LIONS PUT IN THEIR PLACE BY THE EAGLES

It was like asking Britney Spears to dance with the Bolshoi, like watching Nelly try to sing “La Boheme,” like seeing if the cashier at the 7-Eleven can crunch numbers with Alan Greenspan. The Lions and Eagles may have shared the same record coming into Sunday afternoon’s showdown at Ford Field, but that was where the similarity ended. Coach Steve Mariucci had predicted this game would be “a reality check” for his young team.

Guess what?

Reality stinks.

“Our guys can see what a championship-caliber squad looks like,” Mariucci moaned after the 30-13 drubbing. “We just saw one.”

This is like telling the Coyote that he just saw a Roadrunner; you are usually talking to a face full of gunpowder. The Lions were dirtied early in this one. In fact, you could say the game was over in one three-and-a-half minute stretch of the first quarter.

Here’s what happened. The Eagles had a third-and-long in their territory. The crowd was roaring. The score was 0-0. There was reason to believe.

Then Donovan McNabb escaped several failed Lions tacklers, and connected with a 25-yard pass to his tight end..

Two plays later, he hit a 45-yard pass down the gut of the Lions’ defense.

Three plays later, the Eagles scored a touchdown.

Three plays after that, Joey Harrington fumbled the ball off his knee.

One play later, the Eagles scored another touchdown — a 29-yard lob from McNabb to Terrell Owens. It was 14-0.

And fans started checking their watches. This was still the first quarter, still, technically, bright lights, big viewers. But you knew it: We all knew it. The Lions were not ready for prime time.

The rest was just determining a score.

Not playing to the crowd

“The crowd was ready today, they were great,” Mariucci said. “We just didn’t give them enough to cheer about.”

That’s the shame of it, of course. It always is. Whenever the Lions get a little steam in their stride, a “real” team seems to come along and knock them over. The Lions are good at never giving up, at scratching away with late efforts. But the difference between a team that scores the fourth touchdown of the game and a team that scores the first three is usually the difference between hoping to win and believing it is your destiny.

The only destiny the Lions saw Sunday at Ford Field was their first loss of the season. It was as if after those two Eagles’ touchdowns someone whispered in the Detroit ears, “You know, you only beat two lousy teams before this one. You’re not ready to hang with these guys.”

Granted, Philly is quite good. The Eagles (3-0) have gone to the last three NFC championship games, and they did arrive loaded with talent — more importantly, with big playmakers like McNabb and Owens on offense and Jevon Kearse on defense, who clumped Harrington to the ground several times Sunday.

But for young teams to take big steps, they need to shock teams like Philly, they need to tip over the apple cart, they need to give a black eye to the schoolyard bully, not take the expected sock in the nose.

To this end, the Lions only did what was lowly expected. Their defense was a burst pipe, giving up 402 yards of Eagles offense and surrendering so many third downs, the chains were doing the cha-cha — 1-2-3, 1-2-3. When the Lions finally scored, just before halftime, they undid any positive momentum by starting the third quarter with another long Eagles scoring drive.

“Were they 30-13 better than us? No they weren’t,” Harrington said after the loss. “Were they better than us? Yeah.”

Not hogging the spotlight

But Harrington was not to blame for this loss. (For one thing, his starting backfield, Kevin Jones and Cory Schlesinger, left with injuries early in the game.) But being blameless is not the same as stepping up. Harrington, like it or not, is the most veteran of the offensive threats on this team. He needs to make magic, not just mediocrity.

This means connecting on some of those passes that sail a bit too long. This means escaping a few of those blitzes that bring him down or disrupt his passes. This means leaving people shaking their heads saying, “How did he pull that off.” Remember, “playmaking” in the NFL is really a matter of a few big moments each game. But those big moments are the difference. And until the Lions find a way to make them when the score is still close, they can only set their sights so high.

Which brings us to a final point. At one point in the third quarter, the Lions declined a third-down penalty that would have pushed the Eagles out of field-goal range. Instead, the Eagles kicked a 47-yard field goal to make it 24-7.

This looked bad. It looked as if the Lions’ coaches had given up on their defense, and just said, “Better a field goal than a potential touchdown. Let’s get this over with.”

That shouldn’t be. There has been too much “let’s get this over with” around here already. The least the Lions can do is play every down as if the next one might turn things around.

After all, the fans have been living that way for years. And if we can kid ourselves into it, the coaches can, too.

For six days we had a whale of a time here, inhaling the fumes of an undefeated season. Then the Philharmonic came to town, and we sent out the organ grinder monkey. It was fantasy football, this was reality, and as a movie title once suggested, reality bites, right in the butt.

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

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