The Detroit Lions hold the record for having the longest postseason win drought of any NFL team, and this Sunday is their chance to end it.
Having clinched the NFC North, they are headed to the playoffs and will face the LA Rams at Ford Field at 8:15 pm – marking the first playoff game ever to be played at Ford Field. The city, state, and nation will be watching, and fans are ravenous to potentially witness the Lion’s first postseason win in over thirty years.
Detroitisit has covered this newly successful 2023/2024 team in two articles this year, and we thought it would be interesting to share a little Lions history lesson this week as we head into new history to be made on Sunday.
The American Professional Football Association (APFA), now known as the National Football League (NFL), was established in 1920 with ten teams. The Lions began play in 1929 as the Portsmouth Spartans of Portsmouth, Ohio.
By the close of the 1932 season, the team was tied for first place with the Chicago Bears and they played the league’s first playoff game ever, with the Spartans losing 9-0.
During the early 1930’s the Great Depression threatened the team’s existence, but in 1934 a group led by George Richards – owner of Detroit radio station WJR – bought the Spartans, moved them to Detroit, and renamed them the Lions. It was this radio connection that ultimately landed the team the traditional game and national audience on Thanksgiving Day that remains today.
Detroit won its first NFL championship in 1935, beating the New York Giants, but during the 1940’s the team was just plain bad. In 1942 they scored a measly five touchdowns over the course of the entire season and in 1943 the Lions and the Giants tied a game at 0 – 0. This would be the last time an NFL game ended in a tie with no score.
At the end of that decade, two future Hall of Famers, quarterback Bobby Layne and running back Doak Walker joined the Lions, the team improved and grabbed three league championships in 1952, 1953, and 1957.
The Curse of Bobby Layne
After the 1957 championship, the Lions traded Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and legend has it that in response to this trade, Layne declared that the Lions “wouldn’t win a championship again for fifty years.” This declaration – whether legend or not – held. The Lions have not won a championship since.
In fact, since 1957, the franchise has only won a single playoff game, and that was in 1991 against the Dallas Cowboys.
Devastatingly, it was a life-changing injury that spurred the Lions on that season. On the first play of the fourth quarter of the twelfth game in 1991 against the Los Angeles Rams, offensive lineman, Mike Utley was paralyzed from the chest down. Utley flashed the crowd a “thumbs up” as he was being taken off the field and that became a rallying symbol for the rest of the season. It also became the symbol for the Mike Utley Foundation, a foundation created in 1991 by Utley and his agent Bruce Allen to help seek a cure for paralysis.
The Barry Sanders Years
Barry Sanders is widely recognized as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. He played for the Lions from 1989 to 1999 and during that time the Lions made the playoffs five times, making the 1990s one of the most successful decades in the team’s history.
In 1989, Sanders won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. In 1994, he was awarded the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award (OPOY). In 1997, he rushed for 2,053 yards in the regular season and was co-awarded the NFL Most Valuable Player Award (shared with Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre), alongside his second NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Yet in 1999, due to the team’s losing performance and poor management, Sanders unexpectedly retired at the age of 31 just 1,457 yards short of breaking the NFL’s then-all-time rushing record held by Walter Payton.
Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Lions retired his No. 20 jersey that year.
The Dismal Decades
The last twenty years have been dismal for the team, the fans and the city.
The Lions spent their entire 2001, 2002, and 2003 seasons without a win on the road, becoming the first team to do so.
In 2008 they became the first team in NFL history to lose all sixteen of their games. Interestingly, 2008 marked the last year of the Curse of Bobby Layne.
In 2009 the team drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford, who set over 30 records during his time in Detroit. He is the Lions’ all-time leader in passing yards (45,109), passing touchdowns (282), attempts (6,224) and completions (3,898). He also leads the franchise in QB wins (74), fourth-quarter comebacks (31), and game-winning drives (38). He led the Lions to two playoff runs in 2014 and 2016.
In January of 2021, the Lions traded Stafford to the LA Rams for Jared Goff and that year, Stafford led the Rams to a Superbowl victory.
That same month, Dan Campbell was appointed head coach of the Detroit Lions, saying, “This team is going to take on the identity of this city, and this city’s been down and it’s found a way to get up.” Campbell has first-hand experience losing in Detroit. He played for the Lions for three years, ending his playing career after the 2008 debacle of a season.
Campbell has injected a unique and much-needed new energy into the franchise and many say he’s just what Detroit needed.
After a rough 1-6 start to the 2022 season, the Lions turned it around and won eight of their final ten games, acquiring their first winning record since 2017. Between those wins and some highly revered draft picks, the Lions were predicted to win their division in 2023. And they did, capturing the tenth-best record in the team’s history.
The 2024 Playoffs
So, here we are … highly anticipating Sunday’s playoff game against the Rams, whose quarterback happens to be Matthew Stafford, heading back to Detroit to line up against the Lions.
60,000 will embark on a sold-out Ford Field, which is being prepped for an elevated experience with pyrotechnics and LED wristbands for each fan that will synchronize for pre-game and mid-game light show. The Detroit Youth Choir will perform at halftime.
Tickets are selling for upwards of $450 each. The stadium will undoubtedly be absolutely rocking. In addition to those attending the game, 30,000+ are expected to head downtown to be part of the experience. Shield’s Pizza is even going to give away free pizzas if the Lions wins.
We are braced for an epic event and the whole city is yearning to change the course of history forward. Aching for a win. Detroit’s comeback story has the entire nation intrigued… watching…hoping.
Detroit is primed. The city is electric. And the fans are certainly more than ready. Could this be the year?
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