LIONS EARN THEIR PLAYOFF SPOT

GREEN BAY, Wis. — For so many years, they were the orphans with runny noses pressed against the banquet window, watching other teams enjoy the feast. Now here they were, all grown up, caked with blood and dirt, chests heaving, sweat freezing into tiny icicles on their eyebrows — and they were trying to get a better look again, peering in, straining their necks, watching, this time, as the officials planted the yard markers into the frozen ground of Lambeau Field, two sticks that would finally answer the Detroit Lions’ question: Playoffs, in or out?

“I was marching around in circles saying, ‘Don’t let them get the first down, please don’t let them get it,’ ” Chris Spielman would say.

“Not me, I was standing right over that yard marker,” Bennie Blades would attest. “You know how they move those things sometimes . . . “

It had been fourth-and-inches, late in the game, the Packers trying to steal this thing back from the Lions who had stolen it away. Fourth-and-inches in Lions territory, and the whole afternoon of desperate, error-plagued winter football had come down to this: Mike Tomczak took the snap and handed off to Vince Workman, who headed into the stack of bodies, looking for a hole, and Spielman and Blades plowed into him with every ounce of ferocity left after three hours in the Arctic Circle. A pileup. Screams both ways. On the sidelines, coach Wayne Fontes held his breath and Kevin Glover bent over as if doing calisthenics, trying to get a better angle. Suddenly, the whole Lions team was on its knees or tiptoes: Where’s the ball, where are they marking it?

“Pleeeese . . .,” Speilman mumbled.

Down went the sticks, into the ground, first one, then the other, the second landing a measly inch away from the football. The referee set his hands. Short. Short? SHORT! The Lions burst into the air, screaming, cheering, celebrating their rite of passage, and the playoff word they had been waiting for, what, a lifetime?

In.

“Ho-leee! This is like Star Trek!” yelled an elated Lomas Brown in the exultant Detroit locker room, after the Lions outgasped the Packers, 21-17, to make the post-season for the first time in eight years. “You know, boldly go where no man has gone before? Explore new worlds? That’s what this is like for us. A new world!”

In. They’ve come a long way

Did you ever think you would see it? Did you ever think, three years ago, when, on another frozen Wisconsin afternoon, against this same Packers team, Wayne Fontes took over this perennially sad franchise and was so overwhelmed that he cried after the victory, weeping and hugging players — did you ever think you would see this? The Lions, 11-4, tied for the third- best record in the whole NFL, assured of at least a home- field wild-card game and possibly even a first-round bye as Central Division champions?

“We finally have a chance at the dance,” said Fontes, his skin beet-red as he defrosted in the locker room. “I remember my first win here. I know I shed a tear or two after that.”

“Did you shed any today?” he was asked.

“If I keep talking, I might.”

He smiled, and almost did.

Now granted, Sunday’s victory was hardly a work of art. With a windchill of minus-20 and gusts that would suck the life from a penguin, footing was slippery and the ball was an enemy, cold and heavy, so that most of the time the quarterbacks seemed to be throwing shot puts. There were six fumbles, 19 punts, and the operative phrase of the day was “change of possession.”

But the point is this: The old Lions would have found a way to lose this game, and the new Lions found a way to win it — just as they found a way to beat Chicago on Thanksgiving, and Miami on a goal-line stand, and Minnesota after trailing by 17 points. On Sunday they rallied — outdoors, mind you
— with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one a pretty, third-down timing lob from Eric Kramer to Robert Clark; the other, a Mel Gray special, a punt return from heaven, 78 yards and six missed tackles long.

And then, of course, that fourth-and-inches. The final crunch.

“Do you think making the playoffs officially ends any fears about the old Lions habits?” Spielman was asked.

“I don’t think we deserve to even be compared to anything old anymore,” he bellowed. “What has this team shown all year except character, desire, class and a will to win?”

Nothing. That’s quite enough.

In. Success hits home

As the players undressed, the locker room grew more and more emotional, as if the idea were really sinking in. Players such as Brown and Glover who have been with the Lions for years and have had deep talks about how valid an NFL career is if you never make the playoffs — and finally they were there, grinning, slapping each other’s tired flesh. And here was Kramer, the quarterback from nowhere, a guy who seems to do a lot of things wrong except win, and once again he was surrounded by reporters, that spacey look on his face as if to say, “Two years ago I was in the Canadian League. Can you believe this?”

And here, standing quietly, was Barry Sanders, only the single biggest reason the Lions are where they are today. He had carried the ball 27 times, mobbed, as usual, on every play, but he made the critical yardage when he had to. Now he was dressed in his jacket and tie, and team owner William Clay Ford came to shake his hand.

“Congratulations,” Ford said.

“Congratulations to you,” said Sanders, grinning.

A pause here to take this all in. Sure, there have been some letdown moments this season — the opening day massacre in Washington, the scalping in San Francisco, the still- unforgivable collapse against the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs. But look: The regular season is nearly over, and you can count the Lions’ defeats on one hand, while you need three hands to count their victories. And don’t forget, they pulled off Sunday’s win without Jerry Ball, Eric Sanders, Mike Cofer, Mike Utley or Rodney Peete, which only constitutes nearly a quarter of their starting lineup.

From amid the clamor came a sudden voice, scratchy and old. “EVERYBODY LISTEN!” It was the man they call the Brow, Joe Diroff, the unofficial Detroit sports nut, and a sort of symbol that your Motown team has made it. He was there with the Wings in 1986, and the Tigers in 1987 and the Pistons in 1988 and now, after driving all night to get here, he stood in the middle of these exhausted, bloodied football bodies, an old man with a raspy voice, and began a cheer. And remarkably, like little kids, the Lions joined in:

“Can we do it?”

“CAN WE DO IT?”

“Are we tough?

“ARE WE TOUGH?”

“We’re the Lions!”

“WE’RE THE LIONS!”

“Red hot stuff!”

“RED HOT STUFF!”

And they cheered and clapped and laughed like Christmas. Can you believe it? The Lions in the playoffs, at the banquet table, for real, no more nose against the window?

“Bold new world,” Lomas Brown repeated, and Captain Kirk could not have sounded more excited.

In.

At last.

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