NFC North Reporter
No matter what happens in Sunday’s divisional round showdown in Detroit, the NFC Championship Game will be started by a quarterback who was once given up on.
Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff was the afterthought in a trade that sent then-Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. The former Rams first-round pick was offered as a consolation prize and left for dead in Detroit. With a new caffeine-guzzling coach in Dan Campbell talking about biting kneecaps upon his hiring, the Lions went 3-13 in Goff’s first season.
Meanwhile, Stafford won a Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield, like Goff, was drafted first overall. Within the first three seasons, Mayfield led the Cleveland Browns to their first postseason appearance since 2002. He won a game, too. Yet, a year later, Mayfield was cast aside for Deshaun Watson. The team elected to give Watson a fully guaranteed $240 million contract despite Watson missing the previous season entirely and incurring a 12-game suspension to start the 2022 season stemming from 26 sexual assault charges. They let Mayfield go.
Mayfield landed in Carolina first, didn’t stick, and then finally (ironically) in Los Angeles to fill in for an injured Stafford. The Rams won just one game with Baker as the starter, but there was a flash in a 51-14 Week 15 win over the Denver Broncos. Mayfield still had something.
Yet the Rams let Mayfield go and he hit free agency where he was picked up by the Bucs, to walk in the shadow of the retired Tom Brady for a measly $4 million deal.
This is where our story picks up, though.
Less than a year later, Mayfield is still standing in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Stafford is not.
What’s more, Stafford was knocked out by Goff and his band of Lions brothers in one of the most storyline-rich games of the season. Goff delivered something to Detroit this past Sunday that Stafford could not: a home playoff game. It was the first one in over 30 years and the only one so far to ever be played in Ford Field. Goff also won that playoff game, giving the Lions their first postseason victory since 1991.
Fittingly, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith was the halftime performance. The 90s are so back.
Should you trust Baker Mayfield’s Bucs against the Lions?
Mayfield and Goff will now square off this Sunday to determine who continues his mission of vindication in a battle of the castoffs, the outsiders, the misfit toys.
These two teams also represent another 90s callback: the now-defunct black-and-blue NFC Central division. The Bucs and Lions were rivals once upon a time. Sunday is a new chapter in that tale.
Goff has so perfectly embodied the city of Detroit since he arrived. He gruelingly, painstakingly, put his head down and worked in his new home — never getting too high or too low. Not that it was easy, either. Goff became emotional after the Lions clinched the division in Week 16.
“I get emotional thinking about all the guys that went through 3-13, went through 1-6 early last year and now can stand here NFC North champs,” Goff told NFL Network after that game.
Last year, there were signs of life, signs that Campbell and his culture were taking hold of the wheel in the Motor City. Detroit started the season 1-6 but by Week 18 were rolling. They finished the campaign winning 8 of 10 games down the stretch, missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker and then playing spoiler to their division rival Green Bay Packers, knocking them out of the playoffs in Week 18 despite having nothing left to play for.
Goff, and the Lions, were suddenly within the scope of the NFL, just waiting to be locked in on.
That target came in the first week of the 2023 season when the Lions shocked the Kansas City Chiefs in their primetime banner-raising season-opener, beating the defending champions, 21-20.
How significant was the Lions’ win for Jared Goff, Dan Campbell?
All the while, Goff remained steadfast. A calm in the storm of expectations now surrounding Detroit. Goff and Campbell found something to believe in within each other and in the process, gave the city reason to believe in a team they were so desperate to trust. This was the team they had been waiting for, starving for. These hunter Lions had become the hunted, and this season so far has yielded a bounty.
Goff set a new career high in completion rate during the regular season at 67.3 percent. He threw for 4,575 yards, 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. That was good for the second-most touchdowns in his career and the third-most yards. Goff wasn’t super flashy. His stats weren’t gaudy. But he was dependable. And successful.
Kind of like Detroit.
Cast away and given up on, Goff found his fit.
Much of the same can be said for Mayfield. He wasn’t just given up on once, but three times. Yet here he is in Tampa, with the Bucs on his back, in a city that he so perfectly embodies.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for Mayfield this season, either. Tampa Bay was still reeling from Brady’s retirement, literally and figuratively, with $80 million in dead cap on the books. The Bucs are the eighth-youngest team in the league and have had to make do with multiple undrafted free agents on their roster. UDFA Christian Izien is firmly entrenched in the cornerback rotation. Players like Trey Palmer and David Moore round out the Bucs’ receiver room. Tampa Bay’s left tackle is still on his rookie deal, and oh by the way, they moved Tristan Wirfs from right to left this offseason so as to avoid having to pay a left tackle. As if it’s that simple. The Bucs also took a chance on an offensive coordinator who had never called plays before in Dave Canales.
Yet something incredible happened.
It all worked.
Mayfield is now at the helm of a well-rounded offense, in a system that lets Mayfield be so quintessentially him. There’s a ton of quick game, gun-slinging, improv-inducing elements that bring out the best in Mayfield. Tampa has a way of bringing the fun back to football and boy, does Mayfield look like he’s having fun.
Mayfield also has the benefit of a defense that could be one of the most fun tape watches in the league. I dare anyone to watch defensive tackle Vita Vea drop into coverage and not laugh while also marveling at the audacity of it all.
The defense is swaggy. Mayfield is, too. And it all works in a way it couldn’t anywhere else but Tampa Bay.
Cast away and given up on, Mayfield found his fit.
These two titans of dissent will once again defy previous expectations as they clash at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday… with their doubters watching from their couches.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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