The race is on, but honestly, it’s a one-game season each week,’ Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said. "You have to go out and prepare for that opponent and do your very best that week and move on to the next one.
"You’ve got to take that methodical approach. I guarantee, they (the Bucs) don’t care what’s at stake for us. Everybody in the NFL is in that same boat. We’re just playing football each Sunday.
"I like our guys’ mentality that way. We’ve had our losses this year, but we’ve done a good job bouncing back from those. If we want to be successful, we’re going to have to do that this Sunday.
"I think our team’s motivated to do it."
Performance wins games, not motivation, home-field advantage, opportunity or other intangibles.
No one should be fooled by Tampa Bay’s record, or the point spread that makes the Lions heavy favorites. Last week in Pittsburgh, the Lions did nothing on offense in the second half, and the defense gave up touchdowns on Pittsburgh’s last two possessions.
In crunch time, the Lions were crunched.
With what’s on the line at this time of the year, one point is worth a million. If the Lions have to grind one out, so be it.
My prediction for Sunday: the Lions make their point, by a point. Lions 24, Bucs 23.
Lions’ re-stock – Three players returning from the injured list should give the Lions depth and a boost in critical areas.
On offense, wide receiver
Burleson’s experience should help the offense that has had turnover at receiver. He had a team-high 19 catches in the first three games.
"For me, it going to feel like Game 4," Burleson said. "I got hurt after Game 3. I felt like I was on a pretty good streak of catching the ball, making plays. If I can build on that, it means good things for this offense."
Bucs’ Goldson standard: The Bucs will be without safety Dashon Goldson, who will serve a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Falcons receiver Roddy White last week. Goldson is an enforcer and playmaker, and his absence hurts the Bucs.
"He’s a key part of their defense," Schwartz said. "We call them vacuum cleaners. He’s a guy that makes a lot of tackles all over the field that cover up guys’ mistakes in front of him. He’s a difference-maker when he’s on the field."
Tackle talent: Three of the top-rated defensive tackles from the last four draft classes will be on the field Sunday.
On Tampa Bay’s side is Gerald McCoy, drafted third overall in 2010 with the pick after Suh went to the Lions.
All three were among the most athletic defensive tackles drafted in the last four years. Here is how they were rated in their respective draft classes:
Suh: The No. 1 defensive tackle in 2010 and rated the top prospect overall by many. The Rams, with a need for a quarterback, took Sam Bradford of Oklahoma first overall, leaving Suh on the board for the Lions.
Suh’s workouts were outstanding. At 6-4 and 307 pounds, he was timed in 5.03 seconds in the 40-yard dash, benched 225 pounds 32 times and had a 35.5 in vertical jump.
McCoy: Rated the No. 2 tackle and No. 3 prospect overall, measured out at 6-4, 295 and posted exceptional workout numbers: 5.04 in the 40, 23 reps in the bench press and a 30.5-inch vertical. McCoy was an elite prospect in his own right but was overshadowed by Suh.
Fairley: A top 10 prospect in 2011, and the No. 2 defensive tackle behind Marcell Dareus of Alabama. Dareus went to Buffalo with the third pick.
Fairley, who dominated defensively for Auburn in its victory over Oregon in the 2011 BCS national championship game.
At 6-4 and 291 pounds (that was a while ago), Fairley’s speed and agility workouts were exceptional: did 4.84 in the 40 and a 31-inch vertical jump. No defensive tackle in his draft class did better. Fairley did not have a recorded bench press.
The pro logs: Suh and McCoy have made their mark. Suh made the Pro Bowl and was first team All-Pro as a rookie and made his second Pro Bowl last year.
McCoy was held back by injuries his first two seasons, missing three games as a rookie and 10 in 2011. He made the Pro Bowl last year and is on course for a repeat.
Fairley has been playing his best ball of late. He’s had sacks in the last two games after going without a sack for six games. In addition to the two sacks, in the last two games Fairley has had three tackles-for-loss and four quarterback hits.
QB disruptions: In a statistic that measures sacks, pressures, hits and pass breakups among other things, Suh leads the NFL with 50. McCoy is next with 41.
Bucs focus – fresh legs: The Bucs have been losing running backs to season-ending injuries, but it hasn’t slowed down their running game. The next man up has performed as well as the one who went down.
No. 3 in the chain of backs was Bobby Rainey, and he wasn’t a weak link. Rainey made his first pro start in last week’s 41-28 win over Atlanta, and it was a memorable one – 30 carries for 163 yards and two TDs.
The 5-8, 212-pound second-year player from Western Kentucky was released by the Browns after six games and claimed on waivers by the Bucs.
No. 2 was rookie Mike James, a sixth-round draft pick from Miami of Florida. James finished the Game 6 loss to Atlanta after Doug Martin went out for the season. Martin started three games before his season ended with a broken ankle in a victory over Miami in Game 9.
James made his mark by gaining 158 yards on 28 carries in a loss at Seattle in Game 8.
No. 1 was Martin, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2012 from Boise State. He’s on injured reserve with a torn labrum after starting the first six games. He leads the Bucs in rushing with 456 yards, including 144 in a 16-14 loss to the Saints in Game 2.
Offense – Rushing 13, passing 30, overall 20.
Defense – Rushing 9, passing 18 passing, total 15.
Bucs key stats: plus five in turnover differential – 17 takeaways and only 12 giveaways; 10th offensively in percentage of passes intercepted (345 attempts, seven interceptions); 29th with average gain of 4.66 yards on first down.
Offense – Rushing 21, passing 3, total 4.
Defense – Rushing 5, passing 30, total 25.
Lions key stats: minus two in turnover differential – 14 takeaways and 16 giveaways; No. 1 offensively in sacks allowed per pass play, 12 with 419 pass attempts; 31st defensively in sacks per play, 16 with 396 pass attempts.
30 for 30: It’s not a special filmed by ESPN, but two teams that rank near the bottom going against each other in the passing game.
The Bucs are 30th in passing offense, averaging 192.2 yards per game.
The Lions are 30th in passing defense, allowing 283.8 yards per game.