LIONS ARE A TEAM ONLY MISS MANNERS COULD LOVE

MINNEAPOLIS — I missed the last couple of Lions’ games on account of the World Series. I made Sunday’s game. I think I’m going back to Missouri.

There is winning pretty, winning ugly, losing pretty and, of course, losing ugly. And then there is the way the Lions lost to Minnesota Sunday, which I’m still trying to figure out how to classify.

Maybe “losing politely.” For as much as the Vikings tried to give this game to Detroit, the Lions steadfastly said, “No, really. It wouldn’t be right. We just couldn’t. No. Sorry.”

So despite a fumble by the Vikings on their first offensive play of the game, despite a Tommy Kramer interception, despite a missed Minnesota field goal, the Lions still found themselves tied, 13-13, with two minutes to play.

The responsibility for making sure the Vikings won this one was clearly left to the Lions. They proved equal to the task.

First they punted low and short — when they needed high and long — and surrendered a 21-yard return.

Then, when the Vikes appeared to be stymied on a third-and- nine on the Lions’ 35, Darrin Nelson took a handoff and simply ran around the Lions’ defense — I’m not sure that’s the right word for what they were playing — and picked up 23 yards and a new life for his team.

That was that. With four seconds left, Minnesota sent in Jan Stenerud, the Nordic version of Ol’ Man River, to do the honor of officially winning it.

And he complied. One-two-three, kick.

“You’re welcome,” said the Lions, bowing out ungracefully.

Final score: 16-13. Only Grant was impressed OK. Come on. Fess up. How many of you expected this to happen?

Detroit knocks off two Super Bowl teams in a row, roaring like a Maserati, then collapses against a team such as Minnesota, whimpering like an old Nash Rambler.

You felt it coming? Deep in your bones? Like a ghostly premonition? Relax. It does not make you disloyal. It does not make you a traitor, or someone who should be sent to live in purgatory, or Cleveland.

It simply makes you a Lions fan.

This is the Lions’ ride. Up. Down. All around. A season in which we expected nothing to happen has turned into one in which nothing expected happens. So the Lions trounce last year’s two best teams, then go down to a 4-4 squad. A roller coaster dips, right?

Maybe it’s a new theory. The Bigger They Are, The Easier They Fall. Miami. San Francisco — now these are teams to defeat. But the Vikings? They were 3-13 last year. You expect us to beat them?

Not with the run defense the Lions put on the field Sunday. They played it strictly holier-than-thou. Boy were they holy. Big holes. Real big holes. Humphrey the Whale would have encountered no resistance.

“They were pretty big,” said a grinning Nelson, who gained 122 yards going through them.

“The kind a running back loves,” added runningmate Ted Brown.

Even Bud Grant, the tight-lipped Minnesota coach, declined the chance to pay polite respects to his opponent’s defense. “I won’t say anything about that,” Grant said. “They . . . looked tough from where I was standing.”

He must have been standing in St. Paul.

No matter. The numbers don’t lie. The Vikings coming in here averaged 82 yards a game rushing. Sunday they had about twice that, even though they are a team that much prefers the pass. Who could resist? Running against the Lions is about as hard as letting water out of a tub. Ride’s not over yet Even so, the Lions stayed close enough to take it. That they didn’t is not as much a mystery as why the Vikings weren’t winning by two touchdowns. They had the ball for 35 minutes out of 60, ran off twice as many offensive yards as Detroit, and still won by only three points.

But such are the Lions, 1985.

Confusing. Amusing. Confounding. Astounding. A tornado at home and a tomato on the road. Are they as good as their wins? Or as bad as their losses?

Every time they convince you of one, they go out and do the other.

“We put ourselves in a position to win today, but we didn’t hold up,” said Darryl Rogers. “That (short) punt hurt us more than the darn (Nelson) run. We just didn’t get the job done.”

And so the Lions fall into a tie in the battle to stand behind the Bears in the Central Division. Beaten in the last seconds by a 42-year-old foot. It’s another dip in the roller- coaster ride that is this season. And it probably won’t be the last.

But cheer up. Next week, Chicago. They’re undefeated.

We should kill ’em.

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