The Detroit Lions are heading to their first NFC Championship game since 1991, thanks to a 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. One of the key plays in the game was an interception by Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who had some trash talk with Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield before the game.
Gardner-Johnson, who was traded from the New Orleans Saints to the Lions in October, is known for his outspoken personality and his ability to get under the skin of his opponents. He has previously taunted Tom Brady, who left the Buccaneers after last season, and intercepted him twice in their five career meetings.
Last week, Gardner-Johnson took a shot at Mayfield, who replaced Brady as the Buccaneers’ starter this season. He praised the Buccaneers’ wide receivers, but implied that they would be better with a different quarterback.
“This group (of Rams WRs) probably is one of the better groups we done faced all year, besides that Tampa group,” Gardner-Johnson said, via the Detroit Free Press. “If you give that Tampa group a good quarterback, that’s a great group. [Mike] Evans, [Chris] Godwin, [Russell] Gage, that’s a great group. I played against them for real.”
Mayfield responded with a witty comeback
Mayfield, who led the Buccaneers to a 12-5 record and the NFC South title, did not take Gardner-Johnson’s comments lightly. He fired back with a sarcastic remark, pointing out that Gardner-Johnson had not done his homework properly.
“I don’t think he’s really watched film, because he mentioned Russell Gage,” Mayfield said, via Sports Illustrated. “We love Russell, but Russell didn’t play a snap all year for us. He must be going off preseason stuff that the media was talking about… (Gardner-Johnson) didn’t play in our first game, so I’m excited to see him. I think he’s a really good player. He has been for a while. He’s been an impactful guy on every team he’s been on. He’s a good player, but, yeah, he’s got to do a little more film study.”
Gardner-Johnson missed the two teams’ Week 6 matchup, a game the Lions won 20-6, marking the fewest points the Buccaneers have scored in a game this season. It was the only game in which Mayfield had more interceptions (one) than passing touchdowns (none).
Gardner-Johnson got the best of Mayfield early in the game
The trash talk between Gardner-Johnson and Mayfield set the stage for an intriguing matchup in the NFC divisional round game in Detroit. Gardner-Johnson wasted no time in making his presence felt, as he intercepted Mayfield on the Buccaneers’ first possession of the game.
The Lions safety capitalized on a pass deflecting off of Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans’ hands and into the air by corralling the football for an interception. He then returned it for 12 yards, before being pushed out of bounds along the Buccaneers sideline. As he jogged away, he flipped the intercepted football back to Mayfield, who looked stunned by the gesture.
Tipped and picked by CJ Gardner-Johnson! : #TBvsDET on NBC : Stream on #NFLPlus 6 pic.twitter.com/YywC0LjHRm — NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2024
The interception set up the Lions’ first touchdown of the game, a 14-yard pass from Jared Goff to T.J. Hockenson, giving them a 7-0 lead. The Lions never trailed in the game, as they built a 24-10 halftime lead and held off a late rally by the Buccaneers.
Gardner-Johnson continued to make plays throughout the game
Gardner-Johnson’s interception was not his only contribution to the Lions’ win. He finished the game with six tackles, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. He also helped limit the Buccaneers’ passing attack, which ranked second in the NFL in yards per game and fourth in touchdowns.
Mayfield completed 23 of 37 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He was sacked four times and had a passer rating of 77.9. His second interception came in the fourth quarter, when he tried to throw a deep pass to Godwin, but was picked off by Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye.
Evans and Godwin combined for 10 catches for 156 yards and a touchdown, but they also had some costly drops and penalties. Gage, who Gardner-Johnson mistakenly mentioned, did not play for the Buccaneers, as he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons in September.
Gardner-Johnson and the Lions will face the Rams in the NFC Championship game
The Lions improved to 11-7 with their win over the Buccaneers, and advanced to the NFC Championship game for the first time in 30 years. They will face the Los Angeles Rams, who defeated the Green Bay Packers 27-24 on Saturday.
The Rams are led by former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was traded to Los Angeles in exchange for Goff and draft picks in March. Stafford threw for 366 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, and has had a career-best season with the Rams.
Gardner-Johnson and the Lions will try to stop Stafford and the Rams’ potent offense, which features Cooper Kupp, the NFL’s leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and Puka Nacua, a rookie sensation who has emerged as a big-play threat.
The NFC Championship game will be played on Sunday, January 28, at 3:05 p.m. ET at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The winner will advance to Super Bowl LVI, which will also be held at the same venue on February 11.