Unless Calvin Johnson puts up some crazy video game numbers, like 81 catches for 1,117 yards (which doesn't sound impossible for Megatron these days, though Matthew Stafford's arm might fall off first), against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the most memorable moment between the Detroit Lions and Steelers will continue to be the 1998 Thanksgiving Day coin toss controversy. I prefer the unedited call by Mark Champion and Jim Brandstatter, but regardless of how you relive the moment, nothing compares to the schadenfreude felt when watching that look of befuddlement wash over Jerome Bettis' face.
Unfortunately, the '98 Turkey Day game was the last time the Lions beat the Steelers, having lost the last three meetings. Even worse, Detroit travels to Pittsburgh on Sunday, a city they haven't won in since the '50s. Yikes. The future didn't look this bleak in 1934 when the Lions dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 40-7 blowout victory (the Steelers nickname came to be in 1940). Detroit would win the next three against the Pirates to close out the '30s and continue to generally outplay the Steelers in the coming decades to post a 12-4-1 (two losses and the tie happened on the road) record against the Black and Gold from 1934-62.
However, the NFL-AFL merger marked the end of the 1950s glory for the Lions and the beginning of an era of supremacy for the Steelers. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in the '70s and flipped the script against Detroit by going 11-2 since losing in '62. It's interesting to note that both teams only played once in the '70s, during the most dominant period in Steelers history, and that both victories for the Lions happened on Thanksgiving Day: a 45-3 romp in 1983 and the aforementioned coin toss game in '98.
Since Detroit heads to the Steel City on Sunday, I have the unfortunate task of finding a diamond in the rough, i.e. a Lions road game against the Steelers worth remembering. Like I said before, Detroit hasn't won in Pittsburgh since 1955 and owns a 2-10-1 road record all time in the series, with the other win coming in '52. In my recent quest to revisit only the good and ignore the bad, I'm choosing to recap both road victories in hopes of sending some positive juju in the Lions' direction on Sunday.
Nov. 9, 1952 - Detroit Lions 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 6
Heading into the '52 game, the Lions were seven weeks away from winning their first of three NFL championships in the '50s and second NFL championship in team history. As for the Steelers, they were still trying to find solid footing in the NFL after having only four winning seasons since their introduction in 1933. Detroit was the obvious favorite before the game and that only became more apparent following four quarters of football. In the rain-filled contest, Doak Walker started the scoring for the Lions by booting a 16-yard field goal in the first quarter. Both teams failed to do anything of note until Earl "Jug" Girard added 6 more points to Detroit's tally on the ground in the second quarter. Following the extra point, the Lions led 10-0 and maintained that advantage heading into halftime.
Following the intermission, both teams traded touchdowns, as Bobby Layne hit end Cloyce Box for a 46-yard touchdown reception and the Steelers capped a 55-yard drive with a 3-yard rushing score. Detroit hit their extra point while Pittsburgh missed, increasing the Lions' lead to 17-6 in the third frame. From this point, Detroit took complete control of the game. In the final quarter, "Jug" Girard broke free for 32 yards to score another rushing touchdown, and Lions back Byron Bailey sprinted for 9 yards to give Detroit one last touchdown with 2 seconds remaining. Bailey's TD increased the Lions' lead to 31-6 and capped a dominant team-rushing performance: Detroit finished the game with 321 rushing yards to Pittsburgh's -3.
Nov. 13, 1955 - Detroit Lions 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 28
Coming into the '55 meeting, the situation wasn't as great for the Lions after a 1-6 start to the season, and the 4-3 Steelers looked to end Detroit's three-game winning streak in the series. However, the Lions didn't look like a struggling squad in the first three quarters, as they jumped out to a 24-7 lead heading into the fourth. Detroit tallied 2 touchdowns in the second quarter via passes from Bobby Layne to receiver Dave Middleton and from back Harry Gilmer to back Lew Carpenter. The Steelers added a touchdown of their own in the second following a Lions fumble, but Doak Walker roared back in the third to score all 10 of Detroit's points: three on a 22-yard field goal and a 21-yard touchdown catch from back Bill Stits.
Everything seemed to be in order for the Lions to cruise to another easy victory in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers changed that and gave Detroit something to worry about in an 8-minute span in the fourth quarter. During those 8 minutes, the Black and Gold rallied for 3 touchdowns: 2 rushing and 1 passing. Luckily, Stits responded for the Lions in the middle of the three Pittsburgh scores by returning an interception 7 yards for a touchdown. All of this put the score at 31-28 as the Steelers drove one last time to try and tie or win the game. With 5 seconds left in the game and nearing the end zone, Pittsburgh quarterback Jimmy Finks tossed a 19-yard pass to back Sid Watson, who fell just short of the goal line as time expired.
So after reliving the pair of Detroit victories in Pittsburgh, two things stick out: they both took place in November and the Lions scored 31 points in both games. Based on those facts, I'm calling for Detroit to win by a score of 31 to any-number-less-than-31 on Sunday.
Bonus Barry Fact of the Day: Since Barry made multiple members of every team he faced look like fools, I thought I'd point out this 8-yard gain by Sanders off a swing route in the '95 season opener against Pittsburgh. You might notice that Rod Woodson's name is in the video title as well, and that's because Woodson tore his ACL as Barry juked him out of his jockstrap.