The puzzling slide continues for the Denver Broncos while the Detroit Lions have a vision of last year's dream finish.
Barry Sanders, who triggered the Lions' five-game winning streak with a big game on Thanksgiving Day in 1989, rushed for 147 yards and scored two touchdowns Thursday as Detroit beat Denver 40-27.It was the fourth consecutive loss for the Broncos (3-8), the defending AFC champions. The Lions (4-7) ended a three-game losing streak which began when they blew a 21-point lead and lost to Washington in overtime.
"It gives us a boost of confidence that's been lacking for three weeks since that Washington game," said linebacker Chris Spielman, who led the Lions with seven tackles and three assists. "I went out in the huddle in the fourth quarter and said, `We've got to redeem ourselves,' and we did.
"This is a great win for our program."
The Broncos could muster only 283 yards against the Lions. Denver quarterback John Elway, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 243 yards, was sacked three times by a Detroit defense which has only 28 sacks all season."This might be the most difficult season I've played in," Elway said. "We've never been 3-8 since I've been here at Denver.
"We've had a lot of good times and you have to handle the good with the bad. You have to keep battling the best you can."
The Broncos, who played in the Super Bowl in three of the past four seasons, have not had a losing season since Elway joined the team in 1983. The Broncos went 8-8 in 1988. They were last under .500 in the strike-torn 1982 season, when they finished 2-7.
"I was proud of how hard we played and it just wasn't good enough to stay with them," Denver coach Dan Reeves said. "We lost some people, and when you don't have all your guns it's tough."
The keys to the game were Sanders and the return of kicker Eddie Murray, who missed five games with a hip injury.
The Lions had come under fire, both from the fans and from team owner William Clay Ford. The feeling was that Sanders, who rushed for 1,470 yards last year as a rookie, wasn't getting the ball enough.
"We rediscovered Barry," Ford said. "He makes a big difference. I'm watching a play and I have to adjust my eyes because when he gets the ball, everyone else seems to be moving in slow motion."
Sanders carried 23 times for 149 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown, and he turned one of his three receptions into a 35-yard TD.
"He's as good a back as we've ever seen," Reeves said. "He showed what he could do on the films and we're not the first ones he's done this to. His legs look like tree trunks and of course he's going to break a lot of tackles."
The Lions ended the 1989 season with a five-game winning streak which began with a 13-10 victory over Cleveland on Thanksgiving Day. Sanders rushed for 145 yards in that game and ran for over 100 yards in three of Detroit's final four.
"(The coaches) knew what we had to do," Sanders said. "They saw the problem and they corrected it."
Lions coach Wayne Fontes said there had been a great emphasis on getting the ball to Sanders more often in Detroit's run 'n shoot offense.
"It's a pass-oriented offense, but we worked all week at running the ball," Fontes said. "We ran extra offense all week and all we did was run."
It was the first time the Broncos had faced a run 'n shoot offense this season and it showed as the Lions jumped to a 24-7 lead early in the second quarter.
"We executed pretty well," said Lions quarterback Bob Gagliano, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 248 yards. "I missed some plays. But all in all, we just really kind of took what they gave us. You get them on their heels and, ideally, that's the way it's supposed to work."
Gagliano had TD passes of 11 and 43 yards to Richard Johnson and Murray kicked field goals of 24, 32, 43 and 45 yards.
"It felt really good to kick long field goals and get back into the groove," Murray said. "We have an outside chance of getting into the playoffs, the way the National Conference is. I think with 9-7 we could sneak in and that's our goal right now."
Melvin Bratton scored twice on 1-yard runs for Denver, Wymon Henderson scored with a 49-yard interception return and David Treadwell kicked field goals of 24 and 32 yards for the Broncos.