The Detroit Lions traveled to Cleveland to take on the Browns for the NFL Championshi p on December 28, 1952. The Lions, who had last achieved a league title 17 years before, had started off slowly with two losses in their first three games, but then won eight of their last nine contests to finish tied with the Rams atop the National Conference with a 9-3 record. Head Coach Buddy Parker’s club had a fine offense directed by QB Bobby Layne and featuring HB Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer, veteran FB Pat Harder, and end Cloyce Box, and they had versatile Doak Walker available at halfback, who had missed most of the season due to injury. The defense was strong and tough, anchored by mammoth MG Les Bingaman and featuring an excellent secondary with halfbacks Jim David and Yale Lary and safeties Jack Christiansen and Don Doll. The Lions had defeated the Rams, defending NFL Champions, in the playoff to determine the conference’s representative for the NFL Championship game.
Cleveland, coached by Paul Brown, had yet to fail to reach a league title game in the franchise’s existence, either in the All-America Football Conference or, since 1950, the NFL. The Browns had finally lost one the previous year, to Los Angeles, but again topped the American Conference at 8-4. QB Otto Graham continued to direct the offense with skill, FB Marion Motley was productive after coming back from a knee injury, and the defense was solid behind DE Len Ford and MG Bill Willis. However, they had lost to the Lions during the regular season, and were without key players in end Mac Speedie and HB Dub Jones due to injuries.
There were 50,934 fans in attendance at Municipal Stadium. The first quarter was scoreless, with both teams missing field goals – Cleveland’s Lou Groza from 29 yards and Pat Harder of the Lions from 38 yards out.
Late in the opening period, a bad punt by Cleveland’s Horace Gillom that traveled only 22 yards gave the Lions good field position at the 50. Bobby Layne threw to Cloyce Box for ten yards and then kept the ball himself and ran 13 yards with the help of an outstanding block by Pat Harder on Len Ford. Four plays into the second quarter, end Bill Swiacki caught a pass for a 14-yard gain that reached the Cleveland two. A penalty backed Detroit up five yards, but after Walker made it back to the two on a sweep, Layne sneaked over from there for a touchdown. Harder successfully added the extra point and the Lions were in front by 7-0.
On the next series, Gillom made up for his earlier shank with a 62-yard punt that pinned the Lions back at their 12 and they stayed holed up in their own territory for the remainder of the half. The Browns failed to take advantage, however, as Groza missed two more field goal attempts in the second quarter, from 44 yards and then, with ten seconds remaining, from 47 yards. The score remained unchanged at halftime.
The Browns took the second half kickoff and drove to the Detroit 25, but a pass by Graham that went off HB Ken Carpenter’s fingers was intercepted by Jim David to end the threat. Midway through the third quarter, the Lions got the ball at their 30 following a punt by the Browns. Two plays later, after a four-yard carry by Harder, Walker broke through the line and ran 67 yards for a TD.
Now down by 14-0, the Browns got back into the game with a 68-yard scoring drive that took 12 plays. Graham completed two passes to end Dante Lavelli and once each to Gillom, HB Ray Renfro, and end Pete Brewster along the way, and FB Harry “Chick” Jagade (pictured at left) ran effectively, running for the final seven yards and a touchdown. Groza’s extra point halved the Detroit lead at 14-7.
Twice in the fourth quarter, the Browns drove inside the Detroit 10 and came up empty. First, early in the period Marion Motley ran 42 yards to the five yard line. However, the home team moved backward from that point as the Lions came through with big defensive plays. Motley was tossed for a five-yard loss by Don Doll and Graham was sacked twice for losses totaling 13 yards. A fourth-down pass was batted down by LB Dick Flanagan to end the threat.
The Lions got a break when a punt was muffed by Carpenter and LB Jim Martin recovered at the Cleveland 23. It resulted in a series that ended when Harder kicked a 36-yard field goal. Layne briefly fumbled the snap for the kick but was able to get it down in time and the visitors were ahead by ten points.
Graham passed the Browns back down the field before Motley ran for 15 yards to the Detroit eight. Again the Lions stiffened on defense, and a fourth down pass went through Renfro’s hands at the goal line. While the ball was caught by Brewster in the end zone, no defender had touched it in between and, under the rules at that time, it was an illegal catch and, thus, incomplete. That was the last gasp for the Browns as Detroit won by a final score of 17-7.
Cleveland dominated the game statistically, outgaining the Lions by 384 yards to 258 and compiling 22 first downs to Detroit’s 10. 227 of the Browns’ yardage total came on the ground, to 199 for Detroit. However, the Browns turned the ball over twice, to none suffered by the Lions, and Detroit recorded four sacks to one by Cleveland. Detroit’s pass rush, led by DE Jim Doran, was effective and harassed Otto Graham throughout the contest in addition to the sacks.
Bobby Layne didn’t throw often but was efficient when he did, completing 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and no touchdowns, but also none intercepted. In addition, he ran the ball for 47 yards and a TD on 9 carries. With the long scoring carry, Doak Walker (pictured at right) compiled 97 rushing yards on 10 attempts. Walker and Pat Harder each caught two passes, with Harder’s 18 yards leading the club. Cloyce Box was used mostly as a decoy throughout the contest, most notably drawing two defenders on Walker’s touchdown run, and was limited to one catch for 10 yards.
For the Browns, Otto Graham was successful on 20 of 35 throws for 191 yards and had one intercepted. Chick Jagade ran for 104 yards on 15 carries that included a TD and Marion Motley contributed 74 yards on six attempts. HB Rex Bumgardner, Ray Renfro, and Dante Lavelli each hauled in four passes, for 43, 26, and 33 yards, respectively, while Pete Brewster gained 53 yards on his two receptions. Lou Groza had a rough day, missing all three of his field goal attempts.
The game marked the first of three straight meetings between the Lions and Browns for the NFL Championship. Detroit won again in 1953 by the narrowest of margins and the Browns routed the Lions in ’54.