By gosh, here they go again. For the third time in 20 years, a Vikings team trying to make the playoffs will travel to Detroit in December to face a winless Lions team still hungry to avoid having its name attached to the list of the NFL's biggest losers of all time.
Mike Zimmer better hope Sunday's game at Ford Field doesn't end the way Denny Green's trip to the Silverdome did on Dec. 16, 2001. Zim's record is 5-6. Denny's was 5-7.
Like this year's Lions team with Dan Campbell (0-10-1), Detroit had a rookie head coach, Marty Mornhinweg (0-12), who was still looking for his first NFL win in 2001.
Marty was trying to avoid becoming the league's first coach to go 0-16. Fortunately for Marty, it would be another seven years before Rod Marinelli secured that dubious distinction for Detroit.
Meanwhile, Green was only 12 games removed from making the NFC Championship Game. His streak of five consecutive playoff appearances was on the line.
He was fired two weeks later. Mike Tice coached the season finale.
Yep, a one-win team might give up in December. A no-win team? No chance.
And if you don't believe that, look for some clips of how the Lions celebrated as the final gun sounded on that 27-24 win 20 years ago. Receiver Johnnie Morton throwing his helmet higher and farther than Stefon Diggs did after the Minneapolis Miracle comes to mind.
"It sounds awkward to say that this is one of my best moments in sports," Morton said, "but after all we've been through … this is the best."
If that sounds weird for a player on a 1-12 team, try this quote on for size:
"It feels like we just won the Super Bowl," guard Tony Semple said.
The 2001 Lions weren't exactly pushovers heading into that game. They had blown six second-half leads. They had set an NFL record with nine consecutive one-score losses.
When the Lions finally won, fans jumped around and hugged in the stands while players did the same on the field and in the locker room.
"Hopefully, this will get the comedians off our back," said fullback Cory Schlesinger, who scored the go-ahead touchdown.
The 2021 Lions haven't exactly laid down either. They tied Pittsburgh to avoid becoming the NFL's first 0-17 team. They've also lost five one-score games, three on last-second field goals, including a record 66-yarder by Baltimore's Justin Tucker and, yes, a 54-yarder by Greg Joseph that saved the Vikings from the humiliation of blowing a 10-point lead in the final 2 ½ minutes.
The 2001 Vikings didn't have to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak, but they did play the Lions in Detroit without starting quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was injured. Todd Bouman made his second career start, completing 18 of 38 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 63.8 passer rating.
Randy Moss caught seven passes for 144 yards and two second-half touchdowns that erased a 20-7 halftime deficit and gave the Vikings a 24-20 lead with 13:09 left in the game.
"He sparked us," Bouman said of Moss.
For a while, yes. But winless teams have a way of digging a little deeper when the season's end is near. Even that infamous 0-16 Lions team of 2008 nearly beat the Vikings twice before losing 12-10 at the Metrodome on a Ryan Longwell field goal with nine seconds left and 20-16 when it was 0-12 and facing the 7-5 Vikings at Ford Field in December.
In NFL history, there have been 34 winless teams going back to Year 1 when the Muncie Flyers went 0-1. Since 1960, there have been five — the 1960 expansion Cowboys (0-11-1), the 1976 expansion Buccaneers (0-14), the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1 in a strike-shortened season), the 2008 Lions (0-16) and the 2017 Browns (0-16).
Since 1970, 12 teams have won their first games after starting 0-11 or worse. So, in other words, players still care when it's December and there's still a goose egg in that left-hand column.
Back at the Silverdome in 2001, Lions rookie quarterback Mike McMahon also was making his second career start. He had 315 yards running and passing as the Lions went ahead with 10:36 left and held on until the Vikings' last-ditch effort to kick a tying field goal ended by giving up the ball on downs with three seconds left and the ball at the Detroit 42.
"It was elation and total bliss," Morton said. "I'm just so happy, I threw my helmet up in the air. I don't know where it is."
If you think the 2021 Lions will go quietly on Sunday, you'd be wrong.