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Lions vs. Steelers: Fun Facts and Interconference Intrigue

The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6) face a tall task Sunday against the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions (6-3) at Heinz Field. If they can somehow win this game, then we can talk about how winning the AFC North isn’t entirely impossible.

The Steelers would have an opportunity to get into the thick of things in the division with games at Cleveland in Week 12 and at Baltimore in Week 13.

But beating the Lions is a big hurdle. For now, let’s keep the optimism in check and look at how Sunday’s Steelers-Lions pairing demonstrates why interconference play in the NFL is better than interleague play in Major League Baseball.

The Steelers, like every team in the NFL, play four interconference games every year. There’s a certain intrigue to these games because the Steelers only see these opponents once every four years.

Pittsburgh-Detroit might have some buzz to it as an interleague matchup in baseball. The Pirates and Tigers are two franchises steeped in tradition with nine world championships between them.

But for every Pirates-Tigers game, there’s Twins-Diamondbacks or Blue Jays-Padres or Mariners-Marlins. It’s like putting a scoop of ice cream on pizza. They just don’t go together.

There might be a certain novelty to these games, but it quickly wears off.

The novelty of interconference games in the NFL doesn’t wear off because a team sees any given interconference opponent about as often as a total solar eclipse, and because they usually alternate home games, a team will go eight years between visits to certain stadiums. Yet at the same time, these opponents usually have a history because interconference play has been going on since the NFL merger in 1970.

For example, this will be the 31st game between the Steelers and Lions going back to 1934. This makes for some fascinating facts and historical quirks.

  • The Steelers lead the all-time series 15-14-1, but the Lions won 11 of the first 15 meetings.
  • The Lions haven’t won at Pittsburgh since 1955. They tied the Steelers in their next trip to Pittsburgh in 1959, but since then the Steelers have defeated the Lions eight straight times in at home.
  • While the current NFL scheduling formula guarantees that AFC and NFC teams play one another once every four years, it wasn’t always so systematic. The Steelers and Lions went more than 10 years without playing each other between 1973 and 1983.
  • That 1983 game was the first of two Thanksgiving Day games in Detroit for the Steelers. Both were infamous losses that played a part in the unraveling of what had been promising seasons. The Steelers lost 45-3 to the Lions in 1983, which tied the worst margin of defeat on the road in franchise history. It was the second of three straight losses after a 9-2 start. The Steelers sputtered to 10-6 and lost in the AFC divisional playoffs.
  • Fifteen years later, in 1998, the Steelers met the Lions again on Thanksgiving in the Phil Luckett Coin Flip game. The Steelers lost a disputed overtime coin toss and fell 19-16 to a Lions team quarterbacked by Charlie Batch. They entered that game 7-4, but lost their last five and finished 7-9 to break their run of six straight playoff seasons. Now, another 15 years later, the Steelers play again on Thanksgiving, but not against the Lions. Considering the Steelers’ history with the Lions on Turkey Day, however, the proximity of Sunday’s game to Thanksgiving is a little bothersome.
  • Those two Thanksgiving losses in Detroit are the Steelers’ only losses to the Lions since 1962. The Steelers haven’t lost to the Lions, home or away, on any day other than Thanksgiving in 51 years.
  • The Steelers already have lost to the Chicago Bears this season. They haven’t lost two home games to NFC opponents in the same season since 1991. That lost 23-20 to the New York Giants on a Monday night and 41-14 to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Washington Redskins. The Steelers finished 7-9 that year in Chuck Noll’s final season.

So a win over the Lions Sunday would spare us a reminder of those dreary final years before Bill Cowher.

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