The 49ers and the Lions have a unique history that stretches back years, back to a time when the Super Bowl didn't even exist and when the NFL was less than half the size it is today. With the two teams set to face off for the right to go to the Super Bowl this Sunday, let's take a look at one of their most historic games: the 1957 Western Conference Championship Game.
The Lions reigned supreme in the 1950's. During that time, they enjoyed the services of several future Hall of Famers including middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, safety Jack Christiansen and quarterback Bobby Layne. Having recently traded for powerful fullback John Henry Johnson, the Lions looked ready to contend for the title in 1957.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the 49ers were try9ing to cope with the loss of one of their best players, Johnson. For the past couple of years, they had enjoyed great success with him as a key component for their famed "Million Dollar Backfield", a unit that featured four future Hall of Famers in quarterback Y.A. Tittle and running backs Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry. While they had flourished together, they would never see the postseason as teammates.
As the 1957 season got underway, both teams opened the year with losses only to rebound with winning streaks. But the season still had its hurdles. In the midst of their five-game winning streak, team founder and principal owner Tony Morabito died in the stand of San Francisco's Kezar Stadium while his beloved 49ers were struggling against the Bears. Notified of his passing at the half, his team rebounded in the second, clawing their way back from a 10-point deficit to defeat Chicago in honor of their fallen leader.
A week later, the 49ers and the Lions met for the first time that year. All offseason, Tittle had worked with springy receiver R.C. Owens on a pass that was specifically placed high into the air where only the receiver could catch it. With time running out late in the game, Tittle and Owens connected on the sport's equivalent of the Alley Oop pass, snatching a 35-31 victory from Detroit's grasp.
The teams met again two weeks later and this time the Lions defense stepped up, holding the 49ers to just 10 points while Bobby Layne connected on 17 of 24 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown. His backup Tobin Rote even played for a while, but Rote's paltry 36.8% completion percentage paled in comparison to Layne's accuracy that day.
Still, the Lions won 31-10 and ended the regular season tied with the 49ers for the Western Conference title. There was just one way to settle this: a playoff. However, there would be one major difference in their third and final matchup of the season. In a 20-7 win over the Browns, Bobby Layne broke his ankle, knocking him out for the season. With nowhere else to turn, the Lions leaned on his trusty backup, Tobin Rote.
Tied at 8-4 a piece, the 49ers and the Lions met at Kezar Stadium three days before Christmas 1957 to decide the Western Conference champion. It was a sunny day in San Francisco when Owens (34 yards) and McElhenny (47 yards) took two of Y.A. Tittle's passes for touchdowns in the opening quarter. Tobin Rote cut the lead in half with a four-yard connection with Steve Junker early in the second quarter, but the 49ers quickly responded with a 12-yard Billy Wilson reception as well as a 25-yard field goal by Gordie Soltau, giving the 49ers a commanding 24-7 halftime lead.
With Soltau's 10-yard field goal to begin the second half, the Lions found themselves staring at a 20-point deficit. With their season on the line, Tom Tracy put the Motor City on his back, scoring on a one and 58-yard runs in the third quarter to whittle the deficit down to six. In the fourth, Gene Gedman plunged into the end zone from the two-yard line and Jim Martin made a 13-yard field goal to seal the stunning 31-27 comeback win. It remains the Lions' last road playoff win.
A week after the game, the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns 59-14 for the NFL Championship. It would be the last title in their long history. After the season, the Lions traded Bobby Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Upon his departure, Layne stated that the Lions wouldn't win a championship for the next 50 years.