LIONS JUST BITE THE DUST IN BRUSH WITH GREATNESS

The fans got up early. They drove for miles in the snow. They marched through the stadium turnstiles.

They had come for a brush with greatness.

Members of the media loaded their tape recorders. They sharpened their pencils. They filled the press box with excited whispers.

They had come for a brush with greatness.

The Lions pulled on their helmets. They tucked in their blue and silver jerseys. They trotted out through the Silverdome tunnel.

They had come for a brush with greatness.

Yes, greatness awaited all of them, in the form of the Chicago Bears, who were graciously taking time, in between their rock videos and David Letterman

appearances, for a football game. Against Detroit. Not because they wanted to, mind you, but because it was on the schedule.

Yes, the team that most folks are saying has only to show up at the Super Bowl to win it, still had one measly, mortal exercise to perform before the playoffs.

The last game of the regular season. For the Bears, who have places to go, people to see — it was merely a tune-up. Check the oil, check the water, check the gas in the players’ tanks.

But for the Lions, who also have places to go and people to see — unfortunately, none of them have to do with football now — it was the last mile of 1985. One shot at saving themselves from a losing record. One chance to take the measure of the best team in the NFL and “go the distance,” as Rocky Balboa once aspired to do, before he started blow-drying his hair.

Bears against the Lions. Season finale. How did it go? Don’t ask How did it go? Let me tell you how it went. Let me tell you just one play of how it went. In the fourth quarter, Eric Hipple dropped back to pass and got smeared by a ferocious linebacker named Wilber Marshall. Hipple fumbled, and the ball squirted out and just lay there naked in the middle of the field. That is, until William (The Refrigerator) Perry, all 308 pounds of him, scooped up that naked football and ran 59 yards in the opposite direction — Ran? Can we say ran? Does a Twinkie truck run? I don’t know. Maybe “lumbered”? — before exhaustion and the Lions’ David Lewis finally caught up with him.

That should give you a pretty good idea of how it went. Three plays later, the Bears scored their fourth touchdown of the day to make it 37-17, which was also the final score.

It was emmmmbarrassing. That’s how it went.

The Bears were not at their best — “I knew emotionally they weren’t totally up for this game,” Darryl Rogers said in understatement — but the Lions were close to their worst. Usually the formula at the Silverdome is that the great teams make mistakes upon which the Lions capitalize. That’s how the Lions beat Miami, San Francisco and Dallas here.

But on this day, the Lions insisted on making more gaffes than their opponents. So while Chicago was fumbling twice, and throwing three interceptions, the Lions fumbled four times, threw three interceptions, and surrendered a 94-yard kickoff return to open the second half.

And the Bears defense — which coach Mike Ditka admitted last week was so superior that “even when we play dumb, we play average” — made sure there was no comeback. And now, the end is here Was it great for you? Probably not if you were one of the 74,042 who came out to glimpse the Team- That-Would-Be-King of the NFL this year. Yes, the big names — McMahon, Payton, Dent — were out there. But these were not the Bears who will appear in the first round of the playoffs. Not if they hope to see the second round. Too sloppy. Too distracted.

Nor were these the Lions who beat some of the NFL’s best this season. Both teams slip-slided through the second half — in which 45 points were scored
— as if they were late for a bus.

In the days to come, people will buzz about what the Lions accomplished this year, how they improved to 7-9, how, without the injuries, they might be contenders next year.

And others will whine about how the Lions finished fourth in their division and how they’ll never change. Fine. There’s plenty of time for debate.

But on this snow-dusted Sunday, at Last-Chance Junction, it was the Lions against the best, and the best would keep its status.

You could tell it from the beginning — when starting quarterback Joe Ferguson took a crunching lick that knocked him out of the game for good.

And you could tell it from the end. The last four offensive plays of the 1985 Detroit Lions were, in order: a sack, another sack, a dropped pass and an interception.

Some stories have happy endings, and some just have endings.

So say farewell to the Silver and Blue until we meet again next summer. They finished their season by brushing with greatness. Unfortunately for them, none of it rubbed off.

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