Doldrums of Detroit: The 10 worst losses in Lions history
When NFL.com released its "Pain Rankings" this off-season, in an effort to measure which franchise had suffered the most in the league's existence, the Lions checked in at No. 4. They have an argument for a bump up now.
Detroit was inches away from stealing a win in Seattle on Monday night. What happened next was almost incomprehensible: Kam Chancellor forced a Calvin Johnson fumble just as Megatron was about to cross the goal line, and linebacker K.J. Wright then nudged the loose ball out of bounds—an action that should have resulted in a penalty and a first down for Detroit at the six-inch line.
The refs made no such call. Detroit lost. Again.
Add it the ever-growing list of painful outcomes for the Lions, who continue to live a cursed life in the Super Bowl era. Where does Monday's letdown rank on their all-time list of disappointments?
Here are the 10 worst losses in Lions history:
Honorable mention, non-game: Barry Sanders retires.
On July 27, 1999, mere days before the Lions were to report for training camp, Sanders called it quits. By all accounts one of the top handful of players ever at his position, Sanders was just two years removed from a 2,000-yard season when he abruptly announced his retirement. Detroit actually made the playoffs in '99, but then sat out the postseason 11 consecutive times.
Honorable mention, record-setting moment: Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal.
The 1970 Lions held a 17-16 lead on New Orleans when the Saints trotted out Dempsey, with two seconds left, to attempt a 63-yard field goal. And this was long before the days of the Superdome—Dempsey's kick came on chewed-up grass, outdoors, at Tulane Stadium. He hit it for a 19-17 win, one of two victories the Saints captured that season.
Another contender for worst Lions loss occurred in December of the same year: A 5-0 NFC divisional round defeat at Dallas's hands.
10. Vikings 12, Lions 10 (Oct. 12, 2008): Detroit's infamous 0-16 campaign came to a close at Lambeau Field, but this was about as close as the Lions came to a win in 2008. And, as will become a theme during this countdown, the refs played a role.
The Lions held a slim 10-9 in the closing minutes and had the Vikings pinned in their own territory, facing 2nd-and-20, when Leigh Bodden was flagged for a questionable pass interference call. Minnesota kicked the game-winning field goal moments later.
Calvin Johnson was in the midst of some controversy here, too. He was ruled to have fumbled following a 32-yard, fourth-quarter catch, despite replays appearing to show him down prior to the ball coming out. The play was upheld upon review, handing Minnesota possession and taking away Detroit's chance to tack on crucial insurance points.
(Update: Since so many have pointed it out, yes, this was the same game in which Dan Orlovsky ran out of his own end zone for a safety. That play occurred in the first quarter, but of course the Lions ended up losing by two.)
9. Ravens 18, Lions 16 (Dec. 16, 2013) and Giants 23, Lions 20 (Dec. 22, 2013): Aaron Rodgers sat for several weeks with an injury and the Lions took charge in the NFC North. They controlled their destiny within the division headed into their Monday nighter vs. the Ravens, which was decided when Justin Tucker drilled a 61-yard field late.
As it turned out, Detroit could have regained a hold on first place in Week 16 by beating the Giants, a game also played at Ford Field. Instead, Matthew Stafford threw a game-tying pick-six with five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Giants walked off with an OT field goal.
8. Vikings 28, Lions 27 (Dec. 19, 2004): Despite a 5-8 record Detroit entered Week 15 of the '04 season with ample playoff life—two 8-8 teams eventually qualified in the NFC, one being Minnesota. The Lions' chance to change that script died when long snapper Don Muhlbach botched his job after a long, dramatic touchdown drive.
All the Lions needed to force after Joey Harrington's TD pass to Roy Williams was kick an extra point. Muhlbach's errant snap prevented that, and sealed the loss.
7. Bears 23, Lions 20 (Dec. 24, 2000): Win a home game against the 5-10 Bears, go to the playoffs. Simple enough, right? Not for this franchise.
The Lions jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Christmas Eve, and still had a 17-13 edge in the fourth quarter. Then things got weird. First, Detroit backup QB Stoney Case (in for Charlie Batch) threw a pick-six to R.W. McQuarters, pushing Chicago in front. The Bears then fumbled on their own 10-yard line, leading to a 20-20. But Case then coughed up the ball with his team on the verge of field-goal range in the closing seconds, allowing Cade McNown (Cade McNown!) to strike the other direction.
Paul Edinger's 54-yard field goal ended it ... and Detroit's playoff hopes.
6. Bears 20, Lions 17 (Nov. 24, 2002): Of all the Lions' heartbreaks, this arguably was the most absurd. This game featured another late Lions meltdown—they watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead vanish, Edinger sending it to OT at the buzzer. But it was what happened next that landed this loss on the list.
Detroit won the toss to begin overtime and (soon-to-be-fired) coach Marty Mornhinweg, rather than take the ball, chose which side of the field he wanted to defend. His justification: the windy conditions at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium, the Bears' temporary home for 2002. Of course, Chicago marched into the wind for a game-winning score.
5. 49ers 24, Lions 23 (Dec. 31, 1983): No. 7 on our list occurred on Christmas Eve, Jim Schwartz's ill-fated challenge of a play he wasn't allowed to challenge came on Thanksgiving and there was this postseason loss, on New Year's Eve.
A back-and-forth game for the right to play in the NFC championship came down to a 43-yard field goal attempt by Eddie Murray, who made 352 FGs during his career. This one, he missed, wide right. It would be eight more years before the Lions won their next (and only, in the Super Bowl era) playoff game.
4. Seahawks 13, Lions 10 (Oct. 5, 2015): There may be some argument from the masses given how Monday night's game went down, but it says here that the ridiculous ending does not even crack the top three of Detroit's most painful losses. Two reasons why: 1. The stakes were lower than other games on this list, with the Lions already sitting 0-3; and 2. The officials' botched call at the end are overshadowing what was an egregious mistake by the Lions' best player, Calvin Johnson, and a dismal offensive performance for much of the night.
Detroit deserved a chance to line up at the 1 and go for the win, by the letter of the law. But it's likely more painful for the players in that locker room that Megatron fumbled in the first place.
3. Bears 19, Lions 14 (Sept. 12, 2010): And while we're on the subject of Calvin Johnson ...
The game that introduced the masses to the so-called "Calvin Johnson Rule"—that a player falling to the ground on a catch must control the football all the way through that process. Johnson (and most people watching) thought he had made a potential game-winning touchdown catch with 30 seconds left. It was ruled incomplete, though, because in the process of rolling over, Johnson lost a handle on the ball.
QB Shaun Hill fired two more incompletions after that play, both Johnson's direction, and the Lions opened the 2010 season 0-1.
2. Packers 28, Lions 24 (Jan. 8, 1994): The Lions downed the Packers on the final week of the 1993 regular season to clinch the NFC Central. They might have bounced Green Bay from the playoffs the following Sunday, too, had anyone bothered to cover Sterling Sharpe with a minute left.
Detroit was clinging to a 24-21 lead when Brett Favre, then a 24-year old rising star, danced out of trouble in the pocket and uncorked a deep ball to Sharpe, who had several yards between him and the nearest defender. Sharpe caught it, Favre ripped off his helmet for a frantic celebration, and the Packers advanced.
1. Cowboys 24, Lions 20 (Jan. 4, 2015): A case could be made that the 2014 Lions, led by their sensational defense, had as much realistic chance to reach the Super Bowl as any other squad in franchise history save for perhaps the '91 team. But they never made it out of the wild-card round.
The final nine minutes were a calamity for Detroit. First, and most memorably, there was the picked-up pass interference flag that would have given the Lions a first down deep in Dallas territory, with a chance to pad their 20-17 lead. The resulting incompletion led to a punt, which Sam Martin shanked for all of 10 yards. Tony Romo and co. took over and marched for a go-ahead touchdown—later, the NFL would admit to missing an offensive holding call on a key 4th-and-6 conversion by the Cowboys.
Rattled and now trailing by four, the Lions were still alive when they took possession again. They made it all the way to Dallas's 42 before Matthew Stafford was sacked and fumbled on a 4th-and-3.
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