|Lions clinging to playoff hopes vs. Buccaneers|
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Detroit Lions no longer have wiggle room in the NFC playoff race.
Beginning with Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, the Lions are living a must-win existence.
At 6-6 and two games out of the NFC wild-card position, the Lions know they must end a two-game losing streak that jeopardized their previously realistic postseason hopes.
The Bucs (4-8), losers in five of their last seven games, are seeking a positive finish for what has become a disappointing season.
"We're not really worried about (talk) going on outside the building," Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said. "Everybody is going to have their opinion. This time of the year gets pretty interesting.
"The thing you can do as a team is just focus in on the next ballgame. It's how you prepare, how you get ready to play, and you can't worry about anything else."
Faced with negativity following consecutive losses -- 30-23 against the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving Day, then a 44-20 drubbing at Baltimore -- Caldwell has remained undaunted.
"We're always tinkering with things, but also, the season's not over yet, all right?" Caldwell said. "I mean, you guys (reporters) are talking as if all is lost.
"That's the great thing about our game. It's going to challenge you. It's not going to be an easy road. And it's either going to polish you up or grind you down. It's our job to make certain we get polished up."
A key to that is the health of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had his right throwing hand stepped on in the fourth quarter against the Ravens.
Afterward, Stafford said he felt some shooting nerve pain, but X-rays were negative. Caldwell was non-committal about Stafford's status, allowing for the possibility of some action by Jake Rudock, who has attempted only five passes this season.
In Wednesday's open locker-room session, Stafford kept his hand wrapped in a towel. During an interview at the podium, he kept his hand hidden. When a reporter asked if Stafford could show his hand, the quarterback replied, "I would rather not."
"I wasn't sure what to think walking off the field (against the Ravens), but it was a relief there wasn't a break," said Stafford, who had limited participation in Wednesday's practice. "It feels better. I've spent a lot of time with our trainer. It's just a matter of approaching it each day, getting it better and seeing where we are at the end of the week."
Stafford rallied the Lions to within seven points of the Ravens in the fourth quarter after Baltimore assumed a 20-0 halftime advantage. Stafford completed a team-record 20 straight passes in the second half, finishing 24 of 29 for 292 yards overall.
Stafford ranks second in the NFL with 3,302 passing yards, while throwing for 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
"He (Stafford) has always been one to get back in action, but he's healing so we'll see how he does," Caldwell said. "One of the things you find out about him is he's extremely tough, mentally and physically.
"He can make all the throws. He has some riverboat gambler in him, but he's pragmatic in other situations. Either way, he gives you sense you're never out of it. He gives you a chance to win every week."
The Bucs have a similar feeling about their quarterback, third-year pro Jameis Winston, who returned to action last Sunday in a 26-20 overtime loss at Green Bay. Winston, suffering from a shoulder injury, was shut down for three weeks while Tampa Bay played with 13-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Winston passed for 270 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers. He had no interceptions, a major positive.
But Winston lost a fumble -- his 50th turnover in 41 NFL games -- that was returned for a touchdown by Green Bay's Dean Lowry. So, the giveaways continue to be an issue with Winston. Additionally, Winston suffered seven sacks.
"He was under more pressure than normal," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. "The sack-fumble was an example of Jameis -- he has got to just eat it. And he did eat it a couple times. That's where he has to get better at (knowing) when the play is not there."
The Bucs, who haven't made the playoffs since 2007, are trying to avoid a losing record and provide a strong finish to fuel optimism for 2018.
The Lions, though, are clinging to hope. Caldwell, who made the playoffs in two of his three previous seasons, is heartened by the knowledge that his 2010 Indianapolis Colts also qualified for the postseason with a strong finish after a 6-6 mark at the three-quarter pole.
Same situation? Hardly.
The Lions are limping home, failing to score a first-quarter touchdown in the past four games.
"We've got to figure it out," Lions safety Glover Quin said. "Time is running out."
Beginning with Sunday's game against the Bucs, Stafford said the Lions intend to find a solution.
"Since Week One, we approach each game and try to win it," Stafford said. "We don't get caught up in what's being said outside our building. We prepare and focus on the task at hand. That's what we do."