It’s an understatement to say that the city of Detroit hasn’t seen a lot of winning NFL football. The 1990s were different—they made the playoffs six times. The 1991 Detroit Lions were the first and the best of that decade, the only time the franchise has reached the conference championship round in the Super Bowl era.
Barry Sanders was the signature player and the future Hall of Fame running back was of the entire league’s brightest stars. He was 1st-team All-Pro in 1991 and only missed the rushing title by fifteen yards. He also caught 41 passes and keyed the league’s ninth-best offense.
Detroit’s offensive line was led by left tackle Lomas Brown and center Kevin Glover. Brown was the midst of a run where he made seven Pro Bowls and Glover was on the threshold of getting three Pro Bowl tickets of his own. The line and the running game provided stability when starting quarterback Rodney Peete went down halfway through the year.
Chris Spielman was the best player on the defense. The inside linebacker and future ESPN analyst was 1st-team All-Pro. Other Pro Bowl players included nose tackle Jerry Ball and free safety Bennie Blades, while corner Ray Crockett contributed six interceptions.
Neither Peete nor Sanders were available for the season opener on Sunday Night in Washington. The Lions weren’t going to win in any event—this was a great Redskins team that ended up winning the Super Bowl. But the injuries made the 45-0 whitewash worse than it might have been otherwise.
Sanders returned for a home game with lowly Green Bay, although he was held to 42 yards. Robert Clark stepped up with 10 catches for 143 yards to lead a 23-14 win. Sanders got rolling the next week with 143 yards against Miami, while the defense contained Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino. The 17-13 win gave Detroit a winning record in the early going.
The Lions went to awful Indianapolis and spotted the Colts ten quick points. Then Sanders took over and rolled up 179 yards, while Indy’s Hall of Fame back Eric Dickerson was held to 17 yards. Detroit won it, 33-24. The winning streak continued at home against Tampa, with 160 yards from Sanders in a 31-3 final.
On the first weekend of October, Detroit hosted Minnesota and dug themselves a 20-3 hole in the fourth quarter. It was time for the passing game to deliver. Peete rifled a 68-yard touchdown strike to Clark and a 16-yard TD pass to Willie Green to get the Lions back in the game. Sanders then bolted 75 yards for the winning score in a 24-20 win. The Lions went into the bye week at 5-1, with a one-game lead on the division’s perennial power, Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears.
A road trip to San Francisco two weeks later was a disaster, with Sanders shut down in a 35-3 loss to a team that eventually finished 10-6. A late afternoon home game with fellow contender Dallas was tied 10-10 at the half, but the Lions forced four turnovers, committed none and dominated the second half of a 34-10 blowout.
Detroit paid a visit to Chicago to start November and the Lions did not look like a team ready to wrest away control of the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay). Sanders was held to 63 yards, Peete was an erratic 19/40 for 218 yards and Detroit lost 20-10. Things got worse a week later—Erik Kramer had to replace an injured Peete for the remainder of the season. And even though Kramer played well in this game—20/30 for 248 yards and would play well down the stretch—the result was a 30-21 road loss at Tampa.
The mediocre Los Angeles Rams came to Detroit for a late afternoon game. After a mostly sluggish day, Kramer tossed a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes to key a 21-10 win. Sanders got back in track up in Minnesota with a big 220-yard game and the 34-14 win pushed the Lion record to 8-4.
It was Thanksgiving Day and the Bears were coming to town with a one-game lead in the NFC Central. The Lions intercepted Jim Harbaugh four times, two of them from Terry Taylor. The 16-6 win put Detroit in the lead for the wild-card spots (prior to 2002 the playoff format was three division champs and three wild-cards) and pulled them even with Chicago. But the earlier loss to Tampa Bay still loomed—it was the difference in the tiebreakers, which were controlled by the Bears. Detroit needed to keep winning and get help.
They upheld their end of the bargain at home against the playoff-bound New York Jets. Again playing for the broader audience of the late Sunday afternoon TV window, Sanders ripped off early touchdown runs of 14 & 51 yards. Even though the Jets would later tie the game, the Detroit defense delivered eight sacks and five turnovers in a 34-20 win.
It was bitter cold in Green Bay for the season’s penultimate game. Detroit clung to a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter when their good punt returner, Mel Gray, broke a 78-yard return to the house. It was the difference in a 21-17 win that sealed at least a wild-card spot.
Detroit had to face the AFC’s best, the Buffalo Bills, on the road to end the season. But the timing was working in the Lions favor. The Bills had everything clinched and would be resting starters. It was the difference in a 17-14 overtime win where the Lions were bailed out by Sheldon White’s 18-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The timing continued to be good the following night in San Francisco. The 49ers were seen as the best team to miss the playoffs and were looking to make a major statement on Monday Night Football. Their victims would be the Chicago Bears. Steve Young, Jerry Rice & Co., piled up a 52-14 beatdown of the Bears and Detroit was division champs for the first time since 1983.
Winning the division also moved Detroit up to the 2-seed, so they were able to get a week off before starting the playoffs in the divisional round. A couple rematches awaited them with results quite similar to the regular season.
For the first game, that worked out just fine. The Cowboys came into Detroit, and the Lions again won the turnover battle over Dallas four-zip. One of those was a 41-yard interception return that Mel Jenkins took the house, as Detroit built up a 17-6 lead at the half. Sanders was mostly held in check, but Kramer was on fire.
He threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Green that started the scoring in the first quarter. Kramer threw two more touchdowns in the third quarter that put the game away. He went 29/38 for 341 yards. And Barry wasn’t going to be held down forever, eventually breaking a 47-yard touchdown run that put the finishing touches on the 38-6 win.
The second rematch was one Detroit could have done without. They ended the season where they had begun, back in the nation’s capital. This time they turned the ball over, handing a superior opponent 10 early points off miscues. The Lions stayed in the game for a half this time around. And they didn’t get shut out. But that was about the only difference. A 17-10 game at halftime ended up a 41-10 party for the Redskins.
1991 was still a fantastic year for the Detroit Lions franchise and with Sanders in the backfield, they would make several more playoff trips. In that sense, the good times were just beginning But they also never won another division title and never won another playoff game. Both are streaks that continue to this day.