December 22, 2009

1957: Lions Come from 20 Points Behind to Defeat 49ers in Conference Playoff

On December 22, 1957 the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, tied for first place in the NFL’s Western Conference at 8-4, met in a playoff game to decide the title. The Lions, coached by George Wilson after Buddy Parker (who had led the team to back-to-back championships in 1952-53) quit the team during the preseason, had their typically outstanding defense and an offense that had utilized a co-quarterback system with both Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote – depth that paid off when Layne went down for the remainder of the year with a broken leg.

San Francisco, coached by former star quarterback Frankie Albert, had gotten off to a 5-1 start, lost three straight at midseason, and then went undefeated in the last three games. QB Y.A. Tittle led the NFL in completion percentage (63.1) and end Billy Wilson led the league in pass receptions (52). HB Hugh McElhenny and FB Joe Perry were an effective backfield tandem. DT Leo Nomellini and LB Marv Matuszak anchored the defense.

There were 60,118 fans in attendance on a clear, sunny day at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. The 49ers struck first on a 34-yard “Alley Oop” touchdown pass to rookie end R.C. Owens, taking advantage of his outstanding leaping ability, this time jumping higher than Detroit defensive halfback Jim David in the corner of the end zone to stake San Francisco to a 7-0 lead (pictured at left). On their next possession, still in the first quarter, Tittle connected with McElhenny on a touchdown play that covered 47 yards.

The Lions drove the ball 61 yards, culminating in a four-yard TD pass from Rote to end Steve Junker that cut the 49ers’ lead to 14-7 in the second quarter. But the Niners responded with an 88-yard drive of their own that ended with a 12-yard scoring throw from Tittle to Wilson. The Lions fumbled the ball away at their own 41 yard line, allowing San Francisco to score once more before the end of the half, on a 25-yard Gordie Soltau field goal. At halftime, the 49ers held a formidable 24-7 lead.

During the intermission, the Lions players could overhear the celebrating 49ers in the neighboring locker room. It motivated them to step up their play in the second half, although that wasn’t apparent when McElhenny took off on the first San Francisco possession for a spectacular 71-yard run to the Detroit seven yard line. However, in one of the key developments of the game, the Lions defense held the 49ers to a Soltau field goal rather than a touchdown. While the score now stood at 27-7 in favor of the Niners, the tide was about to turn.

While Detroit didn’t score on the next possession, they got a break when the Niners got the ball back and Tittle fumbled at the Lions’ 27 yard line. LB Bob Long recovered for Detroit, and nine plays and 73 yards later HB Tom Tracy scored from a yard out. The 49ers went three-and-out and were forced to punt, and Detroit’s offense came up with a big play with Tracy bolting up the middle for a 58-yard touchdown run (pictured at top). The Lions were now down by just 27-21, still in the third quarter.

Detroit’s aroused defense stopped the 49ers again, and the offense came roaring down the field once more, with Rote connecting on a 36-yard pass play to Junker to the San Francisco 15 yard line. HB Gene Gedman tied the score with a two-yard touchdown run, and Jim Martin’s extra point gave the Lions the lead, 28-27, less than a minute into the fourth quarter.

The 49ers had four more possessions in the game, but they resulted in four turnovers (a fumble and three interceptions). Martin kicked a 13-yard field goal to stake Detroit to a four-point lead at 31-27, and the aggressive Lions defense made it hold up. LB Roger Zatkoff intercepted a last-ditch Tittle pass to seal the win.

Tracy led the runners with 86 yards on 11 carries, including the two TD runs. Rote (pictured below) completed 16 of 30 passes for 214 yards with a TD and an interception. Junker led the team in both pass receptions (8) and yards (92) and a score. For the losing 49ers, McElhenny gained 82 yards on 14 carries, thanks to the long run in the third quarter, and caught 6 passes for another 96 yards and a touchdown. Billy Wilson had an excellent pass receiving day with 9 catches for 107 yards and a TD. But while Tittle completed 18 of 31 passes for 248 yards with three touchdowns, it was the three interceptions that proved disastrous in the end (it would be the first of several postseason disappointments for the Hall of Fame QB).

As Detroit’s Coach Wilson said later, “The 49ers might have scored all those points too quickly. They became clock watchers and abandoned everything that had worked for them”. While it may have been a case of San Francisco turning conservative, the Lions defense certainly deserved credit for stiffening up after allowing the long run to McElhenny to start the second half and then playing very opportunistically thereafter.

Detroit went on to decimate the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game by a 59-14 score. The 49ers, who were playing in their first NFL postseason game since joining the league from the AAFC in 1950, would not return to the playoffs until the 1970 season.