A Rare Playoff matchup – Lions and 49ers

By Chris Lawton

The Detroit Lions are set to travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers in this year’s NFC Championship Game. Which is a rare NFL playoff matchup, to say the least. In fact, in the 103-year history of the league they have met in the playoffs only twice before this. Once in 1983 and once in 1957. Each team has a win so if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s 41 years since it last happened you could call this a tiebreaker.

It is not surprising they have met so irregularly in the postseason perhaps as they have rarely been successful at the same time. The Lions who formed as the Portsmouth Spartans in 1930 won their first NFL title in 1935. Which was 11 years before the 49ers existed as an AAFC team, and 15 years before they joined the NFL. San Francisco did not win a playoff game from joining the NFL in 1950 until winning a Divisional Playoff in 1970. They did however play, and lose, one playoff game in 1957 – to the Detroit Lions. This game was long remembered for the amazing Detroit comeback.

1957 NFL Playoffs: Western Conference Playoff Game Detroit Lions 31 San Francisco 49ers 27.

60,118 attending, Kezar Stadium San Francisco.

The 1957 NFL season had resulted in a tie occurring in the West Division, with Detroit and San Francisco both finishing at 8-4. They were 1-1 against each other in the regular season, having both won at home. With everything tied up, the NFL played a single-game Conference title match between the two teams to see who would face the Cleveland Browns in the NFL title match. 

Prior to this game, the Niners were 5-1 at home, not having lost there since Week one of the season. One of those wins had been 35-31 against the Lions in Week Six. 

Embed from Getty Images

YA Tittle led San Francisco completing 12 of 19 passes with three TDs to see the men in red and gold lead 24-7 at halftime. Hugh McElhenny then ran seventy-one yards in the third quarter to set up a Field Goal and put the home side up 24-7. However, ignited by two scores from Tom ‘the bomb’ Tracy the Lions responded with three touchdowns in five minutes of game time. In fact, after the Niners made it 24-7, Detroit reeled off twenty-four unanswered points to take the game 31-27. 

Believe it or not, up to and including this season, this is the last time Detroit won a road NFL playoff game! If it makes Lions fans feel any better when looking for a message from history, they went on to win the NFL title with a crushing 59-14 win over Cleveland after beating the 49ers. That gave Detroit their third NFL title in the 1950s, but they did not win a playoff game again until 1991. This is also the year they made their only previous NFC Championship game appearance, losing 41-10 in Washington.

Whilst Detroit were falling, San Francisco finally ascended. Particularly between 1981 and 1994 when they would play in 9 NFC Championship games and 5 Super Bowl games, winning every Super Bowl they appeared in. Along the way they met the Lions in the 1983 playoffs, winning 24-23 thanks to a missed kick.

1983 NFL Playoffs: NFC Divisional Playoff Game San Francisco 49ers 24 Detroit Lions 23.

59,979 attending, Candlestick Park San Francisco.

The 10-6 49ers were two years removed from their win in Super Bowl XVI, and few people knew then how successful they were about to become. Meanwhile, the 9-7 Lions were having their best season since 1970.

The first quarter belonged to the 49ers, as rookie linebacker Riki Ellison twice picked off Gary Danielson. Ellison did not have an interception in the regular season, but both turnovers led to short touchdown runs for the 49ers and a 14-3 lead. In fact, Danielson would throw five picks in the game, including 4 in the first half.

Detroit’s biggest successes ran through their number 20 at running back. As this was the pre-Barry Sanders era, this meant Billy Sims. A 56-yard run by Sims set up a 54-yard Field Goal by Eddie Murray – which was then an NFL playoff record. It was 14-9 to the home team at the half and they extended that to 17-9 in the third. After that, the Lions once again centred around Sims who scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to give Detroit a 23-17 lead. Enter Joe Montana. He had seen and done all this before and would do it again throughout his career. On the 70-yard drive following Detroit taking the lead Montana was 6 for 6, hitting Freddie Solomon for a 14-yard touchdown with 1:23 left on the clock.  

Embed from Getty Images

Danielson and Sims led the Lions back into scoring range. They were at the Niners 25-yard line with 11 seconds left. Murray had gone 3 for 4 so far in the game, including hitting the record 54-yarder, but his miss came from this area (43 yards out) earlier on.

Murray hooked the kick to the right and it did not draw back. His miss left San Francisco to go to the Championship game (they would lose 24-21 in Washington before winning their second NFL title the following year).

Both close games. Both full of drama, and both winnable by either team right until the end. If this year’s playoff matchup between these two comes anywhere close to this, then it will be a fun game for the neutrals while fans of the respective teams may have no fingernails left!



Chris originally started following the NFL with the ‘first wave’ of fans when it was shown on Channel 4 in the 1980’s. He has been a keen supporter of the Miami Dolphins since 1983. Chris first encountered the CFL in 2016 and instantly fell in love with the Canadian game. He has been writing about the CFL 2017. Chris has a degree in history, postgraduate degree in librarianship and can be found on twitter as @CFLfanUK