Times are tough in Detroit sports right now.
The Tigers are down, the Red Wings have fallen apart, and the Pistons are being rebuilt; and, of course, the Lions are still the Lions after losing to the previously winless Rams.
So it seems the only way we’re going to escape this vortex of mediocrity is to take a leisurely stroll down memory lane and revisit some of the biggest wins in Detroit Lions history.
Since we’re talking about Lions wins, though…maybe it’ll be more of a scavenger hunt along memory lane.
But still, pay attention. This might be the only time you see 10 Lions wins in a row.
A bittersweet victory.
In the wake of the Lions’ disastrous 2008 campaign, few remember that former GM Matt Millen’s reign began nearly the same way it ended.
In 2001, the inaugural year for Matt Millen and head coach Marty Mornhinweg, and the final year for the Pontiac Silverdome and the NFC Central, the Lions started off the season 0-12, losing nine games in a row by one possession.
Quarterback Charlie Batch was injured, and had fallen out of favor in Detroit after the poor start to the season, so the team turned to rookie Mike McMahon.
McMahon responded by completing 15-for-28 for 241 yards with no interceptions, and 74 yards on the ground with a touchdown on 12 carries.
Millen and Mornhinweg got their first wins, the Lions avoided a winless season (for another seven years), and McMahon got the Drew Stanton treatment when his play was rewarded by the Lions taking Joey Harrington third overall in the next draft.
When is the first game of the season one of the most important in your team’s history?
When it comes a mere month after the surprise retirement of the greatest Lion to ever play the game, and one of the greatest in NFL history.
The Lions’ 1999 season opener was their first game after Barry Sanders announced his retirement instead of showing up for training camp.
With the most explosive player in the game suddenly gone, most expected the 1999 Lions to flounder through the season, unable to fill Sanders’ jet-fueled shoes.
The Lions and Sanders’ longtime backup Ron “Rolling on the” Rivers (old Chris Berman gag there) won their first post-Barry NFL game against Jon Kitna and the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks.
The win set the table for a 6-2 start, but the Lions finished the season 8-8 and lost to the Washington Redskins in the first round of the playoffs. The Lions haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
Depending on how attached you were to the Pontiac Silverdome, this win may or may not mean much to you.
To me, the Silverdome means Barry Sanders, Wayne Fontes, eight postseason appearances, and the Lions’ only playoff win in the Super Bowl era.
And in week two of the 1975 NFL season, the Lions opened the Silverdome with a win.
Sure, it wasn’t a standout game.
The Lions were good but not dominant, paving the way for an average 7-7 season.
But if you’re a Lions fan, you have some fond memories in the Pontiac Silverdome, and the Lions opened it up right.
The Lions shut out the Packers?
Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
The Lions not only shut out the Green Bay Packers, but they shut out the Bart Starr-led Packers and earned a playoff berth by doing so.
Greg Landry is the guy you might recognize as the one they talk about in sentences like, “The Lions haven’t had a Pro Bowl quarterback since…”
Well, in addition to being the Lions’ most recent Pro Bowl signal-caller, Landry was also the one to lead the Lions to their first playoff appearance in the Super Bowl era.
Landry played poorly against the Packers, though, so the win had to come from somewhere else. Now stay with me here, because you’re not used to hearing this about the Lions.
The Lions won this game on defense and special teams.
That’s right. Lem Barney returned Green Bay’s only kickoff of the game 74 yards, had a 20-yard average on five punt returns, and returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown.
Lions legend Dick LeBeau also chipped in with two picks, and the Lions created an island of a playoff appearance: their first since 1957, and their last until 1982.
Lions win! Lions win!
The Detroit Lions are your 1935 NFL Champions!
It doesn’t matter if the Lions’ leading passer, Dutch Clark, was 11-for-26—for the season—with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
It doesn’t matter if the Lions only kicked five field goals all season.
It certainly doesn’t matter that the Lions finished the season with a record of 7-3-2.
What matters is that the Detroit Lions, two years removed from their beginnings as the Portsmouth Spartans, won the NFL’s Western Division with quality wins over the Chicago Cardinals, the Boston Redskins, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And on Dec. 15, 1935, the Detroit Lions won their first-ever NFL Championship with a 26-7 win over the New York Giants, successfully setting much too high of expectations for the franchise’s future.
The final regular-season game of the 1991 season, won on Eddie Murray’s final regular-season kick as a Detroit Lion, was a special one for a number of reasons.
The Lions’ victory over the Bills was their 12th of the season, a franchise record. The win also solidified the Lions’ first divisional title (and playoff appearance) since 1983.
But more importantly, it was the Lions’ sixth consecutive win for Mike Utley.
Six weeks earlier against the LA Rams, the Lions suffered one of the darkest moments in team history when third-year right guard Mike Utley suffered a career-ending injury which left him paralyzed from the chest down.
The Lions rallied around Utley, and won out the rest of their regular season schedule, including a season-ending win on the road over Jim Kelly and the Super Bowl-bound Bills.
You remember this game, and you know why it’s here.
A win doesn’t have to be in the playoffs, or even December, to be worthwhile. This one meant as much to the Lions as any postseason game, at least in terms of raw emotion.
Yes, it was blacked out, it was in front of the smallest crowd at a Lions game in 20 years, it was against a team that may even be more of a mess than the Lions themselves, it was an ugly win, and the Lions have lost four straight since.
But without it, the Lions would be trying to avoid their 25th-straight loss, almost halfway to 0-16 again.
Also significant is that the win came against the Redskins, a team that has had the Lions’ number for years.
Among teams which the Lions have played at least 10 times, the Redskins have the highest winning percentage in the NFL against the Lions (.711).
In addition, the Redskins eliminated the Lions from the playoffs in their most recent trip in 1999, as well as their deepest trip in 1991. The Redskins’ victory over the Lions in 1991 kept them out of what would have been their first-ever Super Bowl.
A mere 18 years later, the outcome of this game has no playoff implications for either team.
However, the fact that the Lions were able to snap their horrific losing streak against a team that has been historically dominant adds to the magnitude of the win.
This is that game we’re always talking about.
You know, when we say, “the Lions have only won one playoff game since 1957/William Clay Ford bought the team/the merger/the Super Bowl era began?”
This is that game. And it wasn’t just a win, it was domination over a young Dallas Cowboys team.
This same team, led by standouts Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, would go on to win the Super Bowl three out of the next four years.
This year, however, the game belonged to the Detroit Lions, a young Barry Sanders, a resurgent Erik Kramer, and rookie receiver phenoms Willie Green and Herman Moore, who ran wild on the Cowboys for four touchdowns.
The defense held the powerful Cowboys' offense to a pair of first-half field goals, while forcing four turnovers, one an interception returned for a touchdown.
Everything came together at once for the Lions, and they earned their way into the only NFC Championship game in Lions history.
If you ever need reassurance that the Detroit Lions were once a great football team, just look back at the 1950s.
You can look at the 1990s and see that they were once good, but the 50s were when the Lions were a truly great football team.
On Dec. 27, 1953, the Detroit Lions won their second consecutive NFL championship.
That’s right. Consecutive.
Despite beating the Browns in the NFL Championship game a year ago, the Lions entered the game as the underdog, and trailed late in the game, 16-10.
With just over four minutes remaining, Lions quarterback legend Bobby Layne took over and led the Lions 80 yards down the field, ending the drive with a 33-yard strike to Jim Doran that put the Lions up for good.
It was the Lions’ third NFL title and their second in a row, the only time the Lions have won back-to-back titles.
The struggle between the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s was nothing short of epic.
After the Lions beat the Browns for the NFL Championship in 1952 and 1953, the Browns came back and dismantled the Lions 59-10 to win it all in 1954, then followed it up with another title over the L.A. Rams in 1955.
After a Giants-Bears championship in 1956, the two old foes faced off for a fourth time in 1957.
Paul Brown’s Cleveland team came in favored once again, with running back Jim Brown all set to go against rookie head coach George Wilson’s Lions.
The Lions, who were without injured star quarterback Bobby Layne, trotted out journeyman Tobin Rote.
Rote subsequently torched the Cleveland defense for four touchdowns, including a 78-yard strike to Jim Doran, the Lions’ hero of four years earlier.
From the second quarter on, the Browns never came closer than 17-7, as the Lions pulled away and made a mockery of the Browns.
It was the Lions’ third title in six years, their revenge against the Browns, and the finest moment in Lions history.
After that season, Layne was shipped off to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Henry Ford’s grandson bought the team a few years later.
And 50 years later, as Lions fans grow weary of waiting for their “one for the thumb,” take some solace in past triumphs, and remember the good times.
Even if they were in 1935.