December 20, 2010

1981: Bucs Inflict First Home Loss of Season on Lions to Win NFC Central

The NFC Central title was on the line on December 20, 1981 as the Detroit Lions hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Pontiac Silverdome. For the Lions, under Head Coach Monte Clark, it was auspicious to be playing at home – they were undefeated there thus far in ’81 and had beaten the Vikings impressively by a 45-7 score the week before. But both teams were 8-7, highlighting the mediocrity of the division.

Detroit may have been unbeatable in the Silverdome but had been far less successful on the road, going 1-7 (including a loss at Tampa). Starting QB Gary Danielson went down for the year in the fourth game and, after backup Jeff Komlo proved inadequate, Eric Hipple, who had seen no action in his 1980 rookie season, took over and played surprisingly well. He had good receivers to throw to in wide receivers Freddie Scott and Leonard Thompson, as well as TE David Hill. But even more significant was RB Billy Sims, the star second-year player out of Oklahoma who was among the rushing leaders. The defense was best against the run and featured DT Doug English, DE Dave Pureifory, LB Ken Fantetti, and FS Jimmy Allen.

Head Coach John McKay’s Buccaneers had come out of nowhere to win the division in 1979, regressed in ’80, but were now contending again. They had won three of their last four and a big part of it had been the performance of QB Doug Williams, particularly when passing to deep-threat WR Kevin House (pictured at left). TE Jimmie Giles was also a Pro Bowl-quality player. The defense may not have been as formidable as in ’79, but it was still anchored by star DE Lee Roy Selmon (pictured at top) and the backfield was tough to pass against.

There was a big crowd of 80,444 on hand to see if the Lions could remain dominant at home and make it to the postseason. The Bucs scored first with a 40-yard field goal by Bill Capece in the opening period, but Detroit went ahead 7-3 thanks to a nine-yard touchdown run by Hipple in the second quarter.

It appeared that the Lions would add to the margin as they again drove deep into Tampa Bay territory, but Hipple’s pass intended for Scott was intercepted by safety Cedric Brown at the three yard line and returned to the 16. On the Bucs’ first play, Williams lofted a pass to House that resulted in an 84-yard touchdown. Rather than being ahead by seven to ten points, Detroit was down by 10-7 at halftime.

Eddie Murray tied the score for the Lions with a 47-yard field goal with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. But as the game entered the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay took command with 10 points in a span of 70 seconds.

First, Capece broke the tie with a field goal 12 seconds into the final period. The biggest play of the game came on the following Detroit possession. In a third-and-10 situation, Selmon hit Hipple from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by NT David Logan, who gathered the ball in on one hop off the artificial surface and ran 21 yards for a touchdown. From 10-10, the Buccaneers now held a 20-10 lead.

Still, the Lions, urged on by the enthusiastic crowd, came back and drove to the Tampa Bay 13. But once again Hipple was intercepted by Brown, this time in the end zone. While Detroit managed to score once more with 1:21 remaining as Hipple connected with Thompson for an eight-yard TD, it was too late. The Bucs came away with a 20-17 win and the division title.

The Lions outgained Tampa Bay (340 yards to 276) and also had the edge in first downs (21 to 11). But they turned the ball over three times, to none suffered by the Bucs, and that was the key to the outcome.

Doug Williams completed just 8 of 19 passes for 172 yards, but that included the long touchdown pass and he tossed no interceptions. Kevin House caught only one pass, but it was for 84 yards and a TD. RB James Owens was the club’s leading rusher, with 61 yards on 17 carries, and also caught two passes for 49 yards that included Tampa Bay’s second-longest completion of the day, of 35 yards. Jimmie Giles caught two passes as well, totaling 19 yards.

Eric Hipple (pictured at right) was successful on 18 of 28 passes for 205 yards, but his one touchdown was offset by two costly interceptions. Billy Sims was held to 76 yards on 19 carries and caught three passes for 39 more. RB Dexter Bussey had a team-leading four catches out of the backfield for 32 yards, while Freddie Scott gained 56 yards on his three receptions.

The 9-7 Buccaneers traveled to Dallas for the Divisional playoff, and lost convincingly by a 38-0 score. Detroit’s 8-8 tally tied for second with Green Bay.

Doug Williams (pictured below) passed for a career-high 3563 yards and had 19 touchdown passes as opposed to 14 interceptions. His 7.6 yards per attempt ranked seventh in the league, as did his 3.0 percentage of interceptions.

Eric Hipple led the NFL in both yards per attempt (8.5, tied with Denver’s Craig Morton) and yards per completion (16.8). He threw for 2358 yards with 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. While he created some excitement early on, his nine-year career ended up being decidedly average.

Kevin House capped a breakout season with the long scoring catch against Detroit. Following a quiet rookie season in which he had one reception, House caught 56 passes for a career-high 1176 yards (21.0 avg.) and 9 TDs in ’81.

Billy Sims placed third among NFL rushers with 1437 yards on 296 carries (4.9 avg.) that included 13 touchdowns.

Cedric Brown ended up with nine interceptions, tying him for third in the NFL with Detroit’s Jimmy Allen, among others. In nine seasons, all spent with Tampa Bay, he intercepted 29 passes to rank third in franchise history to date. Few were bigger than the two against the Lions.