It may be subject to debate, but in my humble opinion, the Detroit Lions’ 34-31 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game last month was the cruelest and most devastating loss in Detroit sports history.
The Detroit Lions have not won a world championship in 66 years.
This was their first NFC Championship Game in 32 years.
They have never played in a Superbowl.
Last month the Lions won two consecutive playoff games and energized long-suffering fans across the country.
Arguably the Lions 2023 become “America’s team,” with millions rooting for the ultimate underdogs. The same phenomenon occurred when sports fans had rallied behind the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, franchises that had not won a championship in decades until this century.
And with just 30 minutes away from a Super Bowl berth after their explosive 24-7 lead at the half, the Lions BLEW IT!
The day after Detroit’s loss in the NFC title game, people walked around like someone had died in their family. Some still feel that way.
Given the NFL’s playoff format, the fact that the NFC North will be even more competitive next year with Green Bay, Minnesota, and Chicago, it may be very difficult for the Lions to get to the NFC championship game or even the Super Bowl next year. Even Dan Campbell told his team after the defeat that “we may not be here again.”
Let’s compare the NFC title game defeat it to other disappointing losses in Detroit sports history.
- The 1934 Detroit Tigers lost the World Series to the Cardinals in game 7 at Navin Field, 11-0. It would have been the team’s first world championship, but they were smoked in the final game and won the World Series the following season.
- The 1944 Tigers lost the American League pennant on the last day of the season but they won the American League pennant on the last day the next year and won the World Series. They also had won the World Series just nine years earlier.
- The 1954 Lions lost the NFL championship game to the Browns 56-10 but they had won in ’35, ’52, and ’53.
- The Red Wings lost the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals in game 7, 4-0 to Toronto but they had last won the Cup nine years earlier in a decade that saw them win it four times.
- The 1967 Detroit Tigers lost the American League pennant on the last day of the season and had not won a World Series in 22 years. (Remember the Lions have not won a championship in 66 years.) The Tigers won the world championship the next season.
- The 1972 Detroit Tigers lost the American League championship series 3 games to 2 to the Oakland A’s after tying the series in dramatic fashion with a come from behind 10th inning victory in game 4. But just four years earlier the Tigers won a world championship.
- The 1987 Detroit Tigers ended the season with the best record in baseball and beat out Toronto in a thrilling 1-0 victory to win the division, only to lose out to Minnesota in the league championship series 4 games to 1. But they had won the World Series just three years earlier.
- The 1996 Red Wings lost the Conference Finals to Colorado 4 games to 2, and it had been 41 years since the Wings had won the Stanley Cup.
- The 1987 Detroit Pistons lost to the Boston Celtics in game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when Larry Bird stole the ball from Isiah Thomas in the closing seconds. But even if the Pistons had won they still would have had to have won in Detroit in game 6 to win it all. Instead, the Pistons lost the series 4 games to 3 as Boston went on to the NBA Finals. (That was tough, but the Pistons had not moved to Detroit until 30 years earlier. Again, that’s not 66 years!)
- The 1988 Detroit Pistons lot the NBA Finals to Los Angeles in seven games when a phantom call was made on Bill Laimbeer in the closing seconds. This is fairly close to the Lions loss in San Francisco in terms of a devastating defeat, but the Pistons won the championship the following two years. Plus, I would argue that there are a lot more Lion fans than there are Piston fans, given the NFL’s popularity.
- The 1991 Detroit Lions lost the NFC championship game to Washington 41-10, in a game where they never had a chance. (The 2023 Lions had a 17-point lead at halftime and were 30 minutes from the Super Bowl.)
- The 1995 Red Wings were swept by New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Finals.
- The 2005 Detroit Pistons lost the NBA championship 4 games to 3 to San Antonio. (Yeah I know it was crushing when Rasheed Wallace failed to cover Robert Horry in Game 5 to lose that one.) But the Pistons had won the NBA Finals the previous season.
- The 2006 Detroit Tigers lost to the Cardinals 4 gamed to 1 in the World Series, but had won it 22 years earlier.
- The 2009 Detroit Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup Finals to Pittsburgh 4 games to 3, but they had won three Stanley Cups since 1998.
- The 2012 Detroit Tigers were swept in the World Series by San Francisco.
- The 2013 Detroit Tigers lost the American League championship series to Boston 4 games to 2. It looked like Detroit would win the first two games and were on their way to the World Series, but they blew a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the 8th inning when David Ortiz hit a grand slam to tie the game. That crushing loss changed the momentum of the series.
At least in my 68 years, nothing compares to the cruelty of the Lions’ loss to San Francisco after having come so close to going to the Super Bowl for the first time, and having a chance to win a world championship after 66 years.