The city of Detroit hasn’t seen too many sustained stretches of good pro football. But the 1990s were an exception. The Lions had the great Barry Sanders in the backfield and were a consistent contender for the playoffs throughout the decade. The 1994 Detroit Lion team that got into the postseason was one part of that run.
Detroit had a made a bold move in the offseason. They were looking for a quarterback. Scott Mitchell had caught everyone’s eye when he played well in Miami after the Dolphins lost Hall of Fame QB Dan Marino for the year in 1993. Marino was healthy in ’94, so Mitchell was available. He hit the free-agent market, and the Lions signed him.
It was a move that did not pay immediate dividends. While Mitchell would eventually improve, 1994 did not go well for him. He only completed 48 percent of his passes for a meager 5.9 yards-per-attempt. He was mistake-prone. After nine games he was injured. Veteran backup Dave Krieg took over and helped rescue the season.
Mitchell and Kreig had some terrific targets to throw too. Herman Moore was a Pro Bowl wide receiver, catching 72 passes and averaging 16.3 yards-per-catch. Brett Perriman caught 56 balls. Sanders added 44 receptions out of the backfield.
But ultimately, this offense came back to Barry running the football. With Pro Bowl tackle Lomas Brown leading the way, Sanders went off for nearly 1,900 yards at an astonishing 5.7 yards-per-clip. He was the most electric running back of his era and he added another All-Pro season to his Hall of Fame resume in 1994.
Overall, even with Mitchell struggling for more than half the season, the Detroit offense still ranked sixth in the NFL for points scored. It was the defense that prevented them from reaching greater heights. Pro Bowl inside linebacker Chris Spielman was the only real bright spot on a unit that finished 19th in a 28-team league for points allowed.
The Lions opened the season at home against the mediocre Atlanta Falcons. For whatever future struggles lie ahead, Mitchell played well in his debut. He threw three touchdown passes, two to Anthony Carter. Sanders ran for 120 yards. It took overtime, but Detroit won 31-28.
A road trip to face a key rival in the Minnesota Vikings didn’t go quite as well. The defense played a good game. But there was no passing attack to speak of. Sanders was held to 16 yards on just 12 carries—numbers that would oddly foreshadow how the year would end. Detroit’s offense kept bogging down, and they missed a couple field goals on top of it. The result was a 10-3 loss.
Things didn’t look to get better as Detroit made a Monday Night visit to play the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. But in one of the memorable outcomes for the entire league that year, Sanders was electric. He ran for 194 yards. Mitchell threw a couple of TD passes. In another overtime outcome, the Lions shocked the country with a 20-17 upset win.
But just as quickly, they came back to earth. The New England Patriots were a solid playoff team under Bill Parcells in 1994, but they really didn’t come together until the second half of the season. Mitchell was awful in a home date with the Patriots—he threw three interceptions. It negated a pair of Sanders touchdown runs of 30 yards or longer. Detroit lost 23-17.
And it got worse on the road against a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. Mitchell was erratic, going 13/30 for 130 yards. The Lions gave up a special teams touchdown. The 166 yards on the ground they got from Sanders weren’t enough to prevent a 24-14 defeat.
The San Francisco 49ers joined Dallas as the two dominant teams of the NFL in the first half of the 1990s and the 49ers were on their way to a Super Bowl title this season. Detroit came out strong against San Francisco at home. Mitchell hit Perriman on a 33-yard touchdown pass. The Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Then the 49ers reeled off 27 straight points. Mitchell threw a 26-yard TD pass to Moore, but it ended in a 27-21 loss.
Detroit entered their bye week reeling at 2-4. The promise of the preseason—I still recall making the wildly misguided prediction that the acquisition of Mitchell would lead to a Super Bowl championship for the Motor City and feeling great about it after the Dallas upset—was fading fast.
The Lions were in a jam-packed race in the old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay). A home game with Chicago on the far side of the bye was now must-win. Mitchell was awful against the Bears—6/17 for 59 yards. But Barry was Barry—167 yards on 23 carries. And the Lions’ excellent return man, Mel Gray, made the difference with a 102-yard kickoff return. Detroit got a survival win, 21-16.
A big road game against the New York Giants, who were also on the playoff fringe, was up next. Mitchell made some big plays to Moore—the latter caught nine balls for 106 yards. Mitchell also made his share of mistakes, with three interceptions. Barry stepped up again, with 146 yards on 26 carries. This time it was the Lion defense producing some points—a touchdown and a safety. For the third time this year, Detroit went to overtime. And for the third time, they won, 28-25.
Green Bay, with a young Brett Favre at quarterback was another team with playoff hopes still looking to find their footing. The Packers and Lions met at old County Stadium in Milwaukee, where Green Bay used to play three home games a year. The game would prove to be one of those moments where a ray of light comes through the darkness.
The darkness was this—Mitchell had another hideous game, going 5/15 for 63 yards. The Lions dug themselves a 24-0 hole. Mitchell was also injured. Krieg came in. A battle-tested veteran who quarterbacked several playoff teams in Seattle during the 1980s, Krieg put up big numbers. He went 23/33 for 275 yards. Moore had another 100-yard game. It wasn’t enough to turn around this deficit, but Detroit made a game of it before losing 38-30.
Sanders put on a show a week later for the Sunday Night audience. He ran for 237 yards, carrying his team to a 14-9 home win over Tampa Bay. But a week later in Chicago, Barry was shut down. He was held to 42 yards. The Lions lost 20-10. Krieg had completed just 11 passes for 148 yards. It seemed the forced quarterback change wasn’t going to matter. And at 5-6, Detroit was in real trouble.
Their traditional Thanksgiving Day game was at hand. Buffalo was coming in. The Bills were the four-time defending AFC champions. But they would fade this season and miss the playoffs. The Lions would surge. The ships passed on the night on Turkey Day.
Krieg got rolling with a 51-yard touchdown pass to Moore in the first quarter. Krieg found Aubrey Matthews on a 28-yard TD pass in the third quarter. Krieg and Perriman connected on a 12-yard scoring play in the fourth quarter. For the day, Krieg went 20/25 for 351 yards and no mistakes. With a 28-21 lead, defensive back Willie Clark sealed the win with a Pick-6. The 35-21 final got Detroit back to .500.
With four games to play, the Bears were leading the NFC Central at 8-4. The Vikings were 7-5. The Packers joined the Lions at 6-6. There were three wild-card spots available. The Philadelphia Eagles were 7-5. Atlanta was 6-6. New York, and the Arizona Cardinals were giving chase at 5-7. So, Detroit was tied with Green Bay and Atlanta for the final spot in the bracket, but a wide range of outcomes remained possible.
And that made the stakes for a late Sunday afternoon home game against the Packers enormous. It was a vintage battle between Sanders and Favre. Detroit fell behind 14-3 early, but rallied to take a 24-21 lead by halftime. They fell behind 31-24 in the second half. Barry was running wild, 188 yards on just 20 carries. The Lion defense intercepted Favre twice and they rallied to get a huge 34-31 win.
A road date with the lowly New York jets was on early Saturday afternoon and Barry kept right on running. He racked up 127 yards in an 18-7 win. Detroit had surged to 8-6. They now trailed 9-5 Minnesota for the division lead. The Lions and Bears were tied for the top wild-card spot. In the three-division format that existed prior to 2002, this was the 4-seed and meant a home game for the playoffs. But the Packers, Giants, Cardinals, and slumping Eagles were all still in pursuit at 7-7.
It was time for another divisional home game with massive implications. The Vikings came in for an early Saturday afternoon kickoff. With the score tied 3-3, Gray ripped off a 98-yard kickoff return. Detroit led 20-10 at the half. Krieg played an efficient game, going 15/20 for 160 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Sanders had TD runs from 18 yards and 64 yards. The rout was on in the second half. The Lions won 41-19.
Detroit was now in a three-way tie atop the NFC Central, with Minnesota and Chicago also 9-6. Green Bay was giving chase at 8-7. New York and Arizona were still in the wild-card mix at 8-7. The way the tiebreakers fell, the Lions were second in line for the division title behind the Vikings. The head-to-head win over the Giants was looming large, although a playoff berth wasn’t yet in the bag. Green Bay, at 8-7, had tiebreakers on everyone in the division, so they could still vault all the way up the ladder in the final week.
The season finales in the NFL were played over Christmas. Most of the league was going on Saturday, Christmas Eve. Detroit was going to playoff-bound Miami on Christmas Night. Minnesota was playing on Monday Night.
So, the Lions watched. A loss by Arizona, and a win by Green Bay put all four NFC Central teams in the playoffs. They would all match up with each other, effectively turning Wild-Card Weekend into the NFC Central Tournament. Chicago’s loss had ensured Detroit at least the 5-seed. But they needed to win in Miami to get a home game and keep their division title hopes alive.
The Dolphins were in the playoffs, but they had to win to capture the AFC East, and they played like a hungry team. The Detroit offensive line did not play well, Krieg was sacked five times. Barry was held to 52 yards. The Lions dug themselves a 27-10 hole at the half and a late rally was not enough to avert a 27-20 loss. They were going on the road for the postseason. When Minnesota won the following night, Detroit knew they were headed to Green Bay.
An early afternoon kickoff on New Year’s Eve started the playoff weekend. It was unseasonably warm in Green Bay, but the Detroit offense was completely shut down. Krieg went 17/35 for 199 yards. While the Lion defense hung in there, they didn’t force mistakes from Favre. But the biggest blow was what happened to Sanders. In a historic display of defensive dominance, Green Bay held the great running back (-1) rushing yards on just 13 carries. Detroit lost 16-12 in a game that didn’t feel as close as it actually was.
For better or for worse, this season captured what a lot of this era was about for the Detroit Lions. They took their fans on exciting roller-coaster rides. They usually made the playoffs. But they also went home quickly. That was the story in 1994.