DETROIT (AP) — For the second straight game, Matthew Stafford smoothly guided the Detroit Lions down the field, with Calvin Johnson again on the other end of some of the game’s biggest passes.
This may be a soft stretch of the schedule, but so far Detroit is handling it as a playoff team should.
Stafford threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns — including one off a fluky deflection late in the game — and the Lions kept the pressure on in the NFC North race with a 34-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Detroit has won two in a row by the same score. The Lions beat Chicago on Thanksgiving, and they end this three-game stretch of home games next weekend against Minnesota.
“I feel good. I feel confident in what we’re doing,” Stafford said. “The guys are catching the ball, which is always great.”
The Lions (9-4) trail first-place Green Bay by a half-game, with the Packers hosting Atlanta on Monday night.
Tampa Bay (2-11) was finally eliminated from playoff contention — the NFC South’s mediocrity could only keep the Bucs in it for so long. They turned the ball over three times in the second quarter against Detroit and never led.
Johnson had eight catches for 158 yards and a touchdown for Detroit, which snapped a nine-game losing streak in December. The Lions are trying to avoid a repeat of last season’s late collapse that cost them a playoff spot.
“We’ve definitely found a rhythm. I can’t call our future. We’re just going to keep on plugging away,” said Johnson, who missed a month earlier this season with an ankle injury. “I’m feeling pretty good — the best I’ve felt in a little while.”
Mike Evans caught two touchdown passes for the Bucs, but quarterback Josh McCown was under pressure all day, and Tampa Bay managed only 26 yards rushing against Detroit’s stout defensive front.
“We were beaten by a better football team today,” Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said. “We didn’t really get anything going. Offensively, we had three turnovers, and they only had one. They dominated us on third downs. They were able to run the ball, and we weren’t able to.”
Stafford went 26 of 34 without an interception, and he and Johnson seem to be clicking again at the right time. In Detroit’s previous game against Chicago, Stafford went 34 of 45 for 390 yards, including two touchdown passes to Johnson.
“Earlier on in the season, we went through so much turnover in spots. Game to game, we didn’t have certain guys in certain places,” Stafford said. “It took us a second to figure out what we were going to be really good at, and what we could do really well when those guys came back.”
The Detroit quarterback was a bit fortunate on his fourth-quarter scoring pass to Joique Bell.
Stafford had a pass bounce off someone at the line of scrimmage — Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy was in the area — and it bounced back toward Bell, who alertly grabbed it out of midair and ran into the end zone for the game’s final score.
Detroit opened the scoring on Stafford’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Johnson, and Patrick Murray answered with a 54-yard field goal for the Bucs.
The Bucs’ first turnover came when McCown’s pass deflected off Evans and was picked off by a sliding Glover Quin, who reached out with his left hand to secure the ball at the Tampa Bay 34. Bell’s 1-yard scoring run made it 14-3.
A fumble on a snap gave the Lions the ball at the Tampa Bay 32 moments later, and Detroit managed a field goal off that turnover.
Late in the half, the Bucs caught a break after McCown’s pass was intercepted in the end zone by James Ihedigbo. The Detroit safety tried to run the ball out, but he ended up fumbling it back to Tampa Bay.
The Bucs took over at the Detroit 10 and scored a touchdown with 5 seconds left on McCown’s 5-yard pass to Evans.
Stafford threw a 53-yard pass to Johnson to set up a third-quarter field goal, and his 10-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria made it 27-10.
Evans caught a 26-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth, using one arm to secure the ball in the back of the end zone.
Bell broke free for a 57-yard run in the final minutes. That helped set up his 5-yard touchdown catch off the bizarre deflection.
NOTES: Tampa Bay called a timeout on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, before a single second had ticked off the clock. … McCoy left in the first quarter with a knee injury but quickly returned. Bucs LB Lavonte David left in the third with a possible concussion after Johnson’s leg collided with his head. … Fauria hurt his left ankle early in the game but came back.