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The Forgotten Classic: The 49ers and Lions Divisional Round Clash of 1983




While many remember their great clash of 1957, few remember the 49ers and Lion's tussle in the 1983 playoffs. After all, neither one won the championship that year. Still, it was a classic. With rosters filled with stars and future Hall of Famers, the game lived up to the billing, ultimately bowing to the storied elements of Candlestick Park.


The Lead-Up



Having weathered the storm of a shortened season, everyone in the NFL was ready to move forward. All teams dealt with the strike differently. While the Lions barely squeezed into the playoffs with a 4-5 record, the 49ers 3-6 was not good enough. The defending Super Bowl champions were forced to watch the playoffs from home that winter.


Meanwhile, the Lions were enjoying the services of their elusive running back, Billy Sims. Ever since he entered the league in 1980, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma had earned three Pro Bowl invitations while displaying the durability to be an every down back. Although he recorded the third 1,000-yard season of his young career, 1983 was the first year that Sims was not invited to the Pro Bowl.


The Lions didn't seem to mind the lack of publicity. After losing four out of their first five games, the Lions roared up in the standings with convincing wins over the division rival Packers and Bears. While it was just a two-games, those wins arguably saved their season. While the season was a bumpy ride, the Lions took advantage of a weak division, earning a playoff spot with a mediocre 9-7 record.



While the Lions battled their way through an up-and-down season, the 49ers were busy refinding their stride. 1982 had not been kind to them. While their famed as-of-yet-to-be-named West Coast Offense struggled to establish its rythym, their once-tremendous defense got softer than warm butter on a hot Summer's day seemingly overnight.


In response to their lackadaisical effort, defensive coordinator Chuck Studley was fired and defensive backs coach George Seifert was promoted to fill the now-vacant spot. The 49ers really stacked up in the Draft that year too, taking running back Roger Craig, defensive back Tom Holmoe, linebacker Riki Ellison and guard/center Jesse Sapolu; each would have an integral impact on the 49ers' upcoming dynasty.


While the season started of poorly with a 22-17 loss to the Eagles, the 49ers quickly rebounded by winning the next four games. Their offense was really clicking too, scoring more than 40 twice and more than 30 thrice during that stretch while their defense continued to rediscover its championship-winning stride.


Still, the NFL season was 16 games long back then, always ripe fora slice of humble pie at a moments notice. The 49ers were served a slice right after winning their fourth straight, losing a 10-7 stinker to the Rams with Roger Craig's three-yard scamper in the fourth quarter providing his teammates their only points in the forgettable afternoon. But aside from Craig's touchdown, there was another silver lining for the Red& Gold: Joe Montana connected on 28 of 42 passes for 316 yards and no interceptions. They just needed to find the end zone.


They found it in abundance the next two weeks, respectively scoring 32 and 45 points in wins against the Rams and Saints. While their season was more up-and-down for the next several weeks, the 49ers rebounded to win their final three games, beating Tampa Bay (35-21), Buffalo (23-10) and Dallas (42-17). With the Division title in hand and boasting a 10-6 record, the 49ers and the Lions were set to meet in the first round of the playoffs at Candlestick Park.


The Game



It was a sunny day in San Francisco when the 49ers met the Lions in the Divisional Round. After Detroit's Eddie Murray nailed a 37-yard field goal, Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler responded right back with a one-yard plunges into the end zone to give the 49ers a commanding 11-point lead in the middle of the second quarter.


Murray continued to carry the hopes and dreams of the Motor City by making a 21-yarder and a then-postseason record 54-yard field goal to narrow the deficit to five going into the half. the third quarter was a defensive struggle for both sides as Ray Wersching's 19-yard field goal provided the 49ers the only points scored in the quarter.



Like many classics, the game really got interesting in the fourth quarter. Held to few yards for much of the game, Billy Sims heated up when it mattered most, scoring on runs of 11 and three yards to give Detroit a 23-17 lead late in the game.


What is it about the great comeback artists in sports that makes them rise to the occasion time and time again? Is it the rush of adrenaline? Or could it be the death defying fear of a lost season that would cripple most, but not them?


Whatever the case may have been, Joe Montana rose to the occasion on this afternoon, connecting on all six of his passes on the 49ers' final drive, finishing it off with a nifty 14-yard strike to Freddie Solomon. Although the Lions successfully drove down the field and were well within his range, Murray's 42-yard kick veered to the right as he slipped on Candlestick's muddied field. The 49ers prevailed 24-23.


The Aftermath


After their memorable game, the 49ers and the Lions went in vastly different directions. Despite a valiant comeback attempt, the 49ers fell short in the NFC Championship Game, losing to the Washington Redskins 24-21. While the 49ers would go on to win the Super Bowl the following year and dominate the rest of the decade, the Lions stumbled back to earth due to an unforseen event.


Billy Sims blew out his knee in the middle of 1984, ultimately costing him his career. With their promising running back suddenly gone, the Lions shrivled back into mediocrity for the rest of the decade, always searching for their next savior. Their search ended when they drafted Barry Sanders in 1989.



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