When the Detroit Lions played the Dallas Cowboys for the first time, it wasn't the squad from the Lone Star State with the more successful past. In 1960, the Cowboys were a first-year expansion team, while the Lions had won three of four trips to the NFL Championship Game in the '50s. Yes, at one point in time, Detroit fielded a more celebrated program than Dallas. The Lions cruised to an easy 23-14 victory in '60, and the loss dropped the Cowboys to 0-11-1 for their inaugural season. Yes, Dallas finished a season winless, albeit with a tie and four less games than present day.
But as most football fans know, the Cowboys weren't a struggling expansion team for long, as they became an NFL powerhouse from the late '60s to the early '80s (and then again in the early '90s). Dallas carried a streak of 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-85 and won two of five trips to the Super Bowl in the '70s. As expected, the Lions felt the wrath of the Cowboys' domination, losing six straight meetings (with one being in the '70 playoffs) after that first game in '60. However, the tide turned in Detroit's favor during the '80s, and the Lions gained three out of four victories. This trend continued into the '90s for Detroit, as they won three of four meetings again, including one of the greatest 60-minute spans of football in Lions history: the 1991 NFC divisional playoff game. I'll recap that game in depth below.
Following the turn of the century, Detroit hit some rough patches (as we all know), and Dallas battled inconsistency, leading to some close contests with six of the nine post-Y2K games being decided by single-digit point differences. Overall, the Cowboys hold a slight lead in the series record at 13-11, but since that six-game winning streak ended in '77, Dallas has only gone 7-10 against the Lions. Furthermore, 15 games in the entire series have been decided by 10 points or less. All of this is meant to illustrate that Dallas has by no means handled Detroit with ease. In fact, it's impossible to say which team tends to have the upper hand in this series, as each side has suffered blowouts as well as close defeats. Like I said, the main difference is two more tallies in the Cowboys' win column, thanks mainly to a commanding era of football decades ago.
On Sunday, both teams head into the matchup with 4-3 records and hopes of taking one more step toward the playoffs with a win. Dallas hasn't been to the postseason since '09, while Detroit has fans wondering if 2011 was a one-off or something to expect. Perhaps next January we will watch the Lions and Cowboys face off for the third time in the playoffs. Dallas, in what head coach Tom Landry called "the best [the Cowboys] ever played in a crucial game," rode its "Doomsday Defense" to a 5-0 win over Detroit in the 1970 divisional playoff game. The Lions offense couldn't find a way to score, thanks to 3 turnovers on the day. The win helped the Cowboys eventually reach Super Bowl V, where they lost to the Baltimore Colts.
However, Detroit gained postseason revenge against Dallas a little over 21 years later. Earlier, I referred to the game as one of the greatest 60-minute spans of football in Lions history, and if you watch the highlights, it's hard to disagree.
Jan. 5, 1992, NFC Divisional Playoff Game - Detroit Lions 38, Dallas Cowboys 6
Before the postseason showdown, both teams finished their respective season on a high note: Detroit won its final six games, and Dallas its final five. The Lions ended the '91 regular season first in the NFC Central at 12-4, but the Cowboys placed second in the NFC East with an 11-5 record, forcing them into a wild card spot. After defeating the Chicago Bears in the wild card game, Dallas traveled to Detroit looking to exact revenge after being embarrassed by the Lions in Week 9 by a score of 34-10. All the Lions wanted to do was earn the franchise's first playoff victory since before the NFL-AFL merger in 1960.
To introduce the game, I'd like to quote the newscaster from the aforementioned highlights:
"If I would have told you today's playoff game, halfway through the final quarter, Barry Sanders would have just 23 yards and 11 carries, and the Lions would still be winning by 32 points, you would have thought I'd been blindsided by Chris Spielman."
For a team as reliant on their superstar running back as the Lions were during the Barry era, it's surprising to know that he wasn't needed in a blowout postseason win. Without Sanders, Detroit relied on the arm of quarterback Erik Kramer -- a rookie in only his ninth career start -- and boy, did he not disappoint. With Dallas' defense preoccupied with removing Barry from the equation, Kramer went off on the Cowboys, completing 29 of 38 passes for 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions.
On the Lions' first drive, Kramer drove them down the field and capped it off by hitting wide receiver Willie Green over the top for a 31-yard touchdown pass. Later in the first, Cowboys quarterback Steve Beuerlein helped Dallas respond with a 28-yard field goal to cut Detroit's lead to 7-3 heading into the second. With the game close, the Lions offense failed to score any points, but the defense picked up the slack. Dropping back to pass on his own 20-yard line, Beuerlein underthrew an out route near the Lions sideline and defensive back Mel Jenkins returned the errant throw 41 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys and Lions would both add field goals before halftime, making Detroit's lead 17-6, but the bigger story was that head coach Jimmy Johnson elected to bench Beuerlein in favor of injured starter Troy Aikman. On the final two plays of the first half, the Lions sacked Aikman and intercepted his desperation heave as time expired. Unknown to the Cowboys as they trotted into the Pontiac Silverdome locker rooms, this move would only quicken the sounding of their death knell.
For most of the third quarter, nothing happened and the teams traded possessions. With the third quarter nearing its end, the Lions offense started a drive at their own 20-yard line. Kramer -- as he had been doing all day -- led the offense down the field, completing six passes of 15 yards or shorter before reaching the Cowboys 9-yard line. After failed attempts on first and second down, Kramer hit Willie Green in the corner of the end zone to take a 24-6 lead with 1:19 remaining in the quarter. Moments later, the Lions would all but seal their victory.
On their ensuing drive, the Cowboys had possession at their own 30-yard line with a new set of downs. Aikman, looking to get his team back in the game, fumbled the snap and Detroit linebacker Victor Jones recovered the dropped ball. After moving to Dallas' 7-yard line, the Lions failed to score on their first two attempts for the second time in a row after facing first-and-goal. But, again, the third time was the charm, as Kramer and rookie receiver Herman Moore connected in the end zone to give Detroit a commanding 31-6 lead as the game headed into the final frame.
It was mentioned before, and I'll repeat it again here: with about 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Barry Sanders had a mere 22 yards rushing on 11 carries -- four in the first half and seven in the second. However, as the Lions abandoned the passing game in favor of running out the clock, Barry earned a chance to do what he did best: make opposing defenders look silly. On a run that looked to be stuffed, Sanders busted through and around multiple defenders en route to a 41-yard touchdown run (you have to love Brett Perriman dancing on the sideline after the run, almost as much as you have to love the look of pure defeat on Troy Aikman's face).
After the Barry run, the rest of the game became pomp and circumstance as the Lions rolled to a 38-6 victory. A couple of things that are just too awesome to not single out from game video: the late Toby Caston yelling and signing "Too Legit To Quit" into the camera and Roary bustin' a move as the game came to a close.
Watch condensed footage of the game here, or if you have the entire game recorded on VHS like my dad does, take a few hours to relive the past. It's electrifying watching the Lions offense tear apart the Cowboys as the Silverdome roars around them. The sound alone gives you goose bumps.