Jan. 29—We feel your pain, Detroit. And trust us from experience — it will last a long, long time.
The Lions were in control of their NFC championship game with the 49ers on Jan. 28. They led, 24-7, at halftime. The 49ers scored 27 unanswered points, survived a late rally by the Lions, and recovered an onside kick to secure a 34-31 victory and a ticket to the Super Bowl.
It was the first time the Lions were in a championship game since 1991, when they lost the NFC championship to Washington, 41-10. Detroit won the NFL championship in 1957, when they beat the Browns, 59-14.
Lions coach Dan Campbell shared with reporters what he said to his players in the locker room after the game.
"I told those guys, this may have been our only shot," Campbell said. "Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I'm well aware.
"It's going to be twice as hard to get to this point next year as it was this year. That's the reality. And if we don't have the same hunger and the same work, this is a whole 'nother thing."
The Browns played the Broncos for the AFC championship in 1986 — the first time they advanced that far since they won the NFL title in 1964 by beating the Colts, 27-0, two years before the first Super Bowl.
The Browns didn't squander a 17-point lead like the Lions did, but they did lead, 20-13, with 5:32 to play after Bernie Kosar hooked up with Brian Brennan on a 48-yard touchdown pass. The crowd of 79, 915 in Cleveland Browns Stadium was in a frenzy when the Broncos had to start the ensuing drive at the Denver 2.
Browns fans old enough to remember know what happened next. John Elway led a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie the score with 37 seconds left in regulation and the Broncos won, 23-20, in overtime when Rick Karlis kicked a 33-yard field goal. The Browns won the coin toss to start overtime. They had to punt before making one first down.
The Browns did make it back to the AFC championship in 1987 and 1989, both times against Denver, but neither time did they have control like they did before Elway broke their hearts with The Drive.
The late Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns head coach in 1986, was blamed for using a prevent defense on The Drive. He was second-guessed for having Herman Fontenot instead of Kevin Mack carry the ball on third-and-2 from the Browns' 38 in overtime.
Fontenot, who carried twice in regulation for three yards, was stopped for no gain. The Browns punted and the Broncos won on their first overtime possession.
Campbell is getting grief from disgruntled Lions fans because twice in the second half he decided to go for it on fourth down instead of having Michael Badgley attempt a field goal. One would have been from 45 yards with the Lions leading, 24-10. The other would have been from 48 yards to tie the score, 27-27.
"I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball," Campbell said. "It's easy hindsight, I get it. I get that. But I don't regret those decisions. And I understand the scrutiny I'll get. It's part of the gig."
The Browns and Lions are the only teams that were part of the NFL before 1995 that have never been to a Super Bowl. Jacksonville and Houston also haven't been to a Super Bowl, but the Jaguars were an expansion team in 1995. The Texans joined the NFL in 2002.
The futility experienced by Browns and Lions fans made them like cousins before Detroit lost to the 49ers. Now those fans are more like brothers and sisters.
I suspect most Browns fans who had a rooting interest in the NFC championship game were pulling for the Lions. If the Browns can't get to the Super Bowl, it would be nice to see a team from another blue-collar, gray-skies, cold-weather Midwest city get there.
On the other hand, had the Lions won, the Browns would have the distinction of being the only pre-1995 team shut out of the Super Bowl for at least one more year. Sometimes misery truly does love company.