Why the Detroit Lions aren’t alone in three decades of playoff futility

Detroit Free Press

Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of what might have been the greatest moment in the Detroit Lions’ modern history, or (if your “modern” goes back a bit farther than ours) at least their greatest moment since winning the NFL title in 1957.

At 4 p.m. on Jan. 12, 1992, the Lions were seemingly ready to ascend to the NFC summit. The Central Division champs were coming off a decisive 38-6 victory — their seventh straight win — over the Dallas Cowboys. They needed one more victory — three mighty hours — to reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

[ Lions haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1992: A look back at that day ]

Sure, they were in Washington, playing on the road against the conference’s top seed. And they’d already lost to Washington once before, a 45-0 rout in D.C. to open the season. It was a tall task, indeed. But Washington had dropped two games (including one to those Cowboys) in the final five weeks of the regular season, then hardly looked dominant in a 24-7 playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons.

So … three good hours, right? Not even three good minutes. Two plays in, Lions QB Erik Kramer fumbled. Two plays after that, Washington was in the end zone. Final score: Washington 41, Detroit 10.

Thus started the Lions’ three-decade trek through a playoff landscape turned barren only (mostly) for them. As other teams have sipped often from the cup of glory (not the one supplied by Lord Stanley. Different sport.), the Lions have stumbled through their own personal desert. Not only have they not reached the NFC title game since, they haven’t even won a playoff game. (For what it’s worth, they don’t even have the NFL’s longest active stretch without a playoff victory, but we’ll get to that.)

The 30th NFL playoff tournament since the Lions last won a playoff game begins Saturday. Which makes this a good time — well, as good as any when it comes to the Lions’ recent history — to look at how the league has fared in comparison to the Lions in the postseason, to try and put this three-decade drought into perspective.

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The (lack of) wins

As noted earlier, the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since their Jan. 5, 1992, win over the Cowboys at the Pontiac Silverdome. It’s not for lack of chances, though: The Lions have made eight playoff appearances — 1993 (their most recent division title), 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2011, 2014 and 2016. That’s tied for the second-fewest in that 30-year span, or at least it will be once the Cincinnati Bengals kick off their game against the Raiders at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The only team with fewer? The Cleveland Browns, who have just three playoff seasons (1994, 2002, 2020) but two wins (1994, 2020). They also sat out three entire NFL seasons, so we’ll cut them some slack.

Ah, but let’s not skip past the Bengals too quickly: Cincy owns the NFL’s longest active streak without a postseason win. The Bengals’ most recent postseason triumph came on Jan. 6, 1991. How long ago was that? Just five players from this year’s Bengals roster were alive then — shoot, there are four entire NFL franchises that didn’t exist yet — and head coach Zac Taylor was only 7 at kickoff for the Bengals’ 41-14 victory over the Houston Oilers. So it could be worse, Lions fans.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the New England Dark Lords … er, we mean, Patriots, who have 22 playoff appearances (counting this season) resulting in 48 games and 33 victories. They’re tied with the Packers in playoff seasons, and well ahead of the Pack in the other two categories (42 and 23, respectively).

But back to the Lions, who, yes, have eight playoff losses in 30 years. That’s actually only tied for 19th (with the New York Giants and … ouch … the Carolina Panthers, one of those teams that didn’t exist the last time the Lions won a playoff game). The Packers, meanwhile, have the most playoff losses (19), two more than the Pittsburgh Steelers and four more than the Patriots. Then again, nearly two-thirds of the NFL have as many playoff WINS since 1992 than the Lions have appearances. We’d list them, but well, that’s a lot of teams. We’ll end this section with a forward-looking note: There are two franchises with seven playoff wins each over the past 30 seasons, aka, two franchises ready to join the club of teams with more playoff wins than the Lions have losses … the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Jets. (Of course, based on their respective 2021 seasons, they may not be adding a playoff win to the books any time soon.)

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Conference titles

Obviously, with no playoff wins, the Lions have yet to return to a conference title game. But surely, in an age in which the Packers have been so consistently good in the NFC (thanks to two quarterbacks who shall not be named here), there have been a lot of NFC teams shut out of a shot at the Super Bowl, right?

Well, actually … The Packers have made nine NFC title game appearances, and the San Francisco 49ers are right behind them with eight. In fact, 15 of the 29 NFC title games in our target span have featured the Pack or the Niners, including two featuring both of them. (It could happen again this season, though it would require both the Eagles and 49ers to win Sunday, and then the 49ers to beat either the Los Angeles Rams or Arizona Cardinals next weekend.) The rest of the NFC finalists? Every NFC team has made not just one, but TWO appearances in the conference championship. The only other team shut out? Washington, which is 0-3 in the divisional round since trouncing the Lions back in 1992. (They do have a Super Bowl win that year going for them, though.)

(The AFC’s championship game appearances are similarly spread out, with the Patriots making it 14 times, the Steelers nine and 12 of the 16 teams with at least two appearances. The Dolphins have just one — 1992 — and three teams (you’ve probably guessed two of them already) have none: The Bengals, Browns and Houston Texans.)

While we’re at it, of the 14 teams that have made the NFC title game over the past three decades, 13 have won it, earning a trip to the Super Bowl and two weeks of delirious joy for their fans. The one that hasn’t? The Minnesota Vikings, who have four appearances (1998, 2000, 2009, 2017) and four losses — with two on field goals in overtime.

In the words of our pal Alfred Lord Tennyson (no relation to the AFC’s top-seeded Tennyson Titans), “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Though that may be an argument for Lions and Vikings fans to have on another day.

Super (Bowl) pain

Don’t worry, we’re getting close to the end; we’re just not used to typing “Lions” and “Super Bowl” in the same sentence.

But anyway, the list of teams without a Super Bowl appearance over the past three decades is a little longer: The Lions, Vikings and Washington in the NFC and the Bengals, Browns, Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets and Texans in the AFC. Of those, only the Bengals have a shot this year, so while the Lions might not have GOOD company for another year, they’ll certainly be familiar.

Of the 23 teams that have made it to the Big Game since 1992, six were one-and-dones: The Chicago Bears, Cardinals, San Diego/L.A. Chargers, L.A./Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders and Titans all lost, and the New Orleans Saints won. Three other teams have gone 0-for-2: The Buffalo Bills and the Falcons.

And so we’ll leave you with this last tidbit of hope: Thanks to the Lions’ playoff futility over the past 30 seasons, well, they haven’t won a Super Bowl, but they haven’t lost any either.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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