DET 24, HOU 17LET US MAKE ONE THING PERFECTLY CLEAR: LIONS WON

HOUSTON — Let’s not say the stadium was empty. Let’s just say that if you were sitting behind one end zone, and the hot dog guy was clear across the other end zone, all you had to do was yell, “Sir? When you get a chance?”

Football? This didn’t feel like football, not the NFL kind. Maybe a World League game in Moscow. Maybe a pickup game in the Vatican. The Astrodome, a gray and dingy place to begin with, was a groaning, half-empty cavern Sunday, with lackluster fans and bad lighting. You didn’t just see the cheerleaders, you heard them. “Block that kick! . . . Block that kick! . . . Hey, wake up!”

So this was not a big-time atmosphere. But it was a big- time game for the Lions. Which is what made their win Sunday important and — dare we say it? — impressive.

Because this is exactly the kind of game they always lose.

Or used to lose. The fact is, the Lions have won five in a row, which makes them the second-hottest team in football. True, they escaped Sunday, 24-17, in what can kindly be called the “boing!” fashion. Meaning every time Scott Mitchell threw an interception — boing! — the Lions bounced back with one of their own. Every time a Detroit player coughed up the ball — boing!
— they just popped it out of an Oiler’s hand.

Here was the final count; Detroit, three fumbles, two interceptions. Houston, five fumbles, three interceptions.

“Today wasn’t the best game we’ve played,” said Wayne Fontes, which is a little like saying “Bachelor Party” wasn’t Tom Hanks’ best movie.

“But it’s the mark of a good team when you don’t play your best and you still win.”

Actually, it’s a mark that the other team stinks. But we knew this about Houston. The danger was, the Lions often roll over to bad teams. This season they have lost to Arizona and Washington, which have won four games apiece.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we won,” Robert Porcher said. “We won. We won. We won.”

They won. I think we got that. So quiet you could hear intensity drop

They won with Barry Sanders limited to 54 yards and Scott Mitchell having the less-than-hot game that was inevitable, the way he had been playing. It’s true, the Lions had to hold their breath at the end, as young Steve McNair drove the Oilers to the shadow of the end zone for the final play.

Of course, by that point, there were about six people left in the Astrodome. I’m counting the custodians here.

“It was hard to get going out there,” admitted Brett Perriman, who had six catches but a number of drops. “It was so quiet, I could hear individual fans yelling things. Like you’d hear some guy yelling, ‘You suck!’ and you’d look over and see the guy with his hands to his mouth. I mean, it was quiet!”

Give a nod to the Lions’ defense, which made big plays when it had to — although the secondary is still a huge worry. Just the same, the Lions need only win their remaining two games against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay to ensure the playoffs and, who knows? Maybe even home field for the first round.

If this sounds incredible, that’s because it is. A breath of fresh Air

OK. Let us spend a moment on “Air” McNair. The day belonged to him as much

as anyone. Say what you will, it is still a big deal when a black quarterback gets his first action in the NFL. Running backs, defensive backs, nobody blinks anymore. They haven’t for years. But as much as the league likes to think of itself as enlightened, its player population is more than 50 percent black and its starting quarterback population is around 10 percent black. So when a highly touted kid like McNair starts the second half, fans sit up and notice: Did he handle it well? Did he read the defenses? Was he as good as the guy he replaced?

In McNair’s case, the answer was “yes” all around. He played a better game than a rookie has a right to play, threw for more than 200 yards in 30 minutes — including a long touchdown — and nearly pulled out a miracle. McNair, out of Alcorn State, a historically black school, was a top draft pick and got a $28-million contract. But he had been sitting this season, collecting dust, while journeymen Chris Chandler and Will Furrer took the snaps.

Not anymore. McNair should play the rest of the season. He was not rattled. He was not overwhelmed. At times, he was damn hard to stop.

“That kid is good,” Perriman said. “He has a nice touch, and he has that one thing that defenses hate in a quarterback — he can run.”

“He had us very nervous at the end,” Porcher admitted. “Very nervous.”

So for McNair, Sunday was a beginning. For the Lions, Sunday was a continuation — of a streak that is threatening to become one of the biggest stories in the NFL. I saw reporters from Sports Illustrated and the New York Times in the press box. To them — and to many of us — the Lions’ and Fontes’ salvation act is hard to explain.

All we can say is, we wish William Clay Ford issued his “playoffs or else” ultimatum a few weeks earlier.

They could have home-field advantage by now.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book “Live Albom IV”: 7-8 p.m. Thursday, Borders, 43075 Crescent, Novi; 6:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, Barnes & Noble, 19211 Mack, Grosse Pointe; 1-2 p.m. Saturday, Doubleday, Somerset Mall, Troy.

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