“For one thrilling Sunday, it was perfect chaos, all these inspired men doing things they weren’t supposed to do, exploding like a silver-and-blue volcano after years of bubbling frustration. They took the ball and scored, they took it and scored again, and again, and again, and again, and when that wasn’t enough they sacked the quarterback, they dove on fumbles, they slammed into receivers, they roared and yelped and pounded their collective football fists until all the Dallas Cowboys could do was watch from the turf like some bully who had just been decked by a schoolkid, dazed, defeated, in awe of the fury they had just witnessed.”
That was the first paragraph of the column I wrote 32 years ago for this newspaper, on a chilly January afternoon. It was the last time the Detroit Lions won a playoff game.
Yes, I was there — maybe you were, too — in the raucous confines of the Pontiac Silverdome, a stadium of dubious history, including the day the roof collapsed.
None of us thought it would be more than three decades waiting on the next postseason success. Not the journalists. Not the fans. Certainly not the players.
“We were determined to win and show that we could compete with teams like Dallas, San Francisco, or the Redskins, the top teams at the time,” recalled Kevin Glover, the Lions starting center for that game. “We had to prove that we were just as good as they were.”
On that Sunday, they were more than “just as good,” they were far better. The Lions destroyed the celebrated Cowboys, who had come in determined to stop Detroit’s superstar threat, running back Barry Sanders.
“All anybody ever cared about was stopping Barry,” recalled Erik Kramer, the Lions starting quarterback. “Dallas used virtually a rotating eight-man box.”
As a result, besides one amazing fourth-quarter touchdown run, Sanders was shut down most of the day.
But that left Kramer more room to operate than a pickpocket in Grand Central Station. He sliced Dallas apart, hitting Willie Green eight times, Herman Moore six times, Mike Farr five times.
As Lomas Brown, the starting left tackle put it last week, “They expected us to come out and run it down their throat. Instead, we threw it down their throat.”
Kramer lobbed 38 passes, completed 29, amassed 341 yards and lasered three touchdowns. The Cowboys had basically said to him, “We dare you to beat us,” and as I wrote 32 years ago, that’s a dangerous thing to tell any man, even one who once played in the Potato Bowl.
History repeating itself?
“I think everything is magnified, win or lose, in the playoffs,” Kramer opined last week. “When you win, everyone feels happy. So here we are still talking about that game some 30 years later.
“Unfortunately, the case with the Lions is that they haven’t won again.”
That could all change tonight at Ford Field. It’s a new stadium. A new location. A totally new team, coach, and GM. The players from the last successful playoff team are now in their 50s or 60s. But the gauntlet being smashed is the same as it was on Jan. 5, 1992:
Prove you belong.
The current Lions have dazzled critics from the season opener, when they outpaced the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on their home field — in front of a national TV audience.
Since then, much of America has become enamored with Detroit’s kneecap-chewers and their jut-jawed coach, Dan Campbell. Almost everything has seemed possible. The Lions never hit a slump. They bounced back from all five of their losses with victories, and they collected 12 wins, good enough for their first division crown in 30 years.
But many names flashing brightly for the Lions — Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jahmyr Gibbs, Aidan Hutchinson, Sam LaPorta, Jameson Williams, Penei Sewell, Frank Ragnow — have never played a postseason snap. Campbell has never steered a playoff game as head coach.
And Detroit’s most important player, quarterback Jared Goff, is playing his first postseason game in a Lions jersey against the team that essentially said it could do better without him, the L.A. Rams.
So the deck is stacked. L.A. is playing with a bit of house money, having been given up on after a 3-6 start to the season. Since then they have won seven of eight with stingy defense and fluid offense, led by the quarterback Detroit traded away, Matthew Stafford, who returns tonight for the first time in an opposing uniform. And remember, two years ago, while the Lions were going 3-13, the Rams won the Super Bowl.
Still, there are parallels with this group and the last Lions team to win in the postseason.
“We were sticking our chests out before that (1992) game,” Brown recalled, “because we felt real confident going into it.”
“And I remember how close we were as teammates,” Glover added.
This current Lions team has confidence and closeness as well. It has a certain-to-be thunderous home crowd tonight. It has the oddsmakers, who list Detroit as a three point-favorite.
But does it have destiny?
Exorcising the past can happen tonight
Not many people remember that buried in that 1992 box score that read “Detroit 38, Dallas 6,” was a field goal by a kicker named Eddie Murray. His previous playoff kick had come eight years earlier, on the final day of 1983, in a game against San Francisco in Candlestick Park. All he had to do was make a 42-yard field goal in the closing seconds to win it.
Instead the kick sailed wide right, the Lions lost, 24-23, and went into a nearly decade-long playoff famine. Murray was the goat. Detroit felt snakebit.
But after the Dallas win at the Silverdome, Murray came into the locker room and proudly announced, “I have just answered my last question about 1983!”
Tonight, the Lions have a chance to do the same thing. Win, and never answer another question about a three-decade postseason drought.
Win, and never answer another question about “Same Old Lions.”
Win, and never answer another question about head-to-head, when a game truly matters, who comes out on top, Stafford or Goff?
Let’s face it. The ghosts are on the run. Tonight the Lions can chase them out of Ford Field for good, send them scampering up Woodward all the way to Pontiac, where they can disappear in the snow-covered parking lot where the Silverdome, now demolished, used to sit.
Are they up to such a spotlight?
“Yeah, we are, I know we are,’ Campbell said last week. “I’m not worried about that, the stage, all of those things, because we’ve dealt with that for a while now and I feel like we’re prepared for that.
“It’s going to come down to all the same things it does in every game for us, it’s going to be the fundamentals. And I think the other thing … which is a little bit new is … players don’t press to make a play go the other way … you’re trying so hard to make a play that you get out of position, or you put a teammate out of position and it puts a strain on everybody around you and all of a sudden, everything breaks down.”
We’ve seen enough of that. We’ve seen it in cellar-dwelling regular seasons. We’ve seen it in the meager eight playoff games since 1992, all of them losses.
Enough. Time to end all that. Time to make new history.
“Are you OK to surrender being part of the last victorious Lions playoff team?’ I asked Glover.
“We’ve been ready to let that title go,” he said.
I teasingly reminded Glover that after the 1992 win, with the Lions heading to the NFC championship game for a shot at the Super Bowl, he was asked how many more wins the Lions had in them. He said “two.”
“Uh, I don’t remember that quote,” Glover said, laughing.
He’s rewriting history. That’s OK. If the Lions do the same tonight, this whole city will go insane.