Before the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns met on the gridiron 12 times, and since then, they've only played 10 games. Of those first 12 meetings, one-third were showdowns in the NFL Championship Game. In this light, it's unfortunate that the recent failures of both franchises obscure their past successes. Both teams own pre-Super Bowl titles, but there's no argument over which team performed better pre-merger: that team would be the Browns.
From their inception in 1946 to 1969, Cleveland racked up a host of accomplishments: four straight All-American Football Conference (AAFC) championships from '46 to '49, 12 conference championships after joining the NFL from '50 to '69, as well as four NFL championships in that span. On top of that, they lost in the title match five times, meaning that the Browns went to the NFL Championship Game nine times in 15 years, or 60 percent of the time. And before I move on, I should add that after the creation of the Super Bowl, the Browns went to three straight conference championship games -- losing in '67 and winning in '68 and '69 -- and lost in two more NFL Championship Games from 1968-69 (the winner played the AFL champ in the Super Bowl). Even though the Browns lost in more title games than they won, their pre-merger accomplishments are impressive.
However, this isn't meant to overlook or minimize the Lions, which rest near and dear to our hearts (this is POD and not Dawgs By Nature, for goodness sake). As most know, Detroit won four NFL championships -- in '35, '52, '53 and '57 -- before the first Super Bowl in 1967. All three of the 1950s victories came against the Browns, and one of the four aforementioned Cleveland championships came against the Lions in '54. If you're a little turned around by all this back-and-forth with dates and numbers, this also means that three of the Browns' five NFL Championship Game losses came at the hands of Detroit. Going one step further, the two teams combined for six of the 10 NFL titles in the '50s with only one span of two years where neither team won: 1958-59, when the New York Giants were back-to-back champs.
So what's the point of all this rambling on about NFL championships that a lot of people: 1) don't know exist and 2) don't think should count since it wasn't a Super Bowl? It's meant to illustrate the fact that meaningful games between the Lions and Browns were played. Specifically, the title game battles of the 1950s. The problem's that it's been over half of a century since these games were played, and neither team has really been relevant since then. As we all know, the Lions have been to a single conference championship game, and the Browns have only been to three since the merger. Fusing the NFL and AFL hasn't been nice to Detroit and Cleveland.
Looking at the series itself as a whole, the Lions have reason to smile with a 17-5 record against the Browns all time. Cleveland has taken back-to-back games once since the first meeting in 1952, and it happened in the '80s during the best era of Browns football post-merger. There are not a lot of games to choose from to begin with, and that number drops down to 10 when looking at only away games for Detroit. So I decided to look back at the Lions' second NFL Championship victory and first road game against Cleveland. But before I do, here are back-to-back Detroit wins worth mentioning:
Oct. 5, 1969: The undefeated Browns led 21-7 at halftime thanks to 2 Detroit fumbles-turned-touchdowns in the final minute of the second quarter. But the Lions fought back by adding 7 points of their own in the third to cut the lead down to seven. In the final frame, Detroit mirrored the first-half Browns by scoring 2 touchdowns off of turnovers: a 1-yard run by Nick Eddy and the game-winning 2-yard rush by Mel Farr.
Oct. 18, 1970: After the Browns turned a Lem Barney muffed punt into a touchdown, the Lions took complete control of the '70 meeting. On Cleveland's next possession, defensive tackle Larry Hand intercepted a pass and returned it 62 yards for Detroit's first score. The Lions added another 14 points while surrendering seven more before blowing the game wide open with a little more than 4 minutes left in the second half.
To start, Detroit scored on a 28-yard jump ball to increase their lead to 24-14. On the Browns' ensuing drive, safety Mike Weger picked off a Cleveland pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown. Linebacker Mike Lucci intercepted another errant Browns throw, setting up a 34-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bill Munson to wideout Larry Walton. The three quick scores gave Detroit a commanding 38-14 lead that turned into 41-24 by the end of the game. The 41 points are the most the Lions have ever scored on the road against Cleveland (Detroit dropped 59 points at home against the Browns in the '57 NFL Championship Game).
Dec. 28, 1952, NFL Championship Game - Detroit Lions 17, Cleveland Browns 7
From the New York Times on Dec. 26, 1952:
"The Cleveland Browns forsook Christmas trees and happy families today to face a raw wind and cleat mud in preparation for Sunday's game with the Detroit Lions. Putting off the Yuletide dinner until evening will be small enough sacrifice for the Brownies if the little extra work increases their change [sic] of regaining the National Football League championship."
Coming into the title match, Detroit was favored by three and one-half points thanks to a couple of injuries on Cleveland's sideline. Both teams met with imperfect seasons: the Lions went 9-3 while the Browns sat at 8-4. It was Detroit's first trip to the championship game since winning in '35, and Cleveland's third in a row following a loss to the Los Angeles Rams in '51.
Looking at the overall stats for the game, it would appear as if the Browns handled the Lions and not the other way around. Cleveland outgained Detroit 22 to 10 in first downs, 227 to 199 in rushing yards and most noticeably, 157 to 59 in passing yards. But the Lions stood tall on both offense and defense en route to their second NFL championship.
The first quarter saw zeroes and missed field goals for both squads, and it stayed that way until Bobby Layne scored on a 2-yard sneak in the second. Detroit wouldn't relinquish the lead after this point, but that's not to say Cleveland didn't have any chances. Browns kicker Lou Groza missed 2 more field goals in the second quarter, giving the Lions a 7-0 halftime lead. In the third, the teams traded possessions until Doak Walker tore off a 67-yard touchdown run about halfway through the quarter. The score ended up being Walker's only touchdown on the season. On the ensuing possession, Cleveland produced its lone scoring drive to cut Detroit's lead to 14-7.
Heading into the fourth, the Browns' offense controlled the game but couldn't find a way to score. After driving down to Detroit's 5-yard line, Cleveland lost yards on three straight plays to set up fourth down from the 22-yard line. The Browns failed to convert, which essentially ended the game. The Lions added a field goal after Cleveland muffed a punt, and just like that, the Lions were world champs in 1952. For the monumentous victory, each Lion received a $2,274.77 bonus, which, according to some online calculators, would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 today.
Check out some game film here: Part I, Part II and Part III. To wrap it all up, another bit from the New York Times on Dec. 29, 1952:
"It had been seventeen years since the Lions last earn the biggest prize in professional football. There were times this brisk, sunny afternoon when it appeared that the Browns, no longer the all-conquering warriors of the past but still strong enough to harass any opposition, might overcome the slightly favored Lions. But the men from the Motor City were at their best when the going was heaviest and theirs was a highly commendable display of defensive power, worthy of a champion."
On Sunday, make sure to remember that, at one point in time, the Lions and Browns were fierce rivals battling at the pinnacle of professional football. Wouldn't it be nice to meet Cleveland there again sometime soon? I mean, all that really matters to us is that Detroit succeeds, but with history in mind, nothing could compare to a Lions vs. Brownies Super Bowl meeting.