The Detroit Lions had been on a nice three-year run of playoff appearances from 1993-95, but they had finished out of the money in 1996 and were well behind the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the old NFC Central (the current NFC North plus Tampa). The Lions were looking to get back in the dance—and when it came to dancing, few in NFL history have ever had better footwork their elite running back, Barry Sanders, who put up his best season.
After splitting their first four games, the 1997 Detroit Lions hosted the Packers in the old Pontiac Silverdome, and picked off three Brett Favre passes en route to a 26-15 win. With a record over .500, and a win over the defending Super Bowl champs, maybe this year would turn it out all right.
But head coach Bobby Ross saw his go through a stretch that would see them fall to 4-6 and continue to try the patience of their poor fans. Then Detroit responded with consecutive home wins over Minnesota, Indianapolis and Chicago, before a loss at playoff-contending Miami put their backs against the wall again.
Detroit answered the bell and won at Minnesota 14-13, where the defense held Viking quarterback Randall Cunningham to 77 passing yards and Lion counterpart Scott Mitchell threw for 255 yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Herman Moore that pulled out a 14-13 win.
Sanders was having an MVP-caliber season and the offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowl center Kevin Glover. Along with Mitchell and Moore, the offense had the weaponry to score. Defensively the talent wasn’t as great, but the front four had two good talents in end Robert Porcher and tackle Luther Elliss. It didn’t seem like this team should have go to the final week of the regular season to fight for a playoff berth, but that’s what they were faced with.
A couple weeks later the Lions earned their playoff spot, beating a New York Jets’ team, coached by Bill Parcells, that was also in a must-win spot. After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter, the Lions chipped their way back into the game and then won it 13-10 on a touchdown run by Sanders in the fourth quarter. The extraordinary running back would share MVP honors with Favre.
It was time for the playoffs and the opponent was Tampa Bay, who’d live up to their up-and-comer reputation under head coach Tony Dungy. The Buccaneers did it with defense and that D was out in force on the final Sunday in December. Sanders was held to 65 yards, Tampa Bay led 20-0 in the third quarter and coasted in to a 20-10 win. It was a disappointing end, but at least the 1997 Detroit Lions had gotten back in the dance. And Sanders got his due with the co-MVP award.