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O'HARA: Looking back at four times the Lions turned a season around

The Detroit Lions cannot rely on history repeating itself for them to make a comeback from a disheartening start when they return from the bye week to resume the 2020 season.

Their 1-3 won-loss record works against making a playoff run. And just as important – if not more – is their performance in being saddled with a losing record when there were opportunities to be better.

The defense could not hold double-digit leads in losses to the Bears, Packers and Saints, and the offense had long periods of ineffectiveness.

Only in the road win over the Cardinals did the Lions dominate the fourth quarter by playing complementary football. All three units – offense, defense, special teams – outperformed the opponent.

Looking back at history will not correct those problems.

But digging into the history books – and the memory banks – shows three examples of how the Lions climbed out of a hole to make the playoffs, and one memorable miss as follows:

Season: 1983.

Low spot: 1-4 start.

Finish: 9-7, first place NFC Central.

After a fourth straight loss to the Rams on the road, former head coach Monte Clark resorted to his typical dry humor as he crossed paths with some beat writers on his way to the team bus.

"See you at the cemetery," Clark said.

That line was followed by a great rally. The Lions went 8-3 the rest of the way led by star running back Billy Sims and a defense that had Pro Bowlers Doug English, William Gay and Mike Cofer on the defensive line.

Bottom line: The Lions got a first-round bye and traveled to San Francisco to play the 49ers in the divisional playoff. It was a close game all the way. Ultimately, it was decided when the 49ers scored a touchdown on their final drive, then held on when Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard field goal in the fading seconds.

While Murray's miss was memorable, the offense nearly overcame five interceptions by backup quarterback Gary Danielson, who could not rise to the moment.

Season: 1995

Low spot: 3-6 record after nine games.

Finish: 10-6, wild card playoff berth.

Edict: William Clay Ford, the late owner of the franchise, spoke to the media in the locker room after a 34-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Ford was clearly upset about the team's shoddy play after making the playoffs the previous three seasons and four times in the last five years.

If the Lions did not make the playoffs, Ford said, he would fire head coach Wayne Fontes.

Fontes was popular with his players, and they showed their loyalty by winning the last seven games to make the playoffs as a wild card.

Bottom line: The Lions had a talented roster with Pro Bowl players at every level on offense and defense, plus kicker Jason Hanson, Murray's successor in 1992.

The weakness was at the critical position. Quarterback Scott Mitchell was average, and he was not reliable under pressure. That showed up with four interceptions in a 58-37 road loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.

Season: 1997

Low point: Three straight losses and four out of five games dropped the record to 4-6.

Finish: 9-7, wild-card playoff berth.

Barry, Barry, Barry: Barry Sanders led the rally in the first year under new head coach Bobby Ross. After a slow start – 53 yards in the first two games – Sanders rushed for 2,000 yards in the next 14 to finish with 2,053 for the season.

In the final game of the season Sanders rushed for 184 yards. He score the winning TD on a 15-yard run in the fourth quarter to give the Lions a 13-10 win over the Jets.

Bottom line: The Lions made the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years but failed to advance for the fourth straight time. A 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay knocked them out.

Season: 2015

Low spot: Five straight losses to start the season, and a 1-7 record going into the bye.

Finish: 7-9, out of the playoffs.

Comeback: It started with an unlikely 18-16 road win over the Packers, ending a 23-year road losing streak to the Packers.

The upset win sparked a four-game winning streak that made the record 5-7 and hopes of making the playoffs if they won out to get to 9-7.

Instead of winning out, they got knocked out by a 27-23 loss to the Packers at Ford Field. The Packers won on a Hail Mary TD pass on the final play of the game.

Bottom line: A solid core of players remained from the team that went 11-5 in 2014 and suffered a controversial loss to the Cowboys in the playoffs.

Their mettle showed in a 6-2 record in the second half of the season. It didn't get them to the playoffs, but they competed hard week after week. Win or lose, there was some value in that.

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