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The best Detroit Lions team in franchise history

The best season in Detroit Lions franchise history might also be the team’s strangest one, too.

Now, “best” comes with a few caveats given we know the Lions have never won a title in the post-merger, Super Bowl era of the NFL. Given the context of measuring up Lions’ past seasons, it’s only fair to keep this in perspective of the modern era (1970–present). In that context, though, Detroit has had only 13 winning seasons (over .500) in 50 years.

1991-92 Lions season

While the Lions possess the “lovable losers” label, the 1991 season is an unforgettable one for many reasons. For one, it still stands as Detroit’s best individual regular-season record, going 12-4 in 16 games and then 1-1 in the postseason.

Another reason was a quarterback change mid-season due to injury. Lastly, but not really lastly, a fascinating part of the season was the Lions’ perfect home record along with not dropping a game in any indoor facility.

In a season that would yield five Pro-Bowl players and the franchise’s first playoff appearance in eight years, the Lions started on the road against the Washington Redskins, losing a blowout performance, 41-0. After that, though, third-year running back Barry Sanders put the team on his back. Sanders, a future MVP and Hall of Famer and, at that point, a three-time Pro-Bowler and first-team All-Pro rusher, amassed 640 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in Weeks 2-6, averaging 128 yards per game in the Lions’ five-game winning streak after Sanders missing Week 1.

Coming out of the bye week, in Week 8 Detroit fell at Candlestick Park with another blowout loss. The Lions were 5-2 on the season by then, but the following week, a home win against the Dallas Cowboys, changed the entire season. Starting quarterback Rodney Peete went down with an injury in just his third year after only appearing in 19 out of 32 games his first two seasons with Detroit.

For the rest of the 1991-92 season, the Lions ran with Erik Kramer, a first-time Lion who was coming back to the NFL after a detour in the CFL. Kramer and Peete had identical records in 1991, though. Both quarterbacks went 6-2 while Kramer threw more touchdowns and Peete had a better completion percentage (by 8.5 points).

Another injury occurred in Week 12 at home against the Los Angeles Rams, a win after shaking off two consecutive losses and three in four games. Third-year offensive guard Mike Utley was lost for the season (ending his career, too) after the Washington State product severely damaged his neck and even paralyzed him.

The Lions were somehow galvanized by Utley’s spirit in the face of injury, and they ended up winning the remainder of their regular season schedule—six straight games, including an overtime regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. Only two of those games were decided by a touchdown or less margin of victory.

Detroit entered the 1991-92 playoffs as the second-best team in the NFC, just behind the ruthless Redskins for the best record in the conference. It earned the Lions a bye in first week, and they rematched with the Cowboys in the divisional round. On Jan. 5, 1992, at the Silverdome, the Lions had a repeat of their sole regular-season meeting with America’s Team: a blowout victory at home (against a team that would win the next two straight Super Bowls).

Kramer threw three touchdown passes in that playoff game, cornerback Mel Jenkins returned an interception in the first half 41 yards to the house. To rub salt in the wounds for Dallas, Sanders ran a 47-yard carry for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It was the Lions’ first postseason victory in 34 years (since the 1957 NFL Championship Game) and only playoff win at the Silverdome, at that time the only victory after the regular season since the merger.

The Lions’ luck would run out the next week with a rematch with where their 1991-92 season started: in Washington at RFK Stadium. It was another blowout loss for Detroit, this time they put 10 points up on the board. Washington went on to win Super Bowl XXVI against the Bills, the team the Lions narrowly defeated in Week 17.

After that, the Lions continued to have success in the 1990’s, reaching the postseason five more times but never winning another game in the playoffs.