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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Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions
Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

The Season in a Nutshell (continued)

Against a much inferior Saints team, the Lions had perhaps their worst showing of the season, turning the ball over six times without forcing any from New Orleans. Still, a short field goal from Errol Mann gave them a 17-16 lead with 11 seconds left, what looked like a narrowly averted disaster.

Instead, the Saints completed one pass to their get closer to midfield, leaving two seconds on the clock for what is still probably the most famous kick in NFL history. With the ball placed at his own 37-yard line, Saints kicker Tom Dempsey (born with only half a foot, by the way) took two steps from straight on and launched the ball into the New Orleans stratosphere, just barely clearing the goalpost as it returned to earth. Dempsey’s kick broke the league record by a full seven yards, and stood for another 43 years.

The double losses to Minnesota and shock finish at New Orleans put the Lions at 5-4, with any postseason hopes on life support. From there, the Honolulu Blues engineered what can be considered a precursor to the late season runs made famous by Wayne Fontes two decades later.

The team rattled off five consecutive wins to close the regular season, including a 28-23 win on the road in a do-or-die game against the L.A. Rams in Week 13. The second shutout win against Green Bay the following week edged the Rams by half a game for the final playoff spot*. With the NFL’s second ranked offense and second ranked defense, the Lions entered the playoffs on a high from their winning streak, poised to make an appearance in Super Bowl V.

As another precursor to the 90s, the Lions had a short-lived playoff stay that was punctuated by an unthinkably poor performance from an entire unit. At Dallas, the offense managed just 76 yards of total offense, more than half of that on their final drive of the game.

Trailing 5-0 (yes, 5-0) late in the fourth quarter, Bill Munson found Earl McCulloch for a 39-yard gain on 4th and 10 to put the Lions deep in Dallas territory for the only time all day. Hopes of a miracle finish were dashed seconds later, when Munson was intercepted to essentially end the game, and seal the only 5-0 final score in NFL postseason history.

In the decades that followed, the Lions and Cowboys continued to have their playoff fates intertwined. Detroit’s only playoff victory since 1957 was a 38-6 win in the Silverdome over Dallas, right before the Cowboys’ dynasty rolled to three Super Bowl rings in the next four years. 2015 saw another trip to Dallas ending in heartbreak for the Lions, dropping a 24-20 game that they seemed in full control of for the first three and a half quarters.

The 1970 Lions may have been the franchise’s most talented team yet, and the season was successful in many ways. However, a mixture of bad luck, tragedy, and unexplainable performance in the biggest moments at the beginning of the decade set the stage for a reputation and ‘cursed’ psyche that has continued to repeat itself again and again, even 50 years later.

*This was the first year of the AFL-NFL merger, and each conference got three division winners and one Wild Card for the playoffs.