A week ago, circumstances seemed perfect for the Detroit Lions to possibly run away with a division title. But a second-half letdown saw their advantage all but disappear.
Detroit will try to bounce back at home on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have won two in a row.
The Lions (6-4) held a one-game edge for first place in the NFC North entering last week, a lead that appeared even larger considering the injuries to Chicago and Green Bay's starting quarterbacks, not to mention the club's favorable remaining schedule.
But a controversial decision by coach Jim Schwartz proved costly in a 37-27 loss at Pittsburgh.
With a 27-23 advantage early in the fourth quarter, he elected to fake what would have been a 27-yard-field goal. Holder Sam Martin was stopped short and fumbled the ball, setting up a go-ahead touchdown drive for the Steelers. Matthew Stafford was intercepted on the next possession, and Pittsburgh put the game out of reach with another touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Bears knocked off Baltimore to pull even with the Lions, though Detroit owns the tiebreaker after sweeping the season series.
"If we were successful in that situation, and we go up 11 right there, I know what you guys would write," Schwartz said. "You guys would write: 'It's a different attitude, Lions are going for the win, they're not trying to just be settling for field goals.'"
The bigger concern moving forward may be the Lions' offense after an anemic second-half showing. Detroit racked up 379 yards in the first half, scoring all 27 of its points in the second quarter. Matthew Stafford threw for 327 yards before halftime, with Calvin Johnson accounting for 179 on six receptions.
The Lions were held to just 72 yards in the second half while none of Stafford's three attempts to hook up with Johnson connected.
"We just didn't execute," said Stafford, who was 3 for 16 for 35 yards in the final two quarters. "They came out in the second half and played a little bit more two-man. For one reason or another we didn't connect."
Diverting opposing defenses' attention away from Johnson remains an issue, particularly once adjustments have been made. He's averaging 49.3 yards in the second half of games compared to 70.9 in the first half.
The potential return of Nate Burleson - who has been out since Week 3 with a broken forearm suffered in a car accident - could help open things up. Burleson was upgraded to doubtful for last Sunday's game and has practiced for the last two weeks.
That could be particularly important with Johnson likely to be shadowed by Darrelle Revis, who has anchored a stingier Tampa Bay pass defense of late. The Buccaneers have limited opposing passers to a combined 81.4 rating over their last three games, recording five interceptions after tallying six in the previous seven games.
Revis defended two passes intended for Johnson while holding him to one reception for 13 yards in a 23-20 victory for the New York Jets over Detroit on Nov. 7, 2010 - the players' only previous matchup.
The Buccaneers (2-8) will be looking for a third straight win behind a resurgent rushing attack. They've run for at least 140 yards in three straight games for the first time since 2005.
Claimed off waivers on Oct. 21 following Doug Martin's season-ending shoulder injury, Bobby Rainey was thrust into action after Mike James suffered a broken ankle in the team's Nov. 11 win over Miami. After running for 45 yards and a score on eight carries against the Dolphins, the former undrafted free agent went for 163 yards and three TDs in Sunday's 41-28 win over Atlanta.
"He's got a good feel, and when I say that it's just he's a football player," coach Greg Schiano said.
The 5-foot-8, 212-pounder could be in for a stiffer challenge against a Detroit defense that ranks fifth against the run allowing 94.6 yards per game.
Johnson has 19 catches for 306 yards and three TDs in his last three games versus Tampa Bay, including a 27-20 road win on Sept. 11, 2011. Stafford was 24 of 33 for 305 yards, three scores and an interception.
The Lions lead the series 29-25, though Tampa Bay has won four of five in Detroit.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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