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Considering the Detroit Lions have lost eight straight games to open this season, and 12 straight overall (dating back to a Dec. 6 win in Chicago), it’s hard to believe we’re still finding surprising stats about their losing ways.
But that’s the Lions — they keep on giving, especially to opposing teams, and especially on the road. This week’s trivia nugget, courtesy of the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez: The Lions are winless in Pittsburgh since 1955, a run of 10 games. How long ago was 1955? The Ford family was still eight years from purchasing the franchise. Not only that; the franchise was still two years away from winning its most recent NFL title (1957).
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Of course, the NFL’s scheduling matrix, with its emphasis on games within divisions and conferences, has played a part in this. But so too has the Lions’ impotence over the years. Of the 29 other cities currently hosting NFL teams, the Lions are winless this century in 12, or more than 40%. (And that’s not including San Diego, where the Lions went 0-for-5 from 1981-2015 before the Chargers relocated to Los Angeles.)
But, as we know from years of watching the Lions, some winless streaks are more depressing than others. And so, with that in mind, here are the five cities in which the Lions have the longest droughts.
Buffalo: Dec. 22, 1991
The Lions’ last victory on the road against the Bills looked like a Super Bowl preview – the two teams entered the final game of the season with 24 wins combined, and the Lions escaped with a 17-14 win in OT after grabbing, then giving away, a seven-point lead. These days, the Bills are again a Super Bowl contender, while the Lions … well, you know. The Lions have only visited the Bills’ stadium — its name changing from “Rich Field” to “Ralph Wilson Stadium” to "New Era Field” — four times in the regular season since. At least this “rivalry” is getting closer; the Lions’ four losses in Buffalo (1997, 2002. ’10, ’18) have come by nine, seven, two and one points, respectively.
Kansas City: Oct. 23, 1988
On the other end of the spectrum lies the Lions’ last win at Arrowhead Stadium: Two teams entered the Week 8 matchup with one win each, and hey, somebody had to leave with a win, right? (Well, there could have been a tie — the Chiefs had one of those already in ’88.) Rusty Hilger’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Chadwick in the second quarter was enough to top Nick Lowery’s two field goals in a 7-6 thriller. (The Lions still ended up drafting ahead of the Chiefs in 1989; they went with Barry Sanders, while K.C. landed LB Derrick Thomas.) Since then, though, the Lions have lost three straight — in 1990, ’99, 2003 — and none have been close, with a combined 119-62 score. (Hey, maybe it's not the barbecue's fault; the Lions also lost on the road to the Chiefs in 2015, international style, with a 45-10 stinker in London that got general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand fired a few days later.)
Baltimore: Dec. 11, 1977
Is it cheating if the winless run covers two teams? ’Cause this one does: The Lions’ most recent win in Baltimore was 13-10 over the Colts back when they were in "Balmer." That Week 13 game saw wideout and special teams star Leonard Thompson block a punt with nine seconds left, recover it on Baltimore’s 2 and, according to the Freep, he “skipped two yards into the end zone for the winning TD.” “We thought they’d go for a safety,” Lions coach Tommy Hudspeth said of the Colts’ decision to punt in the final minute while up 10-6. The cowardly Colts then took off for Indianapolis — OK, the move was seven seasons later, but who’s counting? — leaving Charm City without a team until 1996, when the Browns moved there and became the Ravens. Since then, the Lions have lost three straight in Baltimore: 19-10 in 1998, 48-3 in 2009 and 44-20 in ’17. Talk about a midnight dreary; when might the Lions win in Baltimore again, considering the two franchises’ talent levels? Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
San Francisco: Nov. 2, 1975
Yes, the Lions’ last win over the 49ers came 163 days before current head coach Dan Campbell was born. If that doesn’t seem that long ago, consider this: Steve Spurrier — yep, the Ol’ Ballcoach himself — went 8-for-20 for 98 yards for the Niners. Meanwhile, the Lions scored all four of their touchdowns in an 8½-minute span in the second half, then celebrated at Candlestick Park afterward with a bevy of game balls handed out (at least five by the Freep’s next-day account). Since then, however, the Lions have lost 13 straight on the San Francisco side of the Bay, including the 1983 playoff game in which kicker Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining. That’s the closest loss in the streak for the Lions, with the worst coming in 1991 — that day, Murray hit his only field goal attempt (a 37-yarder in the second quarter) but everything else went wrong, starting with a running game that got the ball only eight times. (Barry Sanders had seven carries for 26 yards.) The Lions’ blues by the Bay have actually left the city limits behind: The 49ers moved from Candlestick to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, in 2014. The Lions are just 0-1 in the new digs … a 30-27 loss in 2018 that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
Pittsburgh: Nov. 13, 1955
Blame Bobby Layne for this skid in the Steel City; the Lions have lost nine straight to the Steelers on the road, but their winless streak actually begins with a 10-10 tie on Nov. 8, 1959, with the ex-Lions quarterback supposedly cursing the team that traded him away in 1958. The 32-year-old Texan was only 12-for-27 passing for 181 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Layne accounted for all of the Steelers’ points, though; he kicked a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter, then tied it up with a 20-yard TD pass and a PAT kick in the fourth. As the Freep’s George Puscas observed the next day, “Layne, booed loudly by his followers, came through with the big pitch in the final three minutes and 25 seconds to give the Steelers a half-victory they hardly deserved. This was typical Layne — to ‘steal’ a victory from the Lions. But the Lions helped him. Layne should never have had the Steelers within striking distance.”
The nine losses since then, though — 1966, ’69, ’73, ’86, ’92, ’95, 2001, ’06 and ’13 — those are all on the Lions. The disappointments have come in four different locations: Forbes Field, followed by Pitt Stadium, then Three Rivers Stadium and finally, Heinz Field. The closest they’ve gotten in that span is three points (in ’69, ’92 and ’95). The worst came in ’01, when Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rushed 26 times for 126 yards — the only 100-yard game of his seven-season career; one bad Ma’afala indeed — in a 33-point beatdown.
But if you’re looking for one list that sums up the Lions’ ineptitude in Pittsburgh, it’s this: Only five coaches have led the Steelers against Detroit since the Lions’ last win there: Buddy Parker, Bill Austin, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. The Lions, meanwhile, have had just one coach repeat over the 10 games: Wayne Fontes, who took losses in ’92 and ’95.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions winless skid in Pittsburgh began vs. Bobby Layne