Why the 1970 season still haunts the Detroit Lions 50 years later

Detroit Lions. Mandatory Credit: Tom Pidgeon /Allsport
Detroit Lions. Mandatory Credit: Tom Pidgeon /Allsport /
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Mandatory Credit: Allsport/ALLSPORT
Mandatory Credit: Allsport/ALLSPORT /

Reliving the crazy season that kicked off the 1970s, beginning the pattern of promise and disappointment that still haunts the Detroit Lions 50 years later.

During this point in the offseason, before free agency and the draft, I hope you’ll enjoy reading these brief looks back at some of the more important seasons of Detroit Lions team history. As 2020 marks the 50-year anniversary of an especially notable Lions season, that’s where I’m starting off this time around.

For those looking to pinpoint an exact period where the Lions moved from just a team in a slump to what felt closer to a cursed franchise, right around this time is probably a good place to start.

Following the most recent championship season in 1957, the 1970 season stands alone as the Lions’ only playoff appearance in a 24 year stretch, but a series of improbabilities working against them prevented it from becoming more.

The 1970 Detroit Lions season was successful in many ways. With a 10 win season and four future Hall of Fame players (coached by a team legend), the team managed to end a 13 year playoff drought. They also found themselves on the losing end of an iconic moment in the sport’s history, one of the NFL’s strangest playoff results, and just one season later dealt with a human tragedy that hasn’t occurred in the league before or since.

1970 NFC Central Standings

Tm                         W-L         PF         PA       Streak

xy-Minnesota   12-2        335       143        W3
x-Detroit            10-4          347       203       W5
Chicago                6-8          256      261        W2
Green Bay           6-8          196      293        L2

The Season in a Nutshell

Detroit both opened and closed the season with shutout wins over hated rival Green Bay. A 40-0 triumph at Lambeau Field started things on a high note, and a 20-0 win at home clinched the final playoff berth in the NFC. Two more key division victories over the Bears, along with a massive 41-24 W at Cleveland (the Browns were coming off division titles in five of the previous six years) helped them to a 5-1 start.

The Minnesota Vikings, at the peak of their ‘Purple People Eaters’ days, put a serious dent into the Lions’ playoff hopes. Playing the Vikings twice in a 15 day stretch in November added two tallies to the loss column and essentially ended any chance of an NFC Central title. Sandwiched between those understandable losses (the Vikings were absolutely stacked that year and finished 12-2) was the legendary Tom Dempsey game.