The 1995 season started out horribly for the Detroit Lions.
The Lions opened with three straight losses and just three games into the season, the Lions fans were doing what they were usually doing at that time in Lions’ history — screaming for the firing of head coach Wayne Fontes.
By the start of November, life hadn’t improved much. After a 34-22 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions were mired with a 3-6 mark, seemingly out of the playoff hunt.
But then something happened. The Lions won back-to-back NFC Central Division contests against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears. Suddenly, the Lions were 5-6, and suddenly Detroit was back in the playoff hunt — kind of like this season.
The annual Thanksgiving game was coming up next, against the Minnesota Vikings, one of the four other teams in the Division still ahead of the Lions. With a win, the Lions would be at 6-6 and maybe back in the playoff hunt. However, a loss would keep them right in the division’s cellar, hopelessly lost at 5-7.
What happened was one of the highest offensive outbursts in Lions’ history. The Lions won a 44-38 contest that wasn’t decided until the final play of the game. With Detroit leading 44-38, The Lions’ Sean Vanhorse picked off the final throw of the game by Vikings’ quarterback Warren Moon in the end zone giving the Lions the win.
“The ending was too much drama,” Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown said.
The first half
Detroit started the contest impressively. Lions embattled starting quarterback Scott Mitchell completed passes of 31 yards to Johnny Morton and 11 and 25 yards to Brett Perriman, sparking the first score of the game, a two-yard TD pass to Perriman. The Lions led 7-0 with 8:14 left in the first quarter.
The Lions’ defense set up Detroit’s next score. Moon was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Antonio London. He also fumbled the ball and Henry Thomas recovered it for Detroit, giving the Lions the ball at the Vikings’ 20. The next play, Mitchell hit Perriman for a 20-yard score. The Lions led 14-0.
“I thought we were going to go down on every drive to score a touchdown,” said Perriman who tied a then team record with 12 receptions, 153 yards and two touchdowns in the contest. “If we get in a shootout, we want to outsore the opponent.”
That’s what the Lions would end up having to do. The Vikings would score four touchdowns before the end of the first half. After the Lions’ second score, the Vikings scored just four plays later on a 55-yard TD pass from Moon to Jake Reed. The Lions led 14-7 with 19 seconds left in the first quarter. The Lions answered right back as Mitchell completed 5-of-7 passes on their next possession, scoring on a 16-yard TD pass to Johnnie Morton. The Lions led once again by 14, 21-7 with 10:03 left in the first half.
The Vikings had the game tied at 21-all within a matter of about three minutes. David Palmer had a 74-yard punt return for the TD, and the Vikings scored on the ensuing kickoff as well. Detroit’s Ron Rivers fumbled the kickoff, and the Vikings’ Orlando Thomas returned it 17 yards for the score. Suddenly, the Lions were tied at 21-all.
Detroit responded on its next possession, retaking the lead with a 32-yard field goal by Jason Hanson with 7:53 left in the half, but the Vikings answered back with a scoring drive that gave them their first lead in the game. It came on a 10-yard TD pass from Moon to Cris Carter. The Vikings led 28-24 at the half.
The second half
The second half saw the Lions’ defense play a bit stronger than the Vikings’ defense, but that didn’t keep Minnesota from increasing its lead at the start of the half. Faud Reveiz kicked a 49-yard field goal, giving the Vikings a 31-24 lead. However, the Lions’ offense moved into field goal range, and Hanson responded with a 40-yard kick of his own. The Lions trailed just 31-27.
The Lions followed with a big play on defense when Corey Raymond intercepted a pass intended for Carter and returned it 15 yards. An additional 15 yards came via a facemask penalty and the Lions had the ball at the Vikings 27. On the next play, Mitchell completed a 27-yard TD pass to Herman Moore. The Lions led 34-31 entering the fourth quarter, and would never trail again.
In fact, the Lions increased their lead to 10 points early in the fourth quarter. Barry Sanders busted out for a 50-yard TD run with 9:42 remaining in the contest, giving the Lions a 41-31 lead. The Vikings and Moon weren’t done yet. Moon completed five passes on the next Minnesota possession, with the fifth being a seven-yard TD pass to Carter. The Vikings trailed just 41-38 with 2:07 left.
The Vikings tried an on-side kick, but it was recovered by Moore. However, the Lions were unable to milk the rest of the clock, settling for a 39-yard field goal by Hansen. The Lions led 44-38 with 35 seconds remaining.
Moore completed three straight passes, moving the ball to the Detroit 38 with time for just one more play. Moore threw it to the end zone, but Vanhorse picked it off, earning the Lions the win.
Mitchell threw for a career-best 410 yards on 30-of-45 passing. He threw four TD passes. Perriman (153 yards), Moore (127) and Morton (102) each had more than 100 yards receiving. While quiet for most of the game, Sanders still finished with 138 rushing yards on 24 carries.
“The people of Michigan would prefer to have a win rather than gaudy numbers,” said the frequently booed Mitchell by Lions’ fans. I know. I’ve heard enough from them.”
What happened after the game?
The victory was Detroit’s third straight and put the Lions back in the playoff hunt at 6-6. The Lions finished the season winning seven straight and it was Detroit’s offense that sparked the streak. The Lions would score the second-most points in the NFL (436) and the offense would rack up an NFL-best 6,113 yards, Mitchell threw for 4,338 passing yards and for 32 TDs while completing 59.3 percent of his passes. Meanwhile, Sanders would finish the season with 1,500 yards.
The Lions (10-6) qualified for the playoffs and were considered the hottest team entering them. However, the season ended with a humbling 58-37 loss to Philadelphia in the Wild Card round.