When the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals first met, they went by different names and played in different states. On Oct. 5, 1930, the Chicago Cardinals traveled to Universal Stadium in Ohio to play the Portsmouth Spartans, a club in its inaugural season under the sponsorship of the Green Bay Packers. The Cardinals were already in their 11th season in the NFL, winning the championship in 1925. Without much to note, the two teams battled to a 0-0 tie in their first meeting. They would play five more times (which included a tie and two wins for each team) before the Spartans became the Lions in 1934. The Cardinals stayed in Chicago until moving to St. Louis in 1960, then Phoenix in 1988.
Until a conference shift in 1950, both teams played together in the now defunct Western Division. This meant that until the start of the '50 season, Arizona (Chicago) and Detroit (Portsmouth) met twice a year, save for '32 and '33, when they broke form and met once. Needless to say, that didn't continue after the league placed the Cardinals in the short-lived American Conference (renamed Eastern after three seasons) and the Lions in the National Conference (renamed Western). After playing 36 games from '30 to '50, the Lions and Cardinals met a meager five times two decades before the league adopted the current conference titles in 1970. Since that switch in ‘70, scheduling has relied on the NFL's formula, which has seen a few variations through the years. You can read more about all of that here. Currently, the Lions will face the Cardinals at least once every three years.
Overall, the Lions lead the series with a 31-25-5 record, but Detroit's only gone 3-12 since the Cardinals moved out to the Grand Canyon State. Since '95, the teams have traded winning streaks, with Arizona winning five in a row, then Detroit with four and then the Cardinals with their current four-game winning streak. Since the Cardinals aren't bitter rivals, there aren't many "classic" battles between both squads, but there are some highlights. For one, Joey Harrington seemed to love playing Arizona, winning three of his four starts. In those four games, Joey completed 58.4 percent of his passes with only 1 interception and threw a hair under 200 yards per game (197.5 YPG to be exact) with 9 total touchdowns. If only every game for Harrington involved the Cardinals.
Another notable period between the Cardinals and Lions happened in the 1993 season, when the two teams met twice. After missing the playoffs in '92 after their first ever playoff victory in '91, Detroit used both meetings with Phoenix to bounce back from losses and save their season. In Week 4 of '93, Wayne Fontes decided to go with Andre Ware instead of Rodney Peete, and the offense bounced back after failing to score a touchdown since Week 1 to beat the Cardinals, 26-20. Ware threw for 194 yards and 1 touchdown, and Jason Hanson added four field goals on the day. The game was also noteworthy since it saw Hanson miss his first field goal from inside 45 yards, a 43-yarder in the third quarter.
The second game between the Lions and Cardinals in '93 came in Week 15. Detroit traveled to Phoenix in the middle of a three-game losing streak with a 7-5 record and their season in danger. Needing a boost, Fontes decided to switch starting quarterbacks yet again, this time calling upon third-stringer Erik Kramer. As with the previous game against the Cardinals, the Lions hadn't scored a touchdown in a while, and after the first quarter upped the touchdown-less streak to 10 quarters, Kramer went off, finishing the day 19 for 25 for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the final minutes of the game, the Detroit defense stood tall, holding the Cardinals out of the end zone after Phoenix set up a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The game ended 21-14 in favor of the Lions, and Detroit would win two of its last three games to make the playoffs, where they'd eventually lose in a reprise of the season finale, 28-24 to the Packers.
Rather than talk about a Lions victory against the Cardinals, I've decided to focus on one game that stands out due to a poor decision by then-head coach Bobby Ross. It's one of those games that fits perfectly into the area of Lions lore that includes all of the boneheaded mistakes, like drafting receivers in the first round for three straight years or that time when Jimmy "Spiderman" Allen recorded this gem or refusing to feature the guy who broke over 200 face masks in his career, Cory Schlesinger, on offense in the pitiful running years after Barry. (Alright, so the last one might be a more personal issue, but who doesn't love watching fullbacks pound the ball? It's a shame that the position's a dying breed nowadays).
Nov. 14, 1999 - Detroit Lions 19, Arizona Cardinals 23
In what would be his last game against the Cardinals (and arguably the beginning of his downfall in Detroit), head coach Bobby Ross led a Lions team onto the field in Arizona looking to build on a strong 6-2 start to the '99 season -- the first season without star running back Barry Sanders. Detroit had made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, only to get bounced in the first round each time. The Cardinals, on the other hand, held the opposite of Detroit's record, entering the game with a 2-6 record and averaging a meager 11.5 points per game.
The game started in Detroit's favor, with the Lions starting the scoring via a Gus Frerotte pass to tight end David Sloan. But the Cardinals would take control of the game at that point, scoring 23 unanswered points capped by a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the second rushing touchdown surrendered by the Lions on the day after not allowing one in the previous three games. Trailing 23-7 after the long Arizona run, Detroit responded 18 seconds later with a 77-yard touchdown pass from Frerotte to wide receiver Germane Crowell. Then Ross would make his first mistake of the game. Instead of letting Jason Hanson boot the extra point, Ross decided to go for two, and the Lions failed to convert, keeping the score at 23-13.
That score stood until cornerback (and Arizona native) Terry Fair picked up a Cardinals fumble and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown with 5:26 left in the game. With the score 23-19, Ross committed his second mistake, electing to go for two again rather than take the free point. Again, the Lions failed to convert the two-point conversion. However, Detroit drove down to Arizona's 10-yard line with a little over a minute remaining. But instead of kicking either the game-tying (or game-winning) field goal, the Lions were forced to play for a touchdown. Frerotte's last three passes of the game would fall incomplete, sealing the Cardinals victory at 23-19. Following the loss, Ross had this to say about his questionable decisions:
"I decided to go for two points because I felt we were going to play it to win it. I thought it through. It wasn't a spontaneous decision. I could probably look back on it and kick myself in the teeth, but I'm not going to do that because I thought it through... A lot of people are going to jump on this football team, and I don't give a damn. And I tell you what, this team is not going to quit."
After losing to Arizona, the Lions would back into the '99 playoffs by dropping five of their last seven games to finish the season at 8-8. In the wild card round, the Washington Redskins disposed of the floundering Lions, 27-13. As for Ross, he continued as Detroit's head coach until he resigned following a blowout loss against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10 of the next season. Ross referred to the loss as "one of the most embarrassing losses I have ever had," and owner William Clay Ford called his decision to quit "a very wise choice." Unfortunately for Ross, the poor decision making against the Cardinals in '99 seemed to spark a downslide he could never recover from in Detroit.