CHICAGO — I can think of better ways to start a season.

I can think of better pictures than this: thousands of Chicago Bears fans going from depressed to delirious in the final five seconds, lighting up victory cigars and mocking the Lions. I can think of less disturbing heroes than this: Jim Harbaugh, whom I still remember from his pimple days at Michigan, now raising his fists in triumph as a Bear, after his last pass of this humid afternoon found the curled arms of Tom Waddle for a touchdown.

I can think of better moods than this: safety Harry Colon, who made the Lions’ roster through pure belief in himself, now sitting by his locker, the loneliest man in the room, mumbling over and over, “I should have made the play. I should have made the play.”

I can think of a hundred better endings. But the Lions are stuck with Sunday’s: a six-yard Chicago touchdown pass on the final damn play from scrimmage in a game they could have won, should have won.

And today, in the aching light of defeat, the question is this: Why were they in that position in the first place?

“The Bears were a better team, they beat us, that’s all,” said coach Wayne Fontes, after the joy-crushing 27-24 opening- day loss. But that’s a cliche. And I don’t buy it. If the Bears were such a better team, why were they still losing with five seconds to go?

This was strictly a case of one group having a little more left in the tank than the other, of the winning team being a little more used to winning than the losing team. Hey. The Lions had the Bears down by four points with just over a minute to play. They had the Bears 74 yards from a touchdown. Yet, sitting in that most aggravating posture, the prevent defense, they watched Chicago chew off one chunk of yardage after another, pass, run, pass, marching downfield as if motored by destiny.

And you can’t do that. The Lions want to be a great team, and I think they are on their way. But great teams don’t give up 74 yards in a minute. Unless Joe Montana is on the other side.

And Jim Harbaugh is not Joe Montana.

Not yet, anyhow. Michigan man’s magic moment

“Wow! You lay awake at night dreaming of moments like this!” Harbaugh gushed in front of his locker. “This is so great, this ending, it’s–“

He jumped from his seat in mid-sentence and shadow-boxed a dozen punches, then let out a whooping howl.

“I am so psyched!”

Meanwhile, down the hall, the silence was choking.

“I feel like I let everybody down,” said Colon, staring at his feet. “I’m hurtin’ now. I just didn’t make the play.”

To be fair to Colon, it was a tough one to make. The slant in, quick-fire pass that Harbaugh and Waddle executed beautifully — it’s called “13 Wing Jet” in the Chicago playbook — is designed for instant payoff. You whip it into the receiver’s gut and he falls down. It’s perfection, or nothing. Maybe Colon could have been spectacular and knocked the ball away.

He was not spectacular.

He was not alone. If you’re going to fault Colon, you have to fault the defensive line, which didn’t sack Harbaugh all afternoon, and allowed him time to complete six passes on that final drive. And if you fault the line, you have to fault the linebackers, who didn’t stuff running backs Neal Anderson and Darren Lewis. And if you fault the linebackers, you have to fault the secondary.

And you can fault them all. But also give them this much credit: for three quarters, they played well. They hit hard, knocked down passes. Then, maybe due to the heat — it was a barbecue on the field — or maybe due to some guys not being in full-season condition, they sagged.

“You saying we had a letdown?” nose tackle Jerry Ball growled. “I won’t let you tag that bleep on this team.”

Well, his permission not withstanding, these are the facts: after allowing no points in six straight Chicago possessions, the Lions surrendered 17 points in the fourth quarter.

And that is how they lost.

Not worse than Washington

“Of all the lows I’ve felt with this team, this is the lowest,” Lomas Brown said.

“Standing on the sidelines, watching that final play, it’s a sick feeling,” said Rodney Peete, whose fine return (273 yards passing, two TDs) was buried by that ending.

“To lose this way hurts so much,” whispered sweat-soaked Chris Spielman.
“You’d almost rather lose 45-0.”

Of course, the Lions did that last year on opening night against Washington — and they used the jolt to rebound all the way to their most successful season in decades. Maybe they can do the same with Sunday. The point is, they shouldn’t need to.

They were good enough to win this game. Don’t forget, they came back with 14 points of their own in the final quarter. This surprised me, to be honest, because with the holdouts and assorted injuries, I had my doubts as to the Lions’ readiness for Opening Day. But they were there, ready to win. Which means they can be there again.

Losing 45-0 might sting less, but it means you have a longer way to go. Just a few seconds from victory Sunday, the Lions need only learn to finish what they started, and they could be home, they could be all right. As we say good-bye to summer, on this day-after-Opening-Day-defeat, maybe we can take some comfort in that.

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