The first instance came in January 1992, after Detroit won a franchise record 12 games en route to the Central Division title and routed Dallas in the divisional round to clinch a date with Washington with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Here’s a look back at the Lions’ 41-10 loss in that contest, which ended an inspired run in an emotional season and marked the start of the team’s 32-year championship game drought.
The Lions arrived in D.C. on a seven-game winning streak, which began with a Week 12 victory marred by tragedy. On the first play of the fourth quarter of Detroit’s 21-10 defeat of the Los Angeles Rams, Lions right guard Mike Utley suffered a spinal cord injury that left him largely paralyzed from the chest down.
Utley flashed the thumbs-up sign as he was carried off the field, and the gesture became a rallying cry for the team, which dedicated the remainder of its season to the 25-year-old. After Detroit’s surprising 38-6 playoff rout of Dallas at the Pontiac Silverdome, team owner William Clay Ford delivered a game ball to Utley, who had watched the win on television from the Englewood, Colo., hospital where he was rehabbing.
The Lions were 13½-point underdogs against Washington, which was seeking its fourth Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons. Joe Gibbs’s squad had gone 14-2 and outscored its opponents by 261 points during the regular season.
Including its 24-7 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, Washington was 8-1 at RFK Stadium, where it was 4-0 all-time in NFC championship games and had opened the 1991 season with a 45-0 win over the Lions on “Sunday Night Football.” Detroit’s star running back, Barry Sanders, was inactive for that game with sore ribs, which offered the Lions and their fans some hope that the rematch would be more competitive.
“How poetic it would be for America’s Underdogs to bring this season of destiny full circle with an upset victory against a team no one gives them a ghost of a chance of defeating,” the Detroit Free Press’s Bryan Burwell wrote in the week leading up to the game.
Few NFL pundits picked Detroit to defeat the Cowboys, and some Washington players admitted they were mentally preparing for a high-stakes showdown with their NFC East rivals.
“I think everybody in the whole world thought Dallas would beat them,” Washington tight end Don Warren said. “But sit there and watch the Lions on television, and they’re playing great and with a lot of enthusiasm. They’ve rallied around Mike Utley’s injury and they’ve proven they deserve to get this far.”
“They looked awfully impressive,” Gibbs said. “We know what we think of Dallas, and in two tries we couldn’t come close to what the Lions did against the Cowboys. We have our work cut out for us, and we’ll need to play great.”
With their first Super Bowl berth in sight, history wasn’t on the Lions’ side. Detroit was 0-15 all-time in D.C. dating from games at Griffith Stadium and had lost 14 straight to Washington since 1965.
“That was then; this is now,” Lions linebacker Chris Spielman said. “We don’t look at the past.”
Detroit center Kevin Glover delivered an emotional message to his teammates during the Lions’ pregame prayer huddle. “We got a guy in Denver sacrificing because he wants to go to the Super Bowl!” he said of Utley, who now lives in Utah and oversees a foundation supporting function-restoring treatment for people with spinal cord injuries. “Sacrificing for us! Let’s give it to him!”
A different tragedy weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of Washington’s players and fans. Before kickoff, a message flashed on the RFK scoreboard that the game was being dedicated to beloved WUSA (Channel 9) sportscaster Glenn Brenner, who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor two days earlier. Gibbs told reporters the team offered a prayer for Brenner on Saturday night. Banners reading “We love U Glenn” and “Win One for the Brenner” hung from the stands.
Washington’s dominant defense set the tone from the start. On Detroit’s second play from scrimmage, defensive end Charles Mann maneuvered around rookie right tackle Scott Conover and leveled quarterback Erik Kramer, forcing a fumble that defensive end Fred Stokes recovered at the Lions’ 11. Two plays later, running back Gerald Riggs barreled into the end zone from two yards out to give Washington a 7-0 lead barely a minute into the game.
Linebacker Kurt Gouveia intercepted a Kramer pass on Detroit’s ensuing possession to set up a 20-yard field goal by Chip Lohmiller.
Kramer, who started the final eight games of the regular season after Rodney Peete suffered an Achilles’ tear in Week 9, responded with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Willie Green. Riggs’s second touchdown run extended Washington’s lead back to 10, but Eddie Murray’s 30-yard field goal before halftime pulled the Lions within 17-10.
Washington capped its first drive of the third quarter with another Lohmiller field goal. After Jumpy Geathers blocked a field goal attempt on Detroit’s next possession, quarterback Mark Rypien broke the game open with a perfectly placed 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Gary Clark.
Rypien added a 21-yard touchdown pass to Art Monk in the fourth quarter, by which point fans were chanting “We want Buffalo!” in anticipation of a Super Bowl matchup with the AFC champion Bills.
“If you put him in Alaska, he would have heated the place up,” Lions safety Bennie Blades said of Rypien, who wasn’t sacked and completed 12 of 17 passes for 228 yards. “That’s how hot he was.”
Washington defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon brought pressure early and often, and linebacker Wilber Marshall had three of Washington’s five sacks.
“You hit a guy and he’s either going to fold or become Joe Montana,” Washington defensive tackle Tim Johnson said of Kramer, who was 21 for 33 for 249 yards and an interception before being benched for Andre Ware. “It was worth a try.”
Washington cornerback Darrell Green completed the scoring with an interception return for a touchdown.
Sanders, who was limited to 44 yards on 11 carries, said Washington was “too physical and too mature” for the Lions. Gibbs praised his team’s defense and the raucous sellout crowd of 55,585, which combined to make life miserable for Detroit’s offense.
“It was so loud the receivers had no chance to hear,” Glover said. “I’m right under Erik and a couple of times I couldn’t hear him.”
“Wow,” Lions Coach Wayne Fontes said after his team’s season ended the same way it began — with a blowout loss at RFK. “Did that look like a replay of the last game or what?”
“This one is the sweetest by far,” Washington linebacker Monte Coleman, a 13-year veteran, told reporters after the game. “It doesn’t compare to anything else in the world. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to do this again.”
Amid the celebration in the victorious home locker room, Washington’s players and coaches expressed their sadness over Brenner’s condition.
“What’s happened with Glenn Brenner makes you realize how fragile life is,” said Gibbs, who delivered a game ball to Brenner at George Washington University Hospital that night. Brenner died two days later at 44.
“Store the Roar” was the headline atop the game story in the Free Press.
“I’m very, very proud of this team,” Fontes said after the loss. “I will not go back to Detroit with my head down. And my team will not go home with their heads down.”
At the Super Bowl in Minneapolis two weeks later, Washington players gave the thumbs-up sign during pregame introductions as a tribute to Utley. Washington went on to defeat the Bills, 37-24, with Rypien earning MVP honors.
The Lions’ loss to Washington was the first of their NFL record nine-game playoff losing streak that ended with a first-round win over the Los Angeles Rams this month. Detroit’s run to the NFC championship game makes Washington, which has conducted virtual interviews with Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn for its coaching vacancy, the only NFC team that hasn’t appeared in at least one conference championship game since the 1991 season.