During the 1950s, the Detroit Lions were the elite team in the National Football League as they won three NFL championships between the years 1952 and 1957.
But following their 1957 NFL title, the Lions traded quarterback Bobby Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was so angry about the transaction that he allegedly said that the Lions would not win for 50 years.
For the next 25 years, the Lions did not win as they made the playoffs only twice in 1970 and 1982, with the latter coming because the NFL expanded the playoffs to 16 teams following the strike-shortened season.
But in 1983, Detroit fans were hopeful as the Lions won their first division title since the 1957 season as they won the NFC Central Division title despite a 9-7 record.
The Lions were coached by Monte Clark, who was in his sixth season as the Detroit head coach, after a seven-year stint as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in which the team won three NFC West titles.
Detroit won the NFC Central in 1983 because of their stingy defense which allowed the second fewest points during the regular season and all-pro running back Billy Sims, who had gained over 1,000 yards for the third time since he was taken as the #1 overall pick of the 1980 Draft.
The Lions’ opponent in their 1983 NFC Divisional Playoff would be the San Francisco 49ers, who were two years removed from their Super Bowl championship season.
The 49ers struggled in their defense of their Super Bowl title as they went 3-6 in the 1982 season and failed to make the expanded playoffs because of their 28th ranked rushing offense.
Needing to bolster the running game to help quarterback Joe Montana, the 49ers used their first round pick in the NFL Draft to select Nebraska’s Roger Craig and acquired Wendell Tyler from the Los Angeles Rams.
While the Niners went from dead last to the top ten in rushing offense, San Francisco had to win their final three games to clinch the NFC West title and send them back to the playoffs, which they did.
But as they headed into the postseason, the 49ers would not have wide receiver Dwight Clark because of torn knee ligaments.
The Lions would also be short-handed as starting quarterback Eric Hipple was out because of sprained ligaments in his left knee which meant that backup quarterback and future college football analyst Gary Danielson would get the start.
The Lions got on the scoreboard first as Eddie Murray drilled a field goal from 37 yards out to give Detroit a 3-0 lead 4:33 into the game.
Detroit was poised for more points on its next drive as they drove to inside 49er territory until Ronnie Lott intercepted a Danielson pass at the 49ers’ 15-yard-line to stop the drive and give the ball to the San Francisco offense.
This lead to a 10-play, 85-yard drive from the Niners which ended with a one-yard touchdown run by Craig to give San Francisco their first lead of the game at 7-3.
Then on the first play of the Lions’ next offensive possession, Danielson was picked off again, this time by rookie linebacker Riki Ellison on a pass intended for tight end Ulysses Norris, giving the 49ers the ball at the Lions’ 24-yard-line.
Four plays later, Tyler punched it in from 2 yards out to give the Niners two touchdowns in just under two minutes and a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Things were only get worse for Danielson as he was intercepted on the Lions’ next two drives by Dwight Hicks and Keena Turner, respectively.
However, the 49ers were unable to convert the turnovers into points and the Lions were fortunate to still only be behind by 11 points.
After the 49ers failed to cash in on any points after Danielson’s fourth interception, the Lions went to Sims to see if he could get provide a spark.
Sims seemed to provide that spark as he galloped for a 56-yard run only to be tackled by 49er cornerback Eric Wright four yards short of the end zone.
The Lions could not get into the end zone and were forced to call on Murray again, who made a 21-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-6 with 4:04 left in the first half.
Detroit got the ball in the final minutes of the first half and was able to get the 49ers’ 37-yard-line with only a few seconds left.
Clark called on Murray to see if he could make a 54-yard field goal, which would be a NFL record for the longest field goal in postseason history.
Murray made the kick as time expired to trim the San Francisco lead to 14-9 as the halftime break.
The score was still 14-9 in the third quarter when Danielson threw his fifth interception of the game as he was picked off by Ellison again, giving San Francisco the ball at the Lions’ 45-yard-line.
A 27-yard completion from Montana to tight end Russ Francis and an 11-yard run by Tyler gave the 49ers a 1st-and-goal from the seven-yard-line, but they could not get into the end zone and had to settle for a Ray Wersching chip shot field goal, a 19-yarder, to increase the San Francisco lead to 17-9.
Following his latest interception, Danielson rebounded by completing six passes on a 10-play, 73-yard drive that ended with Sims scoring on a 11-yard touchdown run to bring the Lions to within one point at 17-16 with 13:32 left in the fourth quarter.
The Lions were given a golden opportunity to take the lead when Craig fumbled the ball and Detroit recovered it at the San Francisco 37.
However, penalties stalled the drive and the Lions had to settle for another Murray field goal from 43 yards out.
But this time, Murray, who had been successful on his three field goal attempts in the game, missed the potential go-ahead field goal and the Niners still had a tenuous one-point lead.
Despite not converting the turnover into points, the Lions got another takeaway on the 49ers’ next offensive possession when Bobby Watkins picked off a Montana pass and returned it 24 yards to the San Francisco 26-yard-line.
This time the Lions did not need to call on Murray as Sims took into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown to put Detroit on top, 23-17 with 4:44 remaining in regulation.
After his costly mistake and a relative ineffective game up to this point (12 of 25 for 151 yards and zero touchdown passes), Montana would respond by leading the 49ers on a drive that was reminiscent of their game-winning touchdown drive that resulted in “The Catch” two years earlier in the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Montana lead the 49ers from their own 30-yard-line to the Lions’27-yard-line in seven plays by the two-minute warning as he completed four passes for 24 yards.
On the first play after the two-minute warning, Montana connected with Francis for a 13-yard gain to the Detroit 14 and a first down.
Then, Montana found Freddie Solomon wide open in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown and after Wersching made the extra point, the 49ers had a 24-23 lead with 1:23 to play.
Needing to get into field goal range, Danielson was able to drive the Lions 49 yards to the San Francisco 25-yard-line with eleven seconds to go.
That is where Clark decided to call on the field goal unit and have Murray attempt a 42-yard field goal that would give the Lions their first playoff victory in 26 years.
Television cameras caught Clark putting his hands together in an apparent prayer that Murray
would make the kick.
But Clark and the Lions’ prayers went unanswered as Murray’s kick sailed wide right by a foot
and a half, giving the 49ers a 24-23 victory and sending them to the NFC Championship Game where
they would face the Washington Redskins the following week.
Montana led a San Francisco rally from 21 points down to tie the game at 21 late in the fourth quarter until a pair of controversial calls went against the 49ers and led to the Redskins’ game-winning field goal and a 24-21 victory.
The 49ers would go 18-1 the following season and win the second of their four Super Bowls during the 1980s.
While the 49ers assumed their role as the NFL’s newest dynasty, the Lions fall back into the doldrums of pro football as they went 4-11-1 in the 1984 season and saw the end of Sims’ career because of a knee injury and the firing of Clark after seven seasons in Detroit.
The Lions would not return to the playoffs until 1991 when another former Heisman Trophy winning running back, Barry Sanders, lead the Lions to the NFC Championship Game after a 38-6 rout of the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Playoffs.
That blowout victory still marks the only playoff win for the Lions since 1957.