BUFFALO, N.Y. — For those of you who went out Christmas shopping Sunday afternoon, let me sum up what happened here in the tundra:
The Lions fumbled the ball with less than three minutes left; missed a field goal with less than one minute left; missed another field goal with 12 seconds left; lost Bennie Blades to injury, Dennis Gibson to injury, George Jamison to injury; converted one third down all day; and spent most of the afternoon dodging snowballs thrown by the fans.
And they won.
And they set a franchise record for victories.
And they might win the division tonight and earn a first- round bye in the playoffs.
You getting all this?
“How many times did you think this game was history?” someone asked Toby Caston in the jubilant Lions locker room, after they somehow beat Buffalo, the best team in the AFC, 17-14, in overtime to end the regular season.
“Let me put it this way,” Caston said. “There was a whole lot of praying going on, on those sidelines. I think the Big Man upstairs is tired of hearing from us by now, we were praying so much.”
Indeed. Here is how a prayer might have gone Sunday: “Please Lord, let us OH MY GOD HOW DID HE DROP THAT? Amen.”
Prayers answered. The Lions finish with the second-best record in the NFC and will win the Central Division if the Bears lose or tie tonight. Of course, if Sunday is how you win a division, we need to go back and rewrite all those cliches, the ones about execution and poise and “dancing with the one that brung ya.”
This wasn’t a game, it was a fire drill, a hurricane, a crazy, windswept affair full of penalties, dropped passes and balls thrown to no one in particular. Wait. Here is an actual highlight: the Lions had second-and-goal from the 1 and the quarterback ran three straight times, failing to score. They never gave the ball to their best weapon, the best running back in football, Barry Sanders.
“Did you call those plays?” someone asked Erik Kramer, the quarterback.
“Are you kidding me?” he said.
“Were you surprised you didn’t get the ball?” someone asked Sanders.
“Well . . . hmmm . . . yeah,” he said.
And they still won?
Snowballs flying They won, for the 12th time this season. Don’t ask me how. All I can tell you is they never gave up Sunday, no matter how weird they looked. Kramer, who for the first four quarters seemed to be throwing a Wiffle ball, suddenly came to life in overtime and completed five straight passses into the wind. The defense, which had allowed Buffalo its longest scoring drive in history — 99 yards — tightened like a choke collar down the stretch.
And Eddie Murray, who tried a game-winning field goal from 39 yards, missed wide left, came back four plays later (thanks to a defensive penalty) and missed again, from 30 yards, wide left, then got one more chance in overtime from 21 yards out and finally nailed it.
“I told him not to worry, just aim straight down the line and hit it,” Jim Arnold, Murray’s holder, said after the game. Murray didn’t bother to talk to the press, I don’t know why. On a day when tackles were missed and balls were dropped and quarterbacks were sneaking and star players were dropping with injuries, missing a couple field goals is no big deal.
Maybe he got hit by a snowball. Lord knows there were enough of them thrown by Bills fans, who are obviously starved for entertainment. The referee almost called a penalty on those people, but then he figured living in Buffalo is penalty enough.
Maybe Murray was worried about questions concerning the playoffs, which are the next hurdle for this most surprising franchise. And there will be a lot of questions. Here is the first one:
Will the Lions be able to field a team?
I’m not kidding. The way their guys are dropping, they’ll be digging up Bubba Baker pretty soon. Blades went out with a bad ankle; Jamison, a bad foot; Gibson, a hurt knee. They join the no-can-do list of Rodney Peete, Jerry Ball, Mike Cofer, Mike Utley and Eric Sanders. All starters. Which is why I refuse to make a big deal of the fact that Buffalo chose not to play Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or James Lofton on Sunday. Hey. At least they had the option.
Meanwhile, here is what the Lions situation has come down to: If you took all the healthy starters, put them on one side of a teeter-totter, then put all the injured guys on the other side, you’d pretty much have a standoff. Actually, the injured guys would weigh more, what with all the casts and everything.
“I’ll tell you what, if we had to practice tomorrow we couldn’t do it,” coach Wayne Fontes said. “We’d have to go out there and stand. Just stand. No moving around.”
On such a note do the Lions enter the playoffs. And you know what? It almost doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether they play next week, win next week, lose next week or get a bye, what this team has pulled off so far is truly incredible. They are 12-4. Will you think about that for a minute? 12-4? The Lions? It can’t all be done with mirrors.
“We’ve been winning funny all year,” Kramer said. “It’s not like we’re trying to do it that way. It just happens.”
“This season has been strange and tragic and happy,” added Chris Spielman, the emotional sponge of this group. “I looked out on the field in one series today and it finally hit me: Cofer ain’t here. Jerry’s not here. George is not here. Gibby’s not here. Bennie Blades is not here. But I’ll tell you, the other guys came up and answered the challenge.”
What are their names again?
Never mind. No time for jokes. Time to soak the feet and tune the antenna and sit back and watch the Bears squirm for a change.
Wait. A word here about Sanders. He came into this game with a chance to win the NFL rushing title, and while he gained 108 yards, he lost that title by 15 yards to Dallas’ Emmitt Smith, who had the good fortune of playing against the Atlanta run defense Sunday. You know what? The hell with the rushing title. Sanders gets my vote as MVP of the league. No one player is so responsible for his franchise’s fortunes. The day he joined this team was the day it woke from the dead. With entire defenses gunning for him week after week, he still managed to outgain all but one fellow in the league, and certainly led the world in turning absolute losses into three- and four-yard gains. On such plays can a game, and thus a season, turn.
Besides, he stayed healthy all year. And when you think about all the guys coming after him, that’s a pretty neat feat right there.
So thus ends the 1991 regular season, with the Lions beating the team that went to the Super Bowl last year. Pretty strange stuff, huh? Logic says the Lions are too hurt to stop a playoff team next week. But logic hasn’t been right in a while.
“Are you guys going to get together and watch the Bears game tomorrow night?” someone asked Lomas Brown.
“Almost definitely,” he said. He looked out at his battered but happy teammates, dressing and getting ready for the bus. “Hey, yo! Where’s the party at?”
Look around you, Lomas. It’s right here.