AT THE HELM, MITCHELL MADE TITANIC MISTAKES

This is one of those weeks when you blame the quarterback, and it might not be nice and that’s too bad. You want a winning football team? A playoff football team? You start with the guy who takes snaps. A quarterback can lead the way up and he can lead the way down. When he starts taking on water, you can forget it. Sink goes the ship.

Scott Mitchell started taking on water in the second quarter Sunday night, and after that, all the buckets and all the bailing couldn’t save the Lions from drowning. Let’s not sugarcoat it. Mitchell handed over a game that was winnable against the defending Super Bowl champions. You can’t blame the defense. The defense made plays. You can’t blame the special teams. The special teams made plays. You can’t blame the running game. Or even the receivers who were not great, who didn’t help, but who didn’t make the fatal slips.

No. That dishonor went to Mitchell, who made two awful decisions, got sacked four times, and by the end was overthrowing receivers as if aiming for a second-story window. There will be better days for this quarterback. But if the Lions are to have a chance, they need his better days on nights like this.

The trouble began, as it often does, with Mitchell on the move. It was the second quarter. Up until that point, Mitchell had been sharp if not flashy, completing 10 passes. Then, on a third down from the Lions’ 42, he ran around and ducked a defender and tried to make something happen. In these moments I think Mitchell pictures himself as Steve Young or Brett Favre, only he doesn’t have their speed or their instincts. And instead of making a big play, he took too long to throw a ball so telegraphed it could have read “Western Union.”

Cornerback Darren Sharper, once he finished wiping the drool from his lips, scooped the ball out of the unsuspecting arms of Herman Moore and ran 50 yards down the sidelines. The last guy to have a shot at him was Mitchell, who barely grazed him with his fingers.

Sharper danced into the end zone and leapt into the stands.

You could see the disgust on Mitchell’s face. You could also see his confidence seeping out like fluid under a parked car. On the next series, Mitchell barely got a ball near any of his receivers.

“I guess I was trying to make something happen,” he admitted.

Which is often when nothing does. And so a fortunate last-minute possession — when the Lions took over at Green Bay’s 22 after an interception — only resulted in a field goal, and instead of tying the game, the Lions trailed, 14-10.

That hurt. You get a gift like that, you must convert.

But wait. That wasn’t the worst of it.

More leaks sprung in second half

The leaks really showed in the second half. Less than seven minutes in, the Packers made a foolish play on a Lions punt, and turned the ball over deep in their territory. Here was Detroit’s chance to take control, to grab a lead and unnerve the favorites. Once again, a winning quarterback will get you in the end zone on a turnover like that.

Mitchell did not get the Lions in the end zone. Instead, on another ill-advised decision, he went running, then threw a sidearm floater that had the zip of a Nerf ball. It was stolen by cornerback Doug Evans.

Interception. End of chance.

On the sidelines, Bobby Ross screamed something. It might have been, “STAN HUMPHRIES! WHERE ARE YOU?”

“Bad decision,” Mitchell later admitted.

By that point, for all intents and purposes, Mitchell was cooked. He would throw two more interceptions. He would take sacks. He would finish with lousy stats, a beaten look and a losing record.

But having said that, let me add two things. His receivers were hardly stellar. They rarely broke free from tight Green Bay coverage, and they didn’t do a great job of coming back to the ball. And let’s give credit to the Packers defense.

“Every time we followed one of our tendencies,” said Johnnie Morton, “they were ready with something to stop it.”

Well. There’s a reason this team has won 20 straight at Lambeau Field.

It isn’t the bratwurst.

Lions are keeping bad company

Still, you have to come back to Mitchell and his bad decisions. Only a quarterback can deflate a team that fast, and he did it twice at the most inopportune times.

So the Lions now stand on the precipice of the season. The good news is, they have the same record as the Dallas Cowboys. The bad news is, the Cowboys are probably going to miss the playoffs.

That is not the company the Lions want to keep. The Packers, Buccaneers and Vikings are all two or more games ahead of them on the ladder — and those are just the teams in their division.

In truth, the Lions didn’t figure to beat the Packers. Which is what makes it so tough to swallow. This game was there for the taking; instead it was given away. And it was given away by the man behind center. It’s a lousy deal and a tough position and an unfair responsibility, I know — but that’s what comes with being an NFL quarterback. When you win, they throw the light on you, and when you lose, they throw the water.

Four wins, five losses. Give ’em a towel and hope they dry off in time for Sunday.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 p.m. Wednesday at Waldenbooks in Southgate Mall in Southgate, and 7:30-8:30 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble in Northville. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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