Come Sunday, the Detroit Lions will have played the Chicago Bears for the 167th time in history. For the Lions, it will be the 12th game held on the date of Sept. 29 since the team moved to the Motor City in 1934. After two straight weeks of recaps with more losses than wins, this week finds Detroit above .500 at 6-4-1, which includes three dominating wins in a row against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We'll get to those a bit later.
To kick things off, let's head back to the 1935 NFL season, when the league was comprised of nine teams and the year ended with the Lions defeating the New York Giants for their first of four NFL championships. After blowing out the Philadelphia Eagles 35-0 in Week 1, the Lions welcomed the Chicago Cardinals to the University of Detroit Stadium. The two teams had already tied twice prior to their '35 meeting, and they'd do it again thanks to a Lions field goal with under three minutes to play.
In the first quarter, both teams failed to score, but the Cardinals struck first with a field goal in the second quarter. Down 3-0 at the half, the Lions fought back in the third via John Schneller -- an end on both offense and defense -- making a diving touchdown grab. Detroit's lead would last into the fourth quarter, until the Cardinals punched the pigskin into the end zone. Trailing again, Detroit didn't falter and pushed down the field to set up the game-tying kick. If the Lions hadn't forced a tie, they wouldn't have played in the '35 championship game, and Lions fans would only be able to point to three NFL championships instead of four whenever that thing called the Super Bowl is brought up.
Half a decade later, the Lions played again on Sept. 29, and this time they hosted the Cleveland Rams. Detroit looked to gain its first win of the 1940 season after another tie against the Cardinals in Week 1 and a loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2. According to a few newspaper clippings from the next day, the game was a mistake-filled mess, as both teams blew scoring chance after scoring chance due to turnovers. But the Lions ended up coming out on top thanks to a 20-yard run by halfback Byron "Whizzer" White (a future associate justice of the Supreme Court). However, the first win of the season didn't matter much in the long run, as Detroit finished '40 with a 5-5-1 record.
The next three games on Sept. 29 watched the Lions lose: in 1950 to the New York Yanks, 1957 to the Baltimore Colts, and 1963 to the Chicago Bears. As for New York, it should be noted that the Yanks drafted Lions legend Doak Walker before Detroit traded for him and subsequently obtained his rights from the Cleveland Browns (read the news clipping since it's all a bit confusing to me). Unfortunately, Walker didn't help the Lions beat his former team in '50, as the Yanks whipped Detroit by a score of 44-21. The Yanks remained in New York for one more season before becoming the Dallas Texans in 1952. After one season, the franchise disbanded and seems to have inspired a current Houston team's name.
In the '57 Colts game, Johnny Unitas did his thing and manhandled the Lions for 4 touchdowns. His defense performed in the same fashion and held Detroit's ground attack to only 23 yards in a 34-14 beatdown. However, the Lions gained vengeance a few weeks later when they beat Baltimore 31-27 behind 3 fourth quarter touchdowns.
The last loss, a 37-21 defeat at the hands of the Bears, happened because Chicago quarterback Billy Wade ripped off 3 touchdown passes, and '63 wasn't a pretty year for the Lions.
Back to the good stuff, like when the Lions took care of the Packers in 1968 at Lambeau by a score of 23-17. It wasn't the last time Detroit won in Green Bay, but man, it sure does feel like it. The Packers controlled the game early and led 10-0 in the second quarter as they drove down to Detroit's 8-yard line. Looking to take a commanding 17-0 lead, the Packers ran a rushing play on second down from the eight, but Lem Barney evaded two Green Bay blockers to stop the run for no gain. On the following play, the Lions dropped Bart Starr for a 5-yard loss, and the Packers ending up missing the field goal attempt.
Later in the second quarter, Barney made another spectacular play by intercepting a Starr pass. The pick gave Detroit possession at Green Bay's 47-yard line, and the Lions offense finally found the end zone to cut their deficit to three points heading into halftime. After the break, Detroit booted a field goal early in the third quarter before Mel Farr ran for a touchdown to give the Lions a 17-10 lead. On their ensuing drive, Green Bay responded with a touchdown to tie the game, but the Lions bounced right back with another touchdown of their own. With another Barney interception in the waning seconds, Detroit secured a 23-17 come from behind victory against the Packers.
Six years later, the Lions started their season with four consecutive losses. One of those came on Sept. 29, in Green Bay against the Packers in Week 3. By all accounts, the game should have ended 22-21 in favor of Detroit, but thanks to some questionable coaching, Green Bay took the game 21-19. After the Packers scored the go-ahead field goal with a little over a minute remaining, the Lions sprinted down the field through the use of a trick play. On the first play of the drive, from their own 25-yard line, Lions quarterback Bill Munson walked up to the line of scrimmage without huddling, picked up the football himself and tossed it to halfback Altie Taylor. The play caught the Pack off guard, and head coach Rick Forzano hoped the trick play would end in a touchdown. However, the Lions were slow to the line and instead of scoring, faced a fresh set of downs on Green Bay's 30-yard line with 24 seconds remaining.
Detroit had no timeouts, and kicker Errol Mann already hit field goals from 37, 26, 41 and 28 yards, including 50+ kicks during warm-ups. Instead of running another play, Forzano decided to attempt the field goal on first down, and Mann missed a 47-yarder to seal Detroit's loss. Now, the newspaper articles make it sound like the Lions couldn't spike the ball to stop the clock and had to either get out of bounds or rush the special teams unit on to the field if they chose to call another play. If anyone knows when spiking the ball to stop the clock went into effect, please let me know. I haven't been able to find any sources for when the rule became part of the NFL.
The next three Sept. 29 games for the Lions all included the Tampa Bay Bucs, and all three were Detroit victories. In 1985, Eric Hipple led the Detroit offense by going 19 for 31 for 2 touchdowns, as well as adding 3 carries for 11 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground. Hipple hit wide receiver Mark Nichols for both passing scores, and Eddie Murray contributed 3 field goals to give the Lions a commanding 30-9 win.
Six years later, during that magical 1991 season, Detroit trounced the Bucs again. This time Barry Sanders took the place of Eric Hipple and rushed for 160 yards on 27 carries with 3 touchdowns. Barry's final score, a 69-yard run, was the longest of his career (at the time), and it was the first time he scored 3 touchdowns in the NFL. Rodney Peete added a passing touchdown, and Eddie Murray booted a field goal, making the final score 31-3 in favor of the Honolulu Blue and Silver.
Continuing with the trend, Detroit handled the Bucs again on Sept. 29, 1996. After holding Tampa to 3 field goals in '85 and 1 field goal in '91, the Lions finally shut out the Bucs by a score of 27-0. Bennie Blades sparked the Lions with a 98-yard pick-six, stiff-arming Trent Dilfer on his way to the end zone. Two plays later, the Bucs fumbled the ball away to Detroit, and the Lions converted the turnover into a Jason Hanson field goal. Scott Mitchell threw for 230 yards and 2 touchdowns: a 3-yard pass to Herman Moore and a 31-yard pass to Johnnie Morton. On that play, Morton blew past Martin Mayhew for the touchdown. Yes, Martin Mayhew, the Lions' current GM.
Last but not least, Joey Harrington earned his first win as starter by beating the New Orleans Saints in 2002, the first win of three on the season for Detroit. Joey stood out on Detroit's offense, going 20 for 36 for 267 yards with 1 touchdown, and more importantly, no interceptions. One week prior, Harrington threw 4 interceptions in his first career start against the Packers. On his one touchdown pass, Joey hit
Alakazam Az Hakim for a 40-yard score, and his solid play caused teammate Todd Lyght to say the following after the game:
"He's going to be the quarterback for the ages here. The kid is a playmaker and is a natural-born leader."
It's too bad Todd had no idea what he was talking about. Luckily, the Lions don't have to worry about their quarterback situation anymore (tosses salt over shoulder, knocks on wood, rubs Johnnie Morton jersey, remembers and quickly forgets 2008), and Stafford will surely avenge the Sept. 29, 1963, loss against the Bears on Sunday.
Overall record on Sept. 29
'35 vs. Chicago Cardinals, 10-10
'40 vs. Cleveland Rams, 6-0
'50 at New York Yanks, 21-44
'57 at Baltimore Colts, 14-34
'63 vs. Chicago Bears, 21-37
'68 at Green Bay Packers, 23-17
'74 at Green Bay Packers, 19-21
'85 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-9
'91 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-3
'96 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-0
'02 vs. New Orleans Saints, 26-21