| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions get Christmas gifts; is win over Tom Brady in their stocking?
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez hand out gifts for the Detroit Lions, and predict the game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
It’s not exactly breaking news that the Detroit Lions have had a rough 2020, with Saturday bringing their third head coach of the year, a 47-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their third consecutive 10-loss season. (Not to mention their 29th consecutive season without a playoff victory, but, hey, that was locked up last week.)
But it’s the holiday season, so we’ll take one last swing at writing nice things about the Lions: Even with Saturday’s blowout loss, the franchise still has an all-time winning record against the Bucs. In fact, the Bucs are one of six active NFL franchises — sorry, Frankfort Yellow Jackets fans — the Lions have a winning record against since they moved to Detroit in 1934. The others? The Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants.
Let’s take a look at the rivalries between the teams, by descending winning percentage:
Browns: 16-4 (.800)
The Browns joined the NFL in 1950 from the All-American Football Conference, and four of their first seven games against the Lions came in the NFL championship game — 1952, ’53, ’54 and ’57, which was the Lions’ last title game appearance (that’s a tale of woe we’ve covered before).
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But in the regular season, it’s been all Lions, as Detroit went 7-1 against the Browns before they moved to the AFC following the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The two teams faced off just seven times between that move and the franchise’s move to Baltimore after the 1995 season, with the Lions going 5-2. The new Browns, who returned to the league in 1999, haven’t been much more successful; the Lions holding a 4-1 edge. The Browns’ last win against the Lions came in 2001, though they’ll get another shot in Cleveland in 2021.
Falcons: 25-13 (.658)
The Falcons entered the NFL in 1966 and have never shared a division with the Lions. And yet the two franchises have played 38 times — the 10 teams the Lions have played more often are either pre-expansion teams or a longtime division foe (hi, Bucs!). The Falcons and Lions played in all but two years of the Falcons’ first 15 seasons (1966-1980), then every year from 1983-90, then every year AGAIN from 1993-98. Why so often? It’s not an exact map, but for a lot of those seasons, the Lions and Falcons finished in identical spots in their divisions, lining them up for a meeting the following year.
In any event, it resulted in a rivalry tilted toward the Honolulu Blue and Silver early on, with the Lions going 10-3 against Atlanta from 1966-80; 6-2 from 1983-90; and 5-2 from 1993-2001. In case you were wondering, Barry Sanders had more than 500 career rushing yards against five franchises: the Bears (1,846), Bucs (2,195), Packers (2,059), Vikings (1,858) and Falcons (681).
Since the 2002 realignment, the rivalry has become slightly more infrequent — just 10 meetings in 19 seasons — and has fallen to the Falcons, who are 6-4 in those games (despite October’s miracle win by the Lions).
Jaguars: 4-3 (.571)
There’s not a lot of history in this matchup, with the Jags entering the league in 1995 —and suffering a 44-0 blowout (the second biggest spread in Lions history) that season at the hands of a playoff-bound Lions squad. The Jags won the next three (’98, 2004, ’08) as the Lions’ Millen Era crested, and the Lions have gotten election-year victories in their past three matchups, including an October victory that stands as the Lions’ lone win by more than one score this season.
Cardinals: 34-26-4 (.563)
Even though we’re starting with the Lions’ move from Portsmouth, Ohio, to the Motor City in 1934, this rivalry covers three states and two distinct eras. The Cardinals franchise began in Chicago, moved to St. Louis for the 1960 season, then headed farther west, to Arizona, for the 1988 season.
While the Cards were in Chicago, the Lions dominated the rivalry, going 20-9-3. But that was built on a 21-game stretch before the end of World War II in which the Lions only lost twice (both in 1942) to the Cardinals. After the war, though, the Lions dropped to 4-7 against the Cards. The Cardinals’ time in St. Louis was essentially a draw with the Lions, as Detroit went 5-4 while outscoring the Cards 199-147.
The move to the desert has worked in the Cards’ favor, as the Lions are 8-13-1 in the rivalry, including 3-8-1 in Arizona. Still, the Lions are riding a four-game unbeaten streak against the Cardinals — with a game in Arizona coming up next season.
Buccaneers: 31-28 (525)
The Bucs started life as an AFC team, then joined the Lions in the NFC’s semi-awkwardly named Central Division in 1977 (with the Lions winning their inaugural matchup, 16-7, as the teams combined for 363 yards). From 1978-2001 — minus the strike-disrupted season of 1982 — the two teams played twice a year and the Lions went 25-22 against the Bucs.
Luckily for the Lions, the NFL realigned with expansion to 32 teams, and the Bucs were sent to the NFC South (where they promptly won the division and the Super Bowl). Since the separation, the Bucs have a slight edge; Saturday’s victory — even if it felt like two — put them at 6-5.
Oh, and if you were wondering, Tom Brady became the 33rd Buccaneer to throw a pass against the Lions. In the second half, Blaine Gabbert became the 34th. Only the Bears (65), Packers (53), 49ers (41), Rams (36) and Vikings (36) have had more pass-throwers against the Lions since 1950.
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Giants: 19-18-1 (.513)
The Lions’ first victory in Detroit — viewed by 12,000 fans at University of Detroit Stadium, where Calihan Hall’s parking lot is now— came against the Giants; a 9-0 win in which future Hall of Famer Dutch Clark hit a drop kick for a field goal and Father Lumpkin returned an interception for a touchdown in the final seconds. (Yes, even then the Lions had issues on offense. Though, as the Freep put it the day after: “The score does not indicate the margin of superiority which the Lions demonstrated over their rivals.” So yes, we’ve been papering over Lions struggles for 86 years now.)
At the league grew, games between the Lions and Giants decreased in frequency; ahead of the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the Lions were 10-6-1 against the Giants. Since then, they’re just 9-12 to bring the series nearly back to even. The Lions and Giants are set to meet again in 2022, though a finish for both in the same slot in their divisions this year — both teams are 5-9 — would set up a matchup in 2021. Maybe even in front of more than 12,000 fans.