It was a showdown that featured the league's 28th-ranked offense on one side, and the 28th-ranked defense on the other. So something had to give.
Figures it'd be the Bucs.
Thanks to four turnovers, three in the second half, Tampa Bay wasted its finest offensive showing of the season Sunday, giving the desperate Detroit Lions life in a 27-24 loss before 60,644 at the Silverdome.
Coming off its worst offensive performance of the season two weeks ago in Houston, Tampa Bay has nothing tangible to show for its improved efforts. And even though revenge wasn't a pregame topic, the Bucs managed to get even, falling to 5-5 with their third straight defeat.
Tampa Bay was in enemy territory all day long, reaching Detroit's half of the field on nine of its 11 meaningful drives. But the end results feel like familiar territory: it's November and another Bucs season is slipping away fast.
"This will really test your team," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche, whose squad hasn't won in a month of Sundays, since improving to 5-2 with its Oct. 15 win over Minnesota. "Right now we'll find out the fiber of our football team. Because when you (expect to win and) get to that point where you don't get the victory, the fall's a lot steeper and a lot further down."
In the standings, at least, the Bucs didn't move. Thanks to Green Bay's victory over Chicago, Tampa Bay remains in second place in the NFC Central, tied with Minnesota (5-5) and a game behind the Packers and Bears (both 6-4).
The minidrama within the Bucs' defeat surrounded the team's quarterback situation. Again. For the fourth time in 10 games this season, Trent Dilfer did not finish what he started. With the score tied at 17, he was yanked in favor of backup Casey Weldon after failing to recognize the blitz and fumbling on a sack by linebacker Antonio London with 2:34 remaining in the third quarter.
Dilfer's bobble was recovered in midair and returned to the Bucs' 34 by linebacker Mike Johnson, setting up the Lions' go-ahead 18-yard field goal by Jason Hanson.
Dilfer finished 8-of-13 for 142 yards, with two sacks, one interception and one fumble. Weldon, who played for part of one third-quarter possession and three more in the fourth, wasn't any more effective: 9-of-16 for 108 yards, two sacks, one interception and one fumble lost.
Weldon's fumble was costly, too. It came with the score tied at 17 and Tampa Bay driving at the Lions' 28. Sensing a blitz, Weldon hurried a handoff intended for running back Errict Rhett and wound up trying to give it to H-back Dave Moore. The ball popped loose and was recovered by linebacker Chris Spielman.
"That crazy play with the handoff, I can't even believe that happened," Weldon said. "Thenose guard shot through and I thought I was about to be tackled. I probably wasn't. I didn't get the job done."
Dilfer took the blame for his fumble, too, calling it "a crucial mistake." Despite believing he played well Sunday, he said he couldn't argue with Wyche's decision and anticipates Weldon receiving some consideration for next week's start against Jacksonville at Tampa Stadium.
"To get yanked in the third quarter, with the score tied, I think he has just as much confidence in Casey as he probably has in me at this point," said Dilfer, who also left the game briefly in the third quarter after being hit in the throat by defensive tackle Henry Thomas. "I'm sure there's going to be some thought about starting Casey. If there is, I'll prepare as if I was the starter."
Wyche did not discuss his quarterback options, other than saying he never makes snap post-game judgments on personnel decisions.
No matter who directs the offense next week, the good news was that the Bucs finally had an offense to direct against the Lions (4-6). Tampa Bay scored three offensive touchdowns for the first time since opening day, although the final score was set up by a blocked punt by Curtis Buckley.
All three Bucs touchdowns came on the ground, as Rhett ran 25 times for a season-high 144 yards (the eighth-best day in team history), backup Jerry Ellison had four rushes for a season-high 39 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns (36 and 1 yards), and Dilfer chipped in with a 7-yard first-quarter score, his second rushing touchdown in two games.
Tampa Bay's offense clicked for season highs in points (24), total yards (411), rushing yards (190), first downs (26), and longest run (36 by Ellison). The Bucs' 250 yards passing were just 5 yards fewer than their season-best showing at Cleveland.
But most of that damage came in the first half, when the Bucs scored a season-high 17 points and for the first time scored two offensive touchdowns in the opening two quarters.
The heroes for Detroit were free safety Willie Clay (two interceptions) and receivers Brett Perriman (10 catches for 125 yards) and Herman Moore (9, 104). The receiving duo combined for all but two of quarterback Scott Mitchell's 21 completions in 34 attempts.
Tampa Bay's defense allowed three offensive touchdowns for just the second time all season, and gave up its initial first-quarter touchdown of the year on Sloan's 17-yarder.
But will the sliding Bucs give up a season that just four weeks ago looked like it would reach new heights?
"I remember when we were 5-2," Dilfer said. "I said, "You know every year there seems like there's a team that starts off hot and then just goes in the dumps.' We've got to do everything we can so it's not us.
"But I really believe in the character of this football team. I don't think we're going to be that team that starts that slide that never ends."