1970 Detroit Lions (First Playoff Game Since 1957 Championship)

The Detroit Lions won the NFL Championship in 1935, defeating the NY Giants 26–7, but Lions fans didn’t have much to brag about again until 1952, when they won their second NFL title. They played in three more championship games over the next five years, winning two.

After losing seasons in 1958 and 1959, the team returned to the winning track from 1960 to 1962, having one of their best seasons in 1962. But their 11–3 record that season was only good enough for second place in the Western division, as the Green Bay Packers went 13–1, their one loss coming at the hands of the Lions.

From 1963 to 1968, the Lions’ overall record was a dismal 31–44–9. But Lions fans had high hopes for the 1970 season after the team finished the 1969 season in second place with a 9–4–1 record. It looked like they had good reason to have such high hopes after they outscored their first two opponents by a total score of 78–3.

1970 Detroit Lions

In their first game against the Packers, they gained 266 yards rushing while holding Green Bay to just 50 yds rushing and only five first downs. In week two, the Lions’ defense, led by Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alex Karras, held the Bengals to 140 total yards and six first downs.

Alex Karras and Mike Lucci (Detroit Lions) football cards
Photo Courtesy of Mark Morthier's private collection of Alex Karras and Mike Lucci (Detroit Lions) football cards

The Lions’ defense continued to impress in a week three win over the Bears, holding Chicago to 38 yards rushing and only eight first downs. The Detroit offense played equally well, gaining 140 yds rushing and 229 yds passing. The Lions outscored their opponents in their first three games by a whopping 106–17 score.

But the team came crashing back down to earth in week four at RFK stadium, losing 31–10 to the Redskins. The Lions’ defense which had played so brilliantly in the first three games, got torched by quarterback Sonny Jurgensen who passed for 225 yards and three touchdowns. Redskins running back Larry Brown ran for 101 yards.

But the Lions came back strong in a week five win over the Browns, forcing six turnovers and walking away with a 41–24 win. Receiver Larry Walton had a big game catching four passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. The Lions upped their record to 5–1 with a 16–10 victory over the Bears in week six.

The Bears outgained the Lions 310 yds to 187, but they committed seven turnovers. The Lions’ defensive backs had a tough day, as Bears receiver George Farmer caught six passes for 147 yards. A week seven matchup with the Vikings, also 5–1, would break the tie for first place in the Central Division. The Vikings won 30–17 as the “Purple People Eaters” held the Lions to only 68 yards rushing.

The following week the Lions traveled to New Orleans to play the Saints. Despite having committed six turnovers, the Lions led 17–16 with only seconds remaining in the game. But Saints kicker Tom Dempsey booted an NFL record 63-yard field goal to give his team the win, 19–17. Week nine was a rematch with the Vikings.

The Lions D held the Vikings’ ground game to only 85 yards, but they gave up 228 yds through the air and lost their third game in a row.

Lions fans’ high hopes for a championship season were beginning to dwindle. Part of the problem was that Coach Joe Schmidt couldn’t seem to decide on a starting quarterback. Whenever starter Bill Munson struggled, he was replaced by Greg Landry.

Marching Towards The Playoffs?

Next up on the schedule were the 7–1–1 SF 49ers. The Lions outgained the 49ers on the ground 187 yds to 56 and forced three John Brodie interceptions to win the game easily 28–7.

Running back Mel Farr ran for 117 yds on just 16 carries. Quarterback Greg Landry got the start for the second week in a row and finished the game with a 122.8 passer rating. On Thanksgiving day, the Lions’ defense had a tough time stopping Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff and fell behind 14–0 in the first quarter. But from then on, it was all Lions as their ground game churned out 262 yards.

Mel Farr had another big game, rushing for 104 yards. Greg Landry, now the established starting quarterback, had another excellent game. One of the advantages of having Landry at quarterback is that he could run as well as pass. In this game, he ran for 77 yards on seven attempts.

Next up was the 8–2–1 St.Louis Cardinals on a cold, windy day at Tiger stadium. The Lions’ defense was back to playing the way they had earlier in the season, allowing only 146 total yards and six first downs. It was a defense with three future Hall of Fame players, defensive tackle Alex Karras, cornerback Lem Barney, and cornerback Dick Lebeau. On offense, they had future Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders at tight end.

Final Push To 1970 Playoffs

There were only two games left in the season, and the Lions needed to win them both to have any chance of reaching the playoffs. The Vikings had clinched the Central Division title, which left only three playoff spots. After twelve weeks of play, the Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals all stood at 8–3–1, While the Giants, Cowboys, and Lions were 8–4.

The Lions’ week 13 opponent was the LA Rams. The Lions D held the Rams to just 47 yards on the ground, but they had a tough time trying to contain the Rams’ passing attack, giving up 334 yards; 150 of those yards were gained by Rams receiver Jack Snow. But Detroit prevailed 28–23.

With the Rams and Cardinals losing their week 13 games, the Lions had to win their final game and hope for the Cowboys or Giants to lose. The Cowboys easily won their game against the Oilers, but the Giants lost their game, so now it was up to the Lions. A win would qualify them for the playoffs, but they had to guard against overconfidence, as they were playing the 6–7 Packers.

With only a 6–0 lead going into the fourth quarter, the Lions were making their fans nervous. But two touchdowns in the final quarter, one a 49-yard interception return by Lem Barney, gave Detroit a 20–0 victory and their first trip to the post-season since 1957. It wasn’t a great game for the Lions’ offense, but their defense came through again, allowing only 124 total yards.

Charlie Sanders and Lem Barney (of Detroit Lions) football cards
Photos Courtesy of Mark Morthier's private collection of Charlie Sanders and Lem Barney (of Detroit Lions) football cards

1970 NFL Playoffs (Detroit Lions)

The Lions’ 10–4 record was not the result of an easy schedule, as only six of their fourteen opponents had a losing record. Detroit traveled to Dallas feeling confident and prepared. But their offense couldn’t get anything going all day against the “Doomsday Defense,” gaining just 156 total yards and seven first downs.

The Lions’ defense which had played so well for most of the season, gave up 209 yards rushing, 135 to rookie running back Duane Thomas. But while they may have bent, they didn’t break, allowing only a field goal. Doomsday added a safety to make the final score 5–0. Detroit almost pulled it out toward the end of the game, but a Mel Renfro interception sealed the deal for Dallas.

While it was a disappointing end, it was a season to remember. Tight end Charlie Sanders, running back Mel Farr, center Ed Flanagan, and linebacker Paul Naumoff were all selected to play in the pro bowl. The Lions would not have another legitimate shot at a Superbowl appearance until 1991, when they went 13–4 before losing to Washington in the NFC Championship.

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network

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