In this 3 part piece, writer Josh Hill takes a look back at what many consider to be the Lions greatest season ever. In the story of a team no one gave a second chance to, the 1991 Detroit Lions stood up against a league that counted them out and almost took the world by storm in the form of an accomplishment only NFL elites have branded their name to. This is the story of the 1991 Detroit Lions.
PART III: So Close I Can Taste It
The Lions played host to the Jets the next week, beating them 34-20, but saw that win countered by the Bears victory over the Packers. Detroit faced a crucial matchup the next week against the same Packers, but the implication were tremendous. Both the Lions and Bears had beaten the Packers and Vikings but the Lions had lost to the Buccaneers once where the Bears had not. They needed a win over the Packers and a Bears loss to the Bucs to keep a tie breaker alive. The Lions overcame the Packers but watched as the Bears devoured the Bucs in Chicago, shutting them out 27-0. It was a heated battled heading into the final weeks and the Lions were staring down the Bears waiting for them to blink.
More importantly the Bears needed to win out and let a Monday Night showdown between the Bears and 49ers determine their divisional fate. But who stood in the Lions way was the red-hot Buffalo Bills who boasted just 2 losses the entire season. It was a 35 degree Sunday that felt like 23 and didn’t see a score until the second quarter. Andre Reed scored for the Bills and put them up 7-0. It looked grim for the Lions as they didn’t score in the second or third quarters. But after a big time drive, Barry Sanders punched in the tying score. The Lions caught another huge break when Sheldon White intercepted Bills quarterback Frank Reich and returned it for a touchdown putting the Lions up 14-7. But Buffalo had lost just twice all year and showed why when they fired back a score of their own to tie the game. It went into overtime, but the Lions overcame a season of low expectations to defeat the Bills in overtime. The next day Chicago fell to the Niners and Detroit had won their second NFC Central title.
But the work was far from over. Detroit had secured a first round bye and were met in Detroit by the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. The Lions made the Cowboys feel as sickly as they did in their Week 9 bashing, blasting Dallas 38-6 and didn’t trail once. Detroit improved their record at home to 9-0 on the year, proving their dominance inside their Den. The win was also significant as the Lions had not won a playoff game in nearly 40 years.
But the NFC Championship game pitted the Lions against the team who had sent them to an embarrassing start: the Washington Redskins. Washington tried to repeat their 45-0 blowout by striking first; 10 unanswered points were scored in the first quarter. But Detroit was determined to prove they had what it took to reach their first ever Super Bowl. In the second quarter, Erik Kramer threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Willie Green and after a Redskins touchdown, had Eddie Murray kick one of his own to bring the Lions back within seven of the ‘Skins. But the second half was dominated by Washington who went on to score 24 points and end the Lions season just as it had started; by hanging 40-plus points on them. Barry Sanders, who had rushed for over 1,500 yards was held to just 44 in the loss.
The Lions exited the 1991 season a game shy of the Super Bowl, the closest they have ever been. The season ended as it had started, but what occurred in between was special and magical. Had the Lions won in RFK Stadium, they would have faced the Buffalo Bills, a team they knew they were capable of beating. They also would have been playing on familiar grounds as that years Super Bowl was held at the H.H.H Metrodome in Minneapolis, a place the Lions played on an annual basis. But no one will ever know who the Lions would have fared in Super Bowl XXVI, and it frankly doesn’t matter. It has been the most successful season for the Lions in the last 25 years and will go down as perhaps their finest ever. It didn’t end in a championship, but it was special nonetheless. Herman Moore had a spectacular rookie campaign and set the stage for an impressive career with Detroit. Barry Sanders made his third straight Pro Bowl and would continue to shatter records and defenders knees dipping and dodging his way across the field until his abrupt retirement in 1999. Detroit would ride these two men to four more playoff appearances, three of which were consecutive playoff appearances in 1993, ’94, ’95 and ’97. The Lions would again win the NFC Central in 1993 but never again repeated their post season success.After making it to the 1991 NFC Championship game, the Lions following playoff appearances ended in Wild Card Matchups, twice consecutively to Green Bay and then to Philadelphia in 1995 and Tampa Bay in 1997.
1991 was a special year to be a Lions fan and it will always be remembered. But now with a revamped cast of characters and a brand new will to succeed, the 2011 Lions may be able to do the 1991 Lions s couple better and fully Restore the Roar to city who loves them.