Since the NFL season didn't expand to 16 games until 1978, it took a while for the Detroit Lions to play non-postseason football in late December. With only six games in history on Sunday's date, there's not a lot to choose from for discussion.
The first Dec. 22 game is also the most important, since the victory moved the Lions into the NFL Championship Game in '57. Almost 30 years later, the NFL calendar had expanded enough to include late December in the regular season, and Detroit fell to the Chicago Bears in '85. The Lions would then pick up their most recent wins in back-to-back years against the Green Bay Packers in '90 and the Buffalo Bills in '91. However, Detroit's dropped two in a row on Dec. 22 in '02 and last year, both to the Atlanta Falcons.
Best Game: 1957 - Detroit Lions 31, San Francisco 49ers 27
I feel like I'm cheating by always choosing games revolving around Detroit's four NFL championships, but they're too memorable to pass up, especially since most of us weren't alive to enjoy them. In the '57 regular season, the Lions and 49ers met twice with each team winning at home. The stage was set for a playoff battle to earn a spot against the Cleveland Browns in the championship game. However, the 49ers looked to run away in the Western Conference playoff, as they sprinted out to a 24-7 halftime lead. With a commanding lead and only two quarters separating them from the big dance, San Francisco expected to win, so much so that the team started to print tickets for the championship game against the Browns. A field goal early in the third quarter only strengthened their confidence, but the 49ers let up on the gas a little too much before crossing the finish line.
Down by 20, the Lions stormed back in the second half behind the powerful Tom "The Bomb" Tracy. Tracy hadn't rushed in the last four games, but that didn't matter as he trucked through the 49ers defense for 2 touchdowns in the third quarter. With the deficit narrowed to 27-21, Detroit quarterback Tobin Rote faked the handoff to Tracy and aired out a 36-yard touchdown pass to tie the game in the fourth. Following a successful extra point, the Lions held the lead, 28-27, after looking hopeless at halftime. To close out the victory, the Lions defense forced 4 turnovers in the fourth quarter, and Jim Martin added a field goal for good measure to make the final score 31-27 in favor of Detroit. Read the Pro Football Hall of Fame's summary of the game here.
Honorable Mention: 1991 - Detroit Lions 17, Buffalo Bills 14 (OT)
Tied with Chicago and needing a win to keep hopes of winning the NFC Central alive, the Lions battled a Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas-less Bills squad into overtime to steal a 17-14 victory. The game didn't get exciting until the fourth quarter, as the Bills held a 7-0 lead heading into the final frame. Barry Sanders, who ran for 108 yards on 26 carries, put Detroit on the board with a 1-yard rush. Later in the fourth, the Lions took the lead following cornerback (and current Lions vice president of pro personnel) Sheldon White's 18-yard interception return for a touchdown. However, Sanders fumbled the ball away as Detroit tried to run out the clock, and the Bills tied it up to head into extra time. Winning the toss, Erik Kramer made short work of Buffalo's defense, as he hit 5 passes in a row to set up Eddie Murray's 21-yard game-winning field goal. The win ended up giving Detroit the NFC Central crown, as the Bears lost on Monday night a day later against the 49ers.
Overall record on Dec. 22
'57 at San Francisco 49ers, 31-27 (Western Conference Playoff Game)
'85 vs. Chicago Bears, 17-37
'90 at Green Bay Packers, 24-17
'91 at Buffalo Bills, 17-14 (OT)
'02 at Atlanta Falcons, 15-36
'12 vs. Atlanta Falcons, 18-31