Friday night’s preseason contest against the Lions – the Raiders first home game of the year – is a rare matchup between the two teams. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the Raiders and Lions have met eleven times in the regular season, with the Raiders holding a 6-5 advantage in the all-time series.Between the two teams’ first meeting in 1970 (a 28-14 Lions victory at Tiger Stadium) and their sixth in 1987 (a 27-7 victory for the Raiders at the Los Angeles Coliseum), a game between the two teams only once resulted in a margin closer than two touchdowns: a 29-17 win by the Raiders in 1978. But their seventh matchup, on Monday Night, December 10th, 1990, would be different:
Late in the 1990 season, the Raiders were locked in a tight division race with the Kansas City Chiefs in Art Shell’s first full season as head coach. Shell, who took over midway through the 1989 season when Mike Shanahan was fired, was looking to restore the Raiders to their glory days of the early 80’s, when they had won two Super Bowls. The team had missed the playoffs four years in a row. The 1990 Los Angeles Raiders boasted one of the greatest backfield tandems in NFL history with Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson and had started the season 6-1, but had lost three of five since their Week 8 bye including two tight contests against the Chiefs. On the Sunday prior the the Raiders’ Monday Night matchup in Detroit, the Chiefs had beaten the Broncos 31-20 to take control of the AFC West race: the Chiefs now had a record of 9-4. Should the Raiders falter, their record would fall to 8-5 and they would be playing catch up the rest of the year and need two Chiefs losses in order to win the division. The Lions, coached by Wayne Fontes (who had also been a mid-season replacement in the 1988 season) and led by second-year running back Barry Sanders, were 4-8 coming into the matchup, already a lock to miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year and the 53rd time in franchise history. The Raiders were coming off a 23-20 victory over the defending AFC champion Broncos, while the Lions had just lost an overtime thriller to their rival Bears in Chicago a week before. The stage seemed set for the Raiders to post their 29th Monday Night victory in 36 appearances in the prime time slot.
The matchup that included three of the league’s premier running backs, the run-n-shoot attack of the Lions and the vertical speed mantra of Al Davis started off even faster than anyone could expect. After returning the opening kickoff nearly to midfield, the Lions scored on their fourth offensive play, with Sanders taking a draw play 35 yards for a score. The Raiders responded immediately: Jay Schroeder hit Willie Gault deep for a 68 yard TD strike on their first play from scrimmage. Not to be outdone, the Lions answered back immediately: a 51 yard pass from Rodney Peete to Jeff Campbell set up another Sanders scoring run. Seven offensive plays had been run, resulting in three touchdowns. After a stalled Raiders drive, the Lions went back to work from deep in their own territory, but Peete threw a pick to Terry McDaniel on their first play of the drive (their seventh play from scrimmage in the game) and Marcus Allen scored two plays later to even the score at 14-14, still early in the first quarter. On the ensuing possession, the Lions responded with a seven play, 65 yard drive that culminated in a Peete to Campbell touchdown pass, and the first quarter ended with the Lions on top, 21-14. In the 71 year history of the NFL up to that point, only once had more points been scored in a first quarter of a football game.
After the historic first quarter, the two teams slowed down the pace a bit in the second. The Lions expanded on their lead early in the 2nd quarter with an Eddie Murray field goal. Later in the period, Bo Jackson scored on a powerful 55-yard run to close the gap. The two teams had combined for 473 yards and 45 points in the first half, and the Lions went to the locker room with a three-point lead.
After the half, the Raiders came charging back with a dominant second half. The defense, led by Greg Townsend and Howie Long, limited Peete, Sanders and company to a paltry 80 yards for the remainder of the game. The defense got to Peete on multiple occasions to kill Lions drives, as well as forcing a Sanders fumble. Jay Schroeder and the offense, meanwhile, would not be slowed down by Detroit’s defense. In the third quarter, Schroeder hit a pair of touchdown passes: a ten-yard strike to “Swervin” Mervyn Fernandez to take the 28-24 lead, and a three yard fade to “Mister Raider” Tim Brown to extend the Raider lead to 11. Midway through the fourth quarter, Detroit was finally able to answer the Raiders, scoring on a six yard run by the quarterback Peete. The Lions got the ball back again, but were unable to convert a key 4th down play to keep the drive alive, and the Raider running game killed a full four minutes of clock while setting up a Jeff Jaeger field goal to extend the Raider lead to 7. Needing a touchdown to tie, the Lions got the ball just inside of the 2-minute warning, but a Howie Long sack ended their comeback hopes. The Raiders walked out of the Pontiac Silverdome with a 38-31 victory and a 9-4 record.
Still needing to remain perfect and needing a Chiefs loss in order to clinch the AFC West, the Raiders got both. The Silver and Black won their next three games in a row to finish the season 12-4 on a five-game win streak, while the Chiefs would drop their next game against the Houston Oilers, finishing 11-5. The Raiders were the AFC West champs and earned a first round playoff bye. The Lions would go on to win their next two, only to drop their final game and finish the year a disappointing 6-10. The Raiders beat Cincinnati 20-10 in the divisional round game in front of the Los Angeles fans, but suffered probably one of the most devastating player injuries to ever befall the franchise: Bo Jackson suffered his career-ending hip injury against the Bengals and never played football again. A week later, the Raiders travelled to freezing Buffalo and suffered the worst playoff defeat in franchise history: a 51-3 loss to the Bills in the AFC Championship Game. The Los Angeles Raiders went on two two more playoff appearances and three more winning seasons under Shell before he was fired after the 1994 season and the team returned to Oakland and became the Oakland Raiders once again. The Lions would go on to reach the NFC Championship Game in 1991, and would make the playoffs six times in the 1990’s.
Barry Sanders, who had rushed for 176 yards in the memorable Monday Night matchup, would go on to lead the league in rushing in 1990, and again in 1994, 1996 and 1997. In 1996 he would post a 2000 yard season, and he retired in 1998 with over 15,000 rushing yards, having never rushed for less than 1100 yards in a single season. Marcus Allen would spend much of the 1991 season trying to come back from a knee injury, and spent the 1992 season mostly on the bench in Al Davis’ doghouse. In 1993, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the less memorable moments in Raider history. He retired after the 1997 season with 121 total touchdowns scored in his career. Jay Schroeder, who threw three touchdowns in the game, had his career year in 1990, throwing for over 2800 yards and 19 TDs to only 9 interceptions. He played two more years in Los Angeles, then finished his career in 1994 after stops in Cincinnati and Arizona.
These two teams don’t play very often, and the 1990 Monday Night matchup is the most memorable matchup between the two. Both teams were the poster-children of disfunction and struggle throughout the 2000’s. The Detroit Lions in 2008, went 0-16, the only team in NFL history to go winless in a 16-game regular season. The Lions did manage a winning season and a playoff appearance in 2011, something the Raiders have not done since 2002. The Lions have a solid corps of players in place with Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, but have had two straight losing seasons and are looking to finally make all that talent translate into wins. The Raiders, with a new quarterback, new-look defense, and new everything, will be looking to further develop a team identity. The two will face off Friday night in their second preseason games of 2014, lets hope at least this first quarter will be as good as the first quarter of the game on December 10th, 1990.