This NFL Thursday miniseries takes on the Detroit Lions today, and it’s an interesting history to explore. In 94 seasons, the franchise has just 17 postseason appearances and a mere .453 winning percentage overall. The team started out as the Portsmouth Spartans (1930-1933) before moving to Detroit and becoming the Lions. The organization was dominant in the 1950s, winning three NFL titles in a six-year span (1952, 1953, 1957)—but only one of those teams made this list.
On a different wavelength, the Lions have never made it to the Super Bowl, sadly. The franchise did win an additional NFL title in 1935, so overall, it’s a 4-time NFL championship organization. It just seems like the team hasn’t done much in recent years, with just three playoff visits in the twenty-first century. But Detroit did make the postseason six times in the 1990s, even though the Lions have not actually won a postseason game since 1991, strangely enough, which is surprising.
No. 5: 1956 Detroit Lions
With a 9-3 record, this team finished second in the NFL’s West Division—a half game behind the Chicago Bears, and in the playoff reality at the time, that half game cost the Lions a playoff berth. Despite finishing No. 2 in the SRS ratings, Detroit sat at home for the postseason on its No. 2-ranked offense and No. 3-ranked defense (in a 12-team league). The season came down to the final game, which the Lions lost at Chicago, 38-21, after previously beating the Bears at home.
We don’t have Approximate Value (AV) data for this team, but quarterback Bobby Layne eventually made the Hall of Fame. Seven skill-position players topped 440-plus scrimmage yards, including 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart and 1955 Heisman winner Howard Cassady. After beating the Bears, 42-10, on December 2, though, Detroit couldn’t pull off the sweep, with the offense gaining 208 yards. Consolation? The Bears got hammered in the title game.
No. 4: 1952 Detroit Lions
Tied for the National Division lead at 9-3 with the defending NFL champion Los Angeles Rams, the Lions were No. 1 in the SRS rankings, built on the No. 2 offense and the No. 1 defense. Detroit and L.A. faced off in a division playoff game, and the Lions beat the Rams, 31-21, to complete a three-game sweep of their rivals. After that, it was time for the NFL Championship against the Cleveland Browns: The Lions defense shut down the Browns in a 17-7 win for the title.
Layne once again was the star QB, bolstered by the versatile halfback/end Cloyce Box (924 total yards, 15 total touchdowns). Six players total cleared 380-plus scrimmage yards (including Hart), so the offense still had some quality depth. In the title game against the Browns, Detroit was outgained by 126 yards—but the Lions forced the only two turnovers of the game, and Cleveland was called for 7 penalties that hurt its chances badly; Layne threw only 9 passes.
No. 3: 1962 Detroit Lions
With an 11-3 record, these Lions had the misfortunate of playing in the same Western Division as the eventual champion Green Bay Packers (13-1). So there was no postseason for Detroit (again), despite a No. 2 finish in the SRS rankings. The Lions had the No. 5 offense and the No. 2 defense, but even though Detroit beat Green Bay in Motown to hand the Packers their only loss of the season, the Lions were sitting at home during the NFL Championship Game. These were the times.
Eleven different players posted double-digit AV marks, led by fee safety Yale Lary (20), cornerback Dick Lane (18), and defensive tackle Roger Brown (17). In fact, the top six players were all on defense. QB Milt Plum (10) and receiver Gail Cogdill (10) were the only offensive players to reach double digits. With a plus-138 point differential, Detroit was second in the NFL, only to the Packers, of course, and the Lions lost just 9-7 at Lambeau Field themselves, so this team was good.
No. 2: 1970 Detroit Lions
In the first season of the merged AFL/NFL as one, the Lions finished second in the NFC Central Division with a 10-4 record to claim the wild-card playoff spot that could have come in handy in a few seasons noted above. Either way, Detroit was second across the board: No. 2 in offense, No. 2 in defense, and No. 2 in the SRS ratings. The reward was a road playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, who would lose the Super Bowl. The Lions lost, 5-0, which is odd aplenty.
Again, eleven players reached at least 10 AV, although no one posted more than 13 AV, either—that is surprising. Three of the top players were on offense, though: running back Altie Taylor (13), RB Mel Farr (12), and QB Greg Landry (11). CB Lem Barney (11) was the only other player above 10 AV. The playoff game in Dallas was a defensive struggle, as both teams combined for just 387 yards. Despite committing zero penalties, Detroit turned the ball over thrice in the ugly loss.
No. 1: 1954 Detroit Lions
The best sabermetric team in franchise history reached the NFL Championship Game based on a 9-2-1 record that earned the Lions the Western Division crown. They were the top team in the SRS rankings, based on the No. 1 offense and the No. 3 defense. Yet, we know the old adage: defense wins championships. The Browns had the No. 1 defense, knifing the Detroit offense in a 56-10 victory that gave Cleveland its second title in five seasons after joining the NFL in 1950.
Strangely, the two teams had met in the final regular-season game, with the Lions winning 14-10 on the road. Layne split time at QB this season with the forgettable Tom Dublinski, while seven players gained at least 370-plus scrimmage yards—led by 1948 Heisman winner Doak Walker. It seems like the team gathered in a lot of Heisman winners, huh? But the title game was ugly: The Lions committed a whopping nine turnovers while outgaining the Browns by 28 yards!