LI’L JOEY TRICKS US WITH QB DISGUISE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Who was that guy? The one wearing No. 3? He was not the same guy who wore No. 3 last week, the guy who used the name Joey Harrington and threw behind his receivers and over his receivers and looked as tentative as Mickey Mouse at a porn convention. Nuh-uh. This guy Sunday did none of that. This guy Sunday looked like an All-Pro, leading drives with long passes and sharp decisions. This guy was a quarterback, strong, confident and accurate to within a whisker.

Someone call the police.

Joey had his identity stolen.

“This may have been his best game since I’ve been here,” coach Steve Mariucci said after Harrington helped lead the Lions to their most surprising win in this surprisingly winning season, 28-13 over the Giants. “He was extremely efficient. And what made it more gratifying is that he came back from a rough week.”

Came back? He was reincarnated. It was like watching a kid fail algebra, then ace his SAT. After Sunday, remembering Harrington’s dismal performance against Green Bay felt like remembering George Clooney when he wore braces. This game was Harrington’s new gold standard, his best yet, in his 34th start. He raised his own bar.

And his teammates noticed.

“Joey was really intense out there,” said running back Artose Pinner. “At one point, I heard him yelling after me, ‘Hold onto the ball! Hold onto the ball!’ I mean, he was even yelling instructions after he handed it off.”

Well, the way he was playing, you wanted to write them down. For posterity, here were his numbers: He threw 22 times and completed 18 of them for 230 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions — and, best of all, he hit six different receivers for passes of 18 yards or more.

Six receivers for 18 yards or more? This is the same guy who last week was Master of the Three-Yard Toss? This is the same guy who last week said, “Some days it’s on and some days it’s off?”

Yep. And this week, it was on.

Sew it up or cough it up

“I know I played poorly last week,” Harrington said outside the locker room after the win. “But it’s my job to roll with it if it’s going badly, and keep it going if it’s going good.”

Now, we all know Joey is majoring in football and minoring in diplomacy. But the fact is, he could have curled up and hid after last week. He could have spiraled downward, taken the hometown boos to heart, and next thing you know, we’d be hearing screams for Mike McMahon.

Instead, Harrington did what Brett Favre predicted he would do after watching him last week. He bounced back.

Here is the most impressive thing Harrington and the offense did Sunday: When they most needed a touchdown, they got it in methodical, big-play fashion. It was the fourth quarter, just over eight minutes left, with the Lions clinging to a one-point lead. The game was teetering. Detroit could sew it up or cough it up.

Harrington began on his own 30-yard line with a 13-yard pass to running back Shawn Bryson. A few plays later, on third-and-long, Harrington found another backup, receiver Reggie Swinton, over the middle for 20 yards. Two plays later, he threaded the defense for 18 yards with a strong sideline pass to backup fullback Stephen Trejo. And two minutes later, Harrington rifled another pass to Swinton in the end zone that, I swear, sliced the fingertips off a defender before smacking into Reggie’s chest.

“Did you realize that almost everyone you used on that touchdown drive was a backup at his position?” Harrington was asked.

“I didn’t realize that,” he said. “That kind of makes it even better.”

Indeed it does. Because one was tempted to say the Lions excelled only when starting wide receiver Roy Williams and starting running back Kevin Jones were in there. Both had been effective early, but when nagging injuries wore them down, the Lions appeared to stall.

Not on that fourth-quarter drive. Swinton, Pinner, Trejo and Bryson all did their parts. And Harrington steered them.

“Call us the insurance policies,” said Swinton, whose touchdown catch was his first in three years. “Oh, and by the way, I just saved a load of money by calling Geico.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

Defense drills Warner

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t just Joey on Sunday. The defense kept the Giants out of the end zone three times when they had moved within the 20. Defensive back Chris Cash made the biggest play of the game, a huge interception in the end zone right before halftime, denying the Giants even three points. And Detroit sacked Kurt Warner six times, once recovering a fumble.

But when something had to be done, when the hammer had to come down, Harrington brought it down. And thanks to that, the Lions beat a 4-1 team. On the road. They remain perfect away from home (3-0) and have beaten their two toughest road opponents — Atlanta and New York — pretty handily.

“Your coach said this was your best game,” someone told Harrington. “How do you feel about that?”

Harrington shrugged. “We won,” he said. “So it was one of my best four games of the year.”

Did anyone notice the Lions had more first downs in the first quarter Sunday than they did all last week? Did anyone notice that, suddenly, the quarterback threw deep? Did anyone notice that the Lions are now one win away from equaling their total victories from last season — and it’s only October?

I don’t know about you, but something strange is going on. Halloween is still six days away. Until then, someone better tell me who these guys are wearing the Lions’ uniforms.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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