LIONS 27, VIKINGS 24HALLELUJAHLIONS SAVOR THEIR FIRST VICTORY

Today, the Lions are just another losing team.

Pop the champagne!

Say Hallelujah! Light a candle! Someone get Matt Millen an oxygen machine! When the final seconds clicked off the Silverdome clock Sunday afternoon, you’d have thought the Super Bowl had been won, Osama bin Laden had been captured, and rapture had dawned on the face of the earth.

Never before has 1-12 meant this much to this many.

“That monkey is GONE!” Desmond Howard crowed after the Lions derailed a potential all-time NFL record by outlasting Minnesota, 27-24, for their first win in — get this — 364 days.

Howard looked around the locker room. There was howling laughter, boisterous shouting, towels flying. You half-expected Burt Reynolds to prance by with a woman on each arm and a cigar in his mouth.

“You gotta give these guys — and the coaches — credit,” Howard said. “It ain’t easy getting a team up for a game when you’re 0-10, 0-11. But we never quit.”

No, they didn’t. Never mind that the first win of the season came with eight shopping days left until Christmas.

Here was Johnnie Morton heaving his helmet at the final gun, like a college graduate tossing his mortarboard. Here was coach Marty Mornhinweg smiling — smiling? — and getting doused with a Gatorade bucket. Here was Millen, the team president, with his head up at the end of the game.

Up?

“Did you look for the TV cameras this time?” he was asked.

“I looked for the cardiac unit,” he said.

Well, yes, the Lions didn’t exactly cruise to this victory. They blew a 20-7 halftime lead, fell behind, 24-20, couldn’t hold possession in the final two minutes, and needed four straight incompletions from a young Minnesota quarterback to ensure a field goal wouldn’t tie the game and push them to overtime.

But when that last Minnesota pass went awry, the crowd roared as loudly as it has all season. As for the Lions? I don’t want to say they exhaled deeply, but I did notice the roof rise a few inches.

One win, 12 losses.

There goes the perfect season.

Rookie’s pass is turning point

To be honest, the Lions played Sunday’s game the way they’ve played most of their games this year: close and hard-fought, but also mistake-prone, sporadic and lacking a killer instinct. The only difference this time was that they won.

Consider these stats: Detroit survived 13 penalties for 123 yards, a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, and enough Randy Moss catches to fill his own personal highlight cassette. That’s enough, on many Sundays, to spell defeat.

Moss (seven catches, 144 yards, two touchdowns) had such a field day riding cornerback Bryant Westbrook, the only thing missing was a saddle.

But this time, the Lions made some plays of their own. None was bigger than a third-and-24 — only the Lions have a third-and-24, right? — from their own 6-yard line at the end of the third quarter.

This was after Minnesota had scored 17 unanswered points to take the lead, and many teams would have been ripe for slaughter.

Somehow, the Lions converted that first down. Rookie quarterback Mike McMahon whipped a pass over the middle to tight end David Sloan for 26 yards.

That was the turning point. The Lions marched the rest of the way, chewed up five more minutes of clock, and recaptured the lead with a touchdown.

The score would stand.

The streak was over.

“I felt like I was out there with Evander Holyfield,” Westbrook admitted after his Sunday In The Park With Randy, “but if he won the battle, I won the war.”

One win, 12 losses.

Ain’t it glorious?

They held it together

All season long, people have been saying — Millen, most loudly — that the Lions’ record is far worse than their team.

And that is probably true. Just as the Lions could have lost Sunday’s game, they could have won at least a half-dozen others.

But now that the dragons of history have been slain — no NFL team has ever finished 0-16 — the monsters of mediocrity are Detroit’s biggest enemy. Let’s be honest. It’s much easier to get up for a game when you’re trying to avoid being a laughingstock. When you’re just playing out the string, motivation becomes a problem.

But for the moment, a nod to Mornhinweg, who really knows how you spell relief. As new coaches go, you don’t want your first NFL victory to come after the team Christmas party.

And a nod to the players, who had to endure such painful sights as Keyshawn Johnson stealing one and Jason Hanson blowing one. It is testament to this group that Randy Moss has done more griping this season than the Lions’ roster combined. They have kept it together, avoided pointing fingers, and tried to give the fans their money’s worth.

Oh, and speaking of the fans, the Ford family ought to send all of them a Christmas card. Do you realize there were 72,000-plus who paid to see an 0-12 team take the field Sunday? For all the pain the Lions have inflicted over the years, the fans have never returned that pain in the Fords’ pocketbooks.

In fact, on Sunday, most of the crowd stayed until the end, and rattled the roof with noise when the Lions finally, finally, finally got the win.

Throw the streamers! Fly the balloons! Bring in the dancing bears! For the first time in the year 2001, the Detroit Lions are on the board.

“How long does it last?” someone asked Millen.

“It lasts until tomorrow,” he said. “When you guys start asking us about 1-15.”

Oh, yeah.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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