The Detroit football Lions, established in 1934, with one playoff win to their name in the Super Bowl era, are infamous for their heartbreaking losses.
Nationally, everybody knows about the Pete Morelli pass interference, the illegal bat in Seattle, Devin Taylor on Thursday Night Football against the Pack, the 10-second run off against Atlanta, and the hands-to-the-face at Lambeau. In more distant Lions history, people like my Dad and John Dolan’s father Mr. Dolan (@cgd1959 on twitter) have endured generations of Lions losses. Moments such as Marty Morningweg taking the wind in overtime against the Bears in November of ’02, or the Saints beating the Lions thanks to Tom Dempsey (rest in peace) nailing a NFL record 63-yard field goal at Tulane stadium in 1970 come to mind.
While these losses are all well known throughout the nation, I got to thinking about the more under-the-radar losses in Detroit Lions history. The types of losses the rest of America may not know about, but any Lions fan could tell you where they were, or what beer they were drinking while the boys in Honolulu Blue blew yet another game.
So without further ado, here are my top 10 under-the-radar Detroit Lions losses.
Kevin Curtis and Brian Westbrook Annihilate the Lions’ Defense
Year: 2007 – Week: 3
Let me set the scene.
Coming into Week 3 of the 2007, the Detroit Lions were 2-0 coming off one of the most exciting wins in recent memory. They defeated the Vikings in overtime 20-17, snapping a 10 game losing streak against Minnesota. Jon Kitna suffered what was definitely a concussion in the 2nd quarter, but came back into the game for overtime to not only catch his own pass for a 9 yard gain, but set up a game winning field goal for Jason Hanson. Re-live those epic highlights here.
In the offseason, Kitna famously predicted that the Lions would win more than 10 games. Sitting at 2-0, the Viking slayer was considered more of an Oracle than quarterback in Detroit at the time. Week 3 against the Eagles is where the dreams of a 10+ wins season went to die.
Kevin Curtis, a relatively unknown wide receiver, proceeded to catch 3 touchdowns in the first half. Brian Westbrook also rushed for 2 touchdowns, both also in the first half. After 30 minutes of play, the score was Eagles 42, Lions 21.
The Eagles practically gave up in the second half, only scoring two more touchdowns. Coincidentally, the Lions also gave up and scored 0 points in the second half.
Final score: Eagles 56, Lions 21.
While this game may not qualify as a ‘heartbreaker’ but as more of a thrashing, it still put any Lions fan’s dreams of a successful season in check. Jon Kitna simply was not a starting caliber NFL QB, and the defense was terrible. The Lions would actually rebound nicely from this loss, getting to 6-2 at the halfway mark of the season. Unfortunately the team went 1-7 in the last 8 games, just the beginning of a 1-25 stretch that would go from Week 10 of 2007 to Week 2 of 2009.
The Rams go 1-15 in 2009, the Lone Victory Coming Against the Lions
Year: 2009 – Week 9
Fun fact #1, I was at this game. Fun fact #2, this game was blacked out locally.
Perhaps the cruelest irony of the 2008 Lions 0-16 season is that they themselves blew the opportunity to not be alone in futility by being the only team to lose to the St. Louis Rams in 2009.
This game featured incredible moments of ineptitude for both teams. In the second quarter, Rams safety James Butler intercepted rookie Matthew Stafford in the end zone, then ran out of the end zone, only to run back into the end zone to be tackled by Lions running back Kevin Smith for a safety. Right before halftime, the Lions ran a Hail Mary play and Stafford threw it into the crowd.
The defining moment of this game was when the Rams ran a fake field and scored a touchdown in the second half. The game was tied 10-10 in the 4th quarter, but Steven Jackson ran for a 25 yard touchdown with 1:39 left in the game to give the Rams the victory. Stafford finished 14 for 33 passing with no touchdowns and one pick.
The Lions went 2-14 in 2009.
Sam’s First Shank
Year: 2013 – Week: 7
When it comes to the 2013 season, it’s pick your poison when it comes to heartbreaking losses. In fact, this is the first of three games from the 2013 season on this list.
The Bengals went up 21-10 early in the 3rd quarter, and A.J. Green had gotten the better of Calvin Johnson through the game so far.
Yet, Stafford and Calvin the comeback kids got to work in the second half. Calvin caught a touchdown in the third quarter, then made what is perhaps his best catch in his career, leaping over 3 Bengals on an impromptu Hail Mary with 12 minutes to go in the 4th quarter to tie the game 24-24.
This is where the fun begins.
With :35 seconds to go with the game still tied, the Lions have to punt from their own 23. Out trots rookie Sam Martin, who the Lions drafted in the 5th (!!!) round from Appalachian State.
Martin takes a seed snap from Don Muhlbach, punts the ball a booming 80 yards, and the kick is muffed by the Bengals! Jason Hanson comes out and nails the game winning field goal! The Lions win!
Just kidding. Martin shanked it 28 yards and the Bengals took over from mid-field. The Bengals get in range, and Ted Nugent bangs it through from 54. Lions lose, 27-24. Little did us Lions fans know that the shank was cruel foreshadowing for what would take place just a play after the phantom pass interference in the Wild Card game against Dallas in 2014.
Jim Caldwell Hammers in the First Nail of His Coffin
Year: 2017 – Week: 8
You can mark Sunday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers as the first nail in Jim Caldwell’s coffin as head coach of the Detroit Lions.
Let’s just fast-forward to the 3rd quarter, because that’s where it all begins.
The Lions are down 13-12, and have settled for field goals in the red zone twice so far in the game. While he should have taken an easy chip shot to take the lead, the usually conservative Caldwell decides to go for it on 4th & goal from the 1 yard line. The play fails miserably and Stafford gets sacked by Tyson Alualu, and the Steelers take over from their own 2 yard line.
All of a sudden it’s 3rd & 9. It sucked that the Lions got stopped on 4th & Goal, but at least they can get a stop here and get good field position for their next possession, right?
Ben Roethlisberger hits his rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster streaking over the middle for a 98-yard catch and run touchdown. The Steelers grab the lead back 20-12, but Stafford and the Lions offense were unfazed.
They drive right back down the field, and with 12 minutes to go in the 4th quarter it’s 3rd & Goal from the 2 yard line. The handoff goes to Dwayne Washington, but he is stuffed at the one. With the Lions down 8 with only 12 minutes to go, Caldwell will surely go for it, as adding a field goal would still require another touchdown to win the game, right?
Caldwell elects to kick, and Prater drills it to make the score 20-15. And that was the final score of the game.
Sure, this may be revisionist history leaving out that Golden Tate Kris Durham’d (more on that in a moment) the ball on a play that would have put the Lions inside the 25 with 9 minutes to go. Yeah, I’m also leaving out that Marvin Jones let the go-ahead-touchdown pass hit him in the face with just under three minutes to go. The fact of the matter is, this one will always be remembered as the game that Caldwell went for it when he should have kicked, and kicked when he should have went for it.
The Legend of Tiquan Underwood and the Phantom Fumble
Year: 2013 – Week: 12
Phantoms are a looming presence in Detroit Lions history. There’s the phantom of Bobby Layne, the phantom pass interference in Dallas, the phantom face mask on Aaron Rodgers, and the phantom hands-to-the-face in Lambeau just last year. There is one often forgotten phantom however, and that’s the Kris Durham phantom fumble of 2013. But I will get to that later.
This tale begins with Taiquan Underwood, who in this game had 3 receptions for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns. For his entire season in 2013, Underwood totaled 440 yards and 4 touchdowns, meaning that 25% of his yards and 50% of his touchdowns game in just one game.
When you really look closely though, 16% of Underwood’s touchdowns and 19% of his yards for the season came on just one play, an 85-yard touchdown strike from Mike Glennon to put the Bucs up 24-21 early on in the 4th quarter. If Underwood played the Lions for 16 weeks, he’d be in Canton.
But a different irrelevant NFL receiver stole the show at Ford Field that Sunday, and for all the wrong reasons.
No one really knows where Kris Durham came from, he just sort of appeared. But in 2013, he became one of the many random receivers that the Lions tried to develop into a solid second option in hopes that the opposing defense would stop literally put everyone on Calvin Johnson. The “Kris Durham and Matthew Stafford were roommates in college” line was dropped every week by play-by-play guys, a sort of ugly step-sister to “Matthew Stafford is friends with Clayton Kershaw”.
And for a minute there, Lions fans embraced Durham. He caught a Stafford frozen rope to put the Lions in Dallas territory in the famous QB sneak game, and many of us wondered if he and Stafford had some sort of magical connection from their time together at Georgia.
Well, with 5:38 to go in the 4th quarter against Tampa Bay at Ford Field, Kris Durham officially ran out his welcome in Detroit.
Despite 3 Stafford picks, one of them a pick-six, the Lions still found themselves in the game down 3 facing a 3rd & 11 from their own 35. Stafford drops back, throws the open deep out route to Kris Durham who catches it for the first down and more.
But as Durham turns upfield, something inexplicable happens. He loses the football.
No Buccaneer hit him, no gust of wind came from the rafters. He just threw the ball into the field of play, which was then picked up by Tampa’s Kelsey McCray. The Lions phantom strikes again.
Even more unbelievably, Ryan Lindell missed another field goal and despite the now 4 turnovers the Lions are driving again. With just under a minute to go Stafford lofted it up for Calvin Johnson, but it goes out of his hands and into the waiting arms of Jonathan Banks for the interception, who coincidentally the Lions would trade a conditional 7th round pick for in 2018. Lions lose, 24-21.
Completing the Process
Year: 2010 Week: 1
Some may argue that this game doesn’t qualify as under-the-radar as the completing the process rule was referred nationally as the “Calvin Johnson Rule”. Others may argue that it belongs at #1 on this list. So I put it at #5. If you feel like complaining about it, pay $99 a year for a WordPress domain and make your own list.
When looking back, this is the one that started it all. All of the other ref jobs wouldn’t be the same without this one.
Matthew Stafford was sacked by Julius Peppers and injured right before halftime. He would not return to the game, and the Shaun Hill era began. As the second half started, the Lions led 14-13.
The Hill-led attack had not mustered up any points, but the Lions defense remained strong as well. Neither team had scored in the second half, but with 3 minutes left in the game the Bears offense began to move. With 1:32 to go, Cutler found Matt Forte for the score but the Bears 2 point conversion attempt failed, putting the Lions down 5 instead of 7.
All of a sudden, the Lions have life, and they’re at the 25 with :30 seconds left. Hill airs it out to Calvin Johnson who appears to make the catch, and the Lions begin to celebrate. There’s just one problem, the referees call it incomplete on the field.
Calvin caught the ball with both hands, moves the ball to his right hand while falling to the ground, uses the football to get back onto his feet and loses it in the process. While in literally every bar and backyard on earth this is a catch, it simply was not good enough for the Zebras. The Lions lose two plays later, and Detroit vs. Everybody is born.
The Rookie QB Curse Begins
Year: 2012 – Week 13
Fun fact, I was at this game.
For some reason, the Lions just can’t beat rookie quarterbacks, as would eventually be evident with Sam Darnold, and Kyler Murray. This however was the beginning.
After a 2011 season which featured the first Lions playoff appearance since 1999, it was expected that they would build on that success. However the 2012 season did not go to plan and in Week 13 the Lions found themselves at 4-7 coming off a devastating loss to the Texans on Thanksgiving. If they were going to save the season, it had to start now, and for a second there things looked promising.
With just over six minutes to go in the game, the Lions led 33-21 and rookie QB Andrew Luck just threw his third interception of the game to Don Carey. The Lions eventually punted, but with just over three minutes left in the game and up 12 points, the Lions should have this one wrapped up right?
Luck hits fellow rookie LaVon Brazil in the end zone just before the two minute warning, making it 33-28 Lions. The Colts elect not to go for the onside kick and the Lions take over at their own 20. On 1st & 10 the Lions run the ball, and the Colts burn one of their two remaining timeouts. On 2nd & 9, the Lions take a risk and throw to Calvin Johnson down the field and get a pass interference penalty. The Lions are then able to run the clock down to 1:14 left, and are punting from mid-field. They should just be able to pin the rookie QB deep, and with no timeouts left there’s no way he can lead them all the way to score a touchdown right?
Wrong. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Nick Harris puts up a brutal punt that flies out of bounds at the Colts own 25. With only 1:07 left and no timeouts, Andrew Luck marches his team down to the 14 yard line. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down are all incomplete, leaving just :04 seconds on the clock for 4th & 10 from the Lions 14.
Every Lions defender backs up to the goal line, and that leaves Donnie Avery flying across the middle of the field with no one guarding him. Luck flips it to him and Avery bolts into the end zone from the 10 yard line and the Lions fall to 4-8. I still remember watching Cliff Avril walk off the field and throw his helmet to the ground. On the walk back to the car, my Dad said that he would never pay for Lions tickets again until they won a playoff game. He has kept his word, and so have the Lions. The only game we have been at together since was the Ed Dickson Panthers game in 2016 when a family friend gave us tickets. Maybe we should stay away from Ford Field.
Jim Schwartz is Carried Off the Field
Year: 2014 – Week: 5
When it comes to best Lions seasons, 2014 is probably the winner despite its heartbreaking end. Finishing with an 11-5 record in Jim Caldwell’s first season as head coach far exceeded expectations, and the Lions defended the den, going 7-1 at home.
That 1 loss at home is a painful one, and the story of this game actually begins during the 2014 draft, when the Lions selected place kicker Nate Freese from Boston College in the 7th round of the draft.
Nate Freese sucked.
He only lasted three games in Detroit, going 3/7 for his field goals and a brutal 0/4 between 40-49 yards. In week 4 there was a new kicker in town, Alex Henery. Against the Jets he went 1/2 but the one he made was from 50+ yards. With the Lions winning that game 24-17 he earned himself another week on the team. The next game would not go as well.
Week 5 was Jim Schwartz’s return to Ford Field, this time as a defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills. Despite claiming all week that a return to Ford Field was not a big deal, anyone in Detroit who watched him boo-ya fist pump after victories or almost fight Jim Harbaugh knew that this one was going to be personal for him.
The Bills defense played well, and the Lions only scored 7 points on offense, the other 7 coming by way of a Rashean Mathis pick-six. This game only truly gained its fame for the Alex Henery choke job that went down in the second half.
The Lions’ defense had been suffocating all day, and the score at half was Lions 14, Bills 3. Alex Henery botched two field goal attempts in the first two drives of the third quarter, the first from 44 and the second from 47.
The Bills clawed their way back in behind the Kyle Orton led offense, eventually tying the game at 14. The Bills and Lions seemed destined for overtime, but with 1 minute to go Golden Tate took a simple in route and turned it into a 55 yard gain, setting up Alex Henery for a shot at redemption from 50 yards.
That field goal attempt was perhaps the ugliest kick I have ever seen.
From the moment the ball went off Henery’s foot it was spinning sideways. The ball flew to the left and even missed the net, landing somewhere off by the brick wall of Ford Field.
This blown kick set the Bills up in good field position for their own chance to win the game. They moved the ball up the field thanks to a Sammy Watkins reception and Dan Carpenter came out and drilled it from 58 yards. Lions lose, Schwartz is carried off the field like Buddy Ryan.
Some Lions fans could view this game as a blessing in disguise as Matt Prater was signed the week after. It still doesn’t get rid of the sting for me, especially considering if they had won that game they could have ended up 12-4, and hosting a playoff game.
The Raiola Hard Count
Year: 2013 – Week: 3
The misfortunes of the Lions 2012 season started in an improbable week 3 battle in Tennessee, Schwartz’s first return to Nashville since being the defensive coordinator there before taking the gig in Detroit.
With just under 7 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, the Lions finally take the lead after Stafford puts a sidearm bullet right in the hands of Nate Burleson for the touchdown. They then go right back to Burleson on the 2 point conversion to make the score 27-20. And that’s where this game starts to go bananas.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Lions give up a 105-yard kickoff return touchdown to Darius Reynaud, game now tied 27-27. The Lions then punt on their next possession, giving Jake Locker the ball with a little over three minutes to go in the game.
He lofts the ball up to Nate Washington, who catches the ball off of Eric Wright’s back, for a 71-yard catch and run touchdown. Stafford and the Lions offense remained calm now down 7, and began to march down the field and into Titans territory with their next possession.
On 2nd & 10 with 1:30 to go on the Tennessee 35, Stafford drops back and dumps it off underneath to Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew turns to run up field, but runs into Titans corner Alterraun Vernor, who strips the ball from him and runs it 71 yards into the end zone. On the play, Matthew Stafford looks gimpy running, and would not return to the game. Titans lead 41-27.
In the life of a Lions fan about five times a season when the Lions are down big late, you think to yourself, “OK, all we need is a touchdown, an onside kick recovery, a hail mary touchdown, and we’re right back in this thing!”. It’s a sort of Honolulu Blue delusion, and it never, ever comes close to happening.
Except this time it did.
Shaun Hill enters the game and leads the Lions on a 80 yard, :58 second touchdown drive. Titans 41, Lions 34.
Jason Hanson trots onto the field in a now half empty stadium since the Titans fans all thought the game was over, and gets a perfect bounce on the onside kick. The ball pops in the air and lands in the arms of Lions safety Amari Spievey.
On comes Shaun Hill, who launches the ball like a beautiful rainbow to the end zone and it is deflected by Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers. Ayers on the previous drive negated what would have been a game winning interception by roughing the passer, but now with his deflection he has made up for it.
The deflection lands into the arms of Titus Young who leaps into the end zone. The game is now miraculously tied at 41, and we’re heading to overtime folks.
Jake Locker leads the Titans into the red zone but the Lions defense makes a stand, and they’re forced to kick a field goal. The Lions come answering back with a drive into the red zone of their own, but are now faced with a 4th and 1 from the Tennessee 8 yard line.
The plan was to hard count the Titans and try to get them to jump offsides. If they didn’t bite, then the Lions would call timeout to bring on Jason Hanson to extend the overtime period. This plan was relayed to seemingly everyone on the offense, except for Dominic Raiola.
Shaun Hill runs up to the line and puts on a hard count so good that it fooled his own center. Raiola snapped the ball and no one on the Lions moves except him, and Hill flails forward attempting to gain just a yard. The attempt while valiant is unsuccessful, and the Lions lose 44-41 in a game they should never have even been in anyways.
Eagles Snow Bowl
Year: 2013 – Week: 14
This list begins and ends at Lincoln Financial Field against the Eagles. In a game more notable for the insane snowfall, and image of Calvin Johnson’s helmet looking like a snowman head, it’s forgotten that this game was a heartbreaking loss for the Lions, and a catalyst for the meltdown that would take place in the weeks following.
The Lions were 7-5 after a huge Thanksgiving day win against the Matt Flynn Packers. The Lions now controlled their own destiny in a NFC North with the struggling Bears and Vikings, and a Rodger-less Pack.
The Eagles and Lions both struggled in the first half, Lions running back Joique Bell fumbled twice, and the Eagles only gained 82 yards of offense. Thanks to a Nick Foles pick the Lions had good field possession for a drive and were able to punch in a touchdown and 2-point conversion. At halftime the score was Lions 8, Eagles 0.
In the 3rd quarter, the Jeremy Ross show began. The Eagles punted, and Ross returned it 58 yards for the touchdown. The conversion failed (a fade route to Joe Fauria), and the Lions led 14-0.
On the ensuing possession, the Eagles found some juice. Foles hit a big play to Riley Cooper, then a touchdown to DeSean Jackson. The two point conversion fails, 14-6 Lions.
The Eagles got the ball back, and this is when LeSean McCoy took over the game. He gashed the Lions for a 40 yard touchdown scamper at the beginning of the 4th quarter, then the Eagles converted for 2 points, tying the game at 14.
Jeremy Ross answered right back, and on the ensuing kickoff (the Eagles kicker was Alex Henery, by the way) returned another kick for a touchdown. The Lions tried going for two but there was a false start penalty, then had their extra point attempt blocked. 20-14 Lions.
Back came LeSean McCoy, and this was the beginning of the end for the Lions. McCoy gashed the defense for a 57-yard touchdown run, turning Louis Delmas into a snow angel in the process. The Eagles got the two point conversion and led 22-20.
On the next Eagles possession, they scored again, and now led 28-20. The Lions made a last attempt at a drive and got well into Eagles territory when Domonic Raiola struck again, snapping the ball when Stafford wasn’t ready for it. Stafford foolishly attempted to pick the ball up, failed to do so, and the Eagles pounced on it and never looked back.
In the end, the Lions defense surrendered 396 yards in the second half despite the conditions. While this game was more of a slow burn loss than a heartbreaker, it started the free fall for the next two losses that would knock the Lions out of the playoffs with Justin Tucker’s 61 yard field goal, then Stafford’s pick against the Giants. The Lions missed the playoffs, Schwartz was fired, and the Caldwell era began. All because they just simply couldn’t tackle LeSean McCoy.