The Barry Sanders Era in Detroit had its first big breakthrough in 1991, when the Lions reached the NFC Championship Game. After a hard fall to last place in 1992, it looked like that breakout might be a fluke. The 1993 Detroit Lions answered those doubts—they won a division title, returned to the postseason and begin a string of playoff appearances that carried them through the decade.
Sanders had a Pro Bowl season. Even in a year where he missed four games due to injury, Barry rushed for over 1,110 yards, and his 36 catches were third-most on the team. He ran behind an offensive line that was keyed by future Hall of Fame tackle Lomas Brown having a Pro Bowl season of his own. Herman Moore opened up space from his wide receiver spot, catching 61 balls at better than fifteen yards a pop. Brett Perriman was a reliable second receiver and Willie Green a big play threat.
The journey at quarterback…well, that was a little more interesting. Rodney Peete had the job when the season opened and he did start ten games. His 62 percent completion rate was fourth-best among starting QBs. His 6.6 yards-per-attempt, while mediocre, could have been managed.
But what couldn’t be managed was his 6-14 TD/INT ratio. Or being intercepted on an astonishingly high 5.6 percent of his throws, easily the worst in the league. The result was the quarterback job being up for grabs and Peete ending up on the bench for the season’s biggest moments. And the offense as a whole finished 16th in a 28-team league for points scored, in spite of having a generational talent in the backfield.
Detroit made a big move in the offseason to upgrade their defense. They acquired outside linebacker Pat Swilling from New Orleans. In retrospect, the Lions lost on the trade—they gave up a draft choice that the Saints used to get a Hall of Fame offensive lineman in Willie Roaf, just at a point when Swilling’s decline from being one of the game’s best was beginning.
But in fairness, Swilling still had a Pro Bowl year in 1993. He was the only one on the defense to do so, a unit that would rank 15th in the NFL for points allowed.
The season opened at home against a subpar Atlanta Falcons team. Sanders struck first with a 26-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter. Linebacker George Jamison returned an interception for another TD. The Lion defense shut down the Atlanta running game and came up with six sacks. The result was an easy 30-13 win.
A visit to Foxboro was up next. The Patriots were beginning a rebuilding project under Bill Parcells and were not a good team. But they played a lot of close games and this was one of them. Sanders did his thing, going for 148 yards on 32 carries. Peete struggled and threw three interceptions. Detroit needed overtime to escape with a 19-16 win.
Swilling’s return home to New Orleans was a disaster. The Lions were crushed up front, giving up 172 yards on the ground. Barry only got 16 carries, while Peete was sacked five times and then benched for Andre Ware midway through the 14-3 loss.
Ware, a former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Houston, who never really panned out in the pros, got the start the following week against the mediocre Phoenix Cardinals at home. Pass protection was still porous, as Ware hit the deck five times. But he steered clear of the mistakes and a 3-0 edge on turnovers was the reason Detroit won the football game, 26-20.
But a road date to face a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad showed that Ware was not any kind of long-term solution. He was erratic and was pulled for Erik Kramer. Even though Barry ripped off 130 yards, including an early TD that staked the Lions to a 10-zip lead, they fell apart and lost 27-10.
Detroit went into a bye week at 3-2, but looking for answers. Particularly, looking for a quarterback. Peete got his job back when they returned to play at home against Seattle two weeks later. Moore stepped up and caught eight balls for 98 yards. Sanders ran for 101 yards. The Lions held a 14-7 lead in the third quarter when a red-zone stop on defense forced a Seahawks field goal. Mel Gray then returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Detroit pulled away to win 30-10.
Peete played his best game of the season the following week in Los Angeles against the Rams. He went 15/25 for 249 yards. Moore caught six of those balls for 120 yards. Detroit won 16-13.
The Lions were 5-2, but they had yet to play a team that would finish the season over .500. Of their first seven opponents, only the Saints might have even been reasonably expected to do so. So the record was nice, but in a balanced division, there were plenty of key tests ahead. And the first one came on Sunday Night in Minnesota.
With Sanders being kept in check, held to 64 yards on 14 carries, the test was being failed when Detroit trailed 27-13 in the fourth quarter. They were backed up deep in their own end. Then Peete and Moore hooked up on a 93-yard touchdown pass. Peete finished the night 20/28 for 273 yards and led a fourth-quarter flurry that produced a 30-27 win.
Tampa Bay made their return visit to Detroit a week later (prior to the realignment of 2002, the Bucs were in the NFC Central, along with the four current teams of the NFC North). The Lions got some revenge when Sanders went off for 187 yards and led a 23-0 whitewashing. Detroit was riding high at 7-2 when the second bye week (a concept the NFL thankfully dropped after just this one season) arrived.
Green Bay was in their second year with Brett Favre at quarterback and aiming for a breakthrough playoff appearance. Detroit went to Milwaukee, where the Packers used to play three home games a year, for the first meeting. Sanders was kept under control, Peete was outplayed by Favre and the Lions lost 26-17.
The stretch of big divisional games continued when contending Chicago came in for the annual Thanksgiving Day game at the old Silverdome. To call the result a disaster for the Lions understates the case. Not only did they lose 10-6, but Sanders injured his left knee. He was out for at least a few weeks.
Without the great running back to take the pressure off, Peete was completely exposed at home against Minnesota ten days later. He threw four interceptions. Ware came in threw another one. In spite of a good effort from the Detroit defense, the Lions lost 13-0.
A season that had such possibilities just a month ago was now reeling. But it was far from lost. Detroit’s 7-5 record was still tied for first in the NFC Central, along with Green Bay and Chicago. Minnesota was a game back at 6-6.
The alignment of the time had just three divisions per conference, meaning there were three wild-card berths available. While the runner-up in the NFC East (either the New York Giants or Dallas Cowboys) would clearly get one of them, the other two were wide open. And New Orleans, at 7-5, was the only other contender outside the NFC Central. So with everything still on the line, head coach Wayne Fontes gave the quarterback job to Kramer. And to further underscore his dissatisfaction, the head coach fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
Another scheduling quirk of the pre-2002 era was that last-place finishers in the same conference played each other twice the following year. Thus, Detroit went to Phoenix for a second game against the Cardinals. The Lions finally found a running game, with Derrick Moore gaining 107 yards. Kramer played well, going 19/25 for 257 yards and three TD passes. Detroit snapped their losing streak with a 21-14 win.
The potent San Francisco 49ers, headed for the 2-seed in the NFC, came into Motown for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. Kramer had another good game, going 19/29 for 220 yards with no mistakes. But it was drop in the bucket compared to the offensive avalanche Steve Young’s 49ers unleashed. Detroit gave up 565 yards of total offense and got crushed, 55-17.
At least no one in the NFC Central was really good enough to step up and take the bull by the horns. Chicago was on a two-game losing streak that dropped them to 7-7. Minnesota was also 7-7. Outside the division, so was New Orleans. So Detroit and Green Bay were sitting on 8-6 records, tied for first and looking at a head-to-head showdown in the final week of the season.
Before that was a visit to the Windy City on the day after Christmas. Kramer completely outplayed Bears’ counterpart Jim Harbaugh, going 23/31 for 223 yards. Kramer was the difference in a 20-14 win that clinched at least a wild-card spot. Green Bay held serve, clinching a wild-card berth of their own. The NFC Central would come down to one game in the Silverdome.
By the time kickoff arrived, it was known that the Lions and Packers would be the #3 and #6 seeds, depending on the outcome of this game. Meaning they were guaranteed to play each other again in the Wild-Card Round. But there was still the matter of NFC Central pride, to say nothing of homefield advantage for next week.
Detroit trailed 20-16 after three quarters. But even in his later years, Favre could be more than a little mistake-prone. As a young quarterback, the tendency was even more pronounced. The Lions picked off four passes, turned everything around in the fourth quarter and won 30-20. They were NFC Central champs.
The news kept getting better. Barry was back and healthy for the playoffs. On a late Saturday afternoon in Detroit, he and Favre put on an electrifying show. Sanders went off for 169 yards. Perriman caught 10 balls for 150 yards. Favre was having a big day of his own. But this time it was Kramer who made the biggest mistake.
Leading 17-14 and driving, late in the third quarter, Kramer threw a ball into coverage that was intercepted in the end zone and brought back all the way to the house. The Lion quarterback still led another drive and gave his team a 24-21 lead. But Favre had the last word, throwing a late touchdown pass that broke Detroit’s heart, 28-24.
Any loss like this that ends a season, especially to a division rival, is always hard to swallow. But Detroit had gotten back in the playoffs. And it continued through the decade. This was the first of three straight playoff trips, four in five years and five in seven years. All on top of the ’91 NFC Championship Game trip. The 1993 Detroit Lions were a big part of a rare run of success for this franchise.