Barring a complete collapse, the Detroit Lions appear to be a good bet for the postseason, either as NFC Northern champs or as a wild card. The signs are good: injured players are healing, the defense is playing consistently well, new coach Jim Caldwell has instilled some badly needed discipline into the squad. In beating Tampa Bay, the Lions won a game in December for the first time since 2011—not coincidentally, the last season in which they were in the playoffs. That year the Lions played New Orleans in a wild card game and got their jockstraps handed to them by the Saints. Unfortunately, that has usually been the case on those infrequent occasions when the Lions have made the postseason during the Super Bowl era.
I’m old enough to remember that, when it came to determining a champion, the National Football League used to do it quickly and simply. From 1933 through 1966, the winners of the Eastern and Western divisions met in the title game—and that was it. One game for all the marbles. The rival American Football League, which debuted in 1960, also followed the same format.
In these years before drawn-out postseasons became the norm, the Detroit Lions won five division titles (in 1935, 1952-54, and 1957) and the subsequent championship game four times (over the New York Giants in ’35 and the Cleveland Browns in ’52, ’53, and ’57). Occasionally, a divisional tiebreaker was needed to determine who would advance to the championship game. The Lions played in two such special playoffs, in 1952 against the Rams and in 1957 against the 49ers. They won each time.
Thus, in the pre-Super Bowl era, the Lions had an enviable 6-1 postseason record. In fact, during this time Detroit was regarded as one of the best “money” teams around.
The first Super Bowl between the NFL and the AFL was played after the ’66 season. This marked the start of a new, extended postseason that, following the leagues’ merger in 1970, grew into a tournament that now includes four rounds of playoffs and welcomes wild card teams into the mix.
The Lions’ postseason record during the modern Super Bowl era is 1-10—and half of those losses were blowouts. It’s embarrassing that one of the NFL’s oldest and most storied franchises has won just a single playoff game in the last 57 seasons. (By comparison, Dallas has won 33 and Oakland 25.)
More embarrassing is the fact that the Lions, who joined the league in 1934, are the only non-expansion team never to appear in a Super Bowl. They join Houston, Jacksonville, and Cleveland (which was reincarnated in 1999 after the original Browns became the Baltimore Ravens) as the only clubs never to make it to The Game We Watch In-Between The Commercials.
What follows is the Lions’ postseason history in the Super Bowl era. Warning: It ain’t pretty.
1970 Division Playoff @ Dallas: Dallas 5, Detroit 0
One lousy touchdown—that’s all that was required from Greg Landry, Mel Farr, and the Lions’ potent offense. Instead, the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” pitched a shutout and Dallas won by the baseball-like score of 5-0 on a field goal and a fourth-quarter safety. The Lions could only muster 7 first downs and 156 total yards while Duane Thomas and Walt Garrison ground out 207 yards rushing for the ‘Boys.
1982 Wild Card @ Washington: Washington 31, Detroit 7
The powerful Redskins, who would lose only once in this strike-shortened season, obliterated the Lions, who had finished the regular season with a 4-5 mark. Joe Theismann hit Alvin Garrett with three scoring strikes as the ‘Skins built up a 31-0 lead by the third quarter. They went on to beat Miami in Super Bowl XVII.
1983 Division Playoff @ San Francisco: San Francisco 24, Detroit 23
A pair of fourth-quarter TD runs by Billy Sims, who rushed for 114 yards, allowed Detroit to overcome a 17-9 deficit, but Joe Montana found Freddie Solomon for a clutch 14-yard scoring pass and Ray Wersching kicked the decisive extra point. Lions kicker Eddie Murray, who had earlier made a 54-yard field goal, narrowly missed a 43-yard attempt with 11 seconds left. Gary Danielson had five of his passes picked off by the 49ers.
1991 Division Playoff vs. Dallas: Detroit 38, Dallas 6
Erik Kramer’s three TD passes (two to Willie Green) and a scintillating 47-yard scoring run by Barry Sanders sparked what remains the Lions’ only playoff victory since Eisenhower was in the White House. The victory came over the young, fresh-faced, not-quite-ready-for-the-Super-Bowl Cowboys of Troy Aikmen and Emmitt Smith.
1991 Conference Championship @ Washington: Washington 41, Detroit 10
Win this game, and the Lions were in the Super Bowl against Buffalo. Instead, the powerful Redskins dominated all afternoon, limiting Barry Sanders to 44 yards rushing and forcing three Detroit turnovers. The ‘Skins went on to beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.
1993 Wild Card vs. Green Bay: Green Bay 28, Detroit 24
Barry Sanders rushed for 167 yards, Brett Perriman nabbed 10 passes including a highlight-reel one-handed TD stab, and the Lions—who had beaten the Packers at the Silverdome just a week earlier—seemed to have this game won. But in the final minute, Sterling Sharpe ran through blown coverage to haul in a 40-yard scoring strike from Brett Favre for the winning score. This one really hurt.
1994 Wild Card @ Green Bay: Green Bay 16, Detroit 12
Barry Sanders, who had averaged 118 yards per game while winning his second of an eventual four rushing crowns, was held to minus 1 yard on 13 carries during this New Year’s Eve game at Lambeau Field. The narrow margin of Detroit’s defeat was deceptive. The Lions never got untracked and never led, managing a paltry 9 first downs.
1995 Wild Card @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia 58, Detroit 37
Ex-Lion Rodney Peete tossed three TD passes as the Eagles exploded for 31 second-quarter points. The lead grew to 51-7 before Don Majkowski, in relief of Scott Mitchell, took the Lions on a furious scoring spree before the curtain fell on another disappointing playoff gig.
1997 Wild Card @ Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay 20, Detroit 10
Tampa Bay built up a 20-0 lead in the third quarter before a Jason Hansen field goal and a Tommy Vardell touchdown plunge made the score more respectable. Neither Scott Mitchell nor replacement Frank Reich could make a difference at quarterback for the Lions this afternoon.
1999 Wild Card @ Washington: Washington 27, Detroit 13
A couple of TD runs in the first nine minutes of the game by Stephen Davis gave Washington a 14-0 lead; it grew to 27-0 by the half. Lions’ QB Gus Frerotte had a miserable day, completing just 21 of 46 passes with two picks against his former team.
2011 Wild Card @ New Orleans: New Orleans 45, Detroit 28
After the Lions took a 14-7 lead, Drew Brees unlimbered his arm. By game’s end the Saints QB had scorched the Lions for 433 yards and three TD passes. The Saints racked up 626 total yards of offense to dispatch Matthew Stafford and Co.