LIONS RISE AS VICK FALLS

ATLANTA — So, being a responsible journalist, I conducted a search. On the sidelines. In the rafters. Under the seat cushions. But I couldn’t find Michael Vick anywhere.

I know he was supposed to be here. We were in Atlanta, right? And Vick — the reigning Mr. Fantastic of the NFL — was going to be the biggest reason the Lions’ road winning streak would stop at one, and Detroit’s sea of enthusiasm would be drained back to a puddle, right?

Well. Guess what happened? I saw a guy wearing Vick’s jersey. I saw the name above his number. But the Vick I saw barely ran, he threw over receivers’ heads, he fumbled, got intercepted, took sacks, and had as much sizzle as a week-old steak. Either the Falcons have bottled Vick tighter than an old jar of cough syrup, or the Lions simply rendered him a non-factor.

I’ll let you pick.

Nah. I’ll pick.

I’ll go with the Lions. Because in the final moments of Sunday’s game — and this is when quarterbacks cement their legends — Vick was twice felled by Detroit’s defense, including a game-clinching sack by Jared DeVries and a fumble recovery by James Hall.

“I thought for a second he was gonna squirm away from me,” DeVries said after preserving the Lions’ 17-10 victory, “but he went down and the ball came out and it was pandemonium out there.”

Pandemonium? Well, why not? At the final gun, the man proclaimed the greatest pure talent in the NFL today was slumping on the bench with his head in his hands, while the franchise often tagged as the biggest misjudge of talent in the NFL was 3-1, atop in its division, and the first team this year to beat the Falcons.

Vick, Shmick.

Lions get down and dirty

“It’s starting to show, it’s starting to show,” said Hall, the defensive end, who also forced another Vick fumble. “It was just a relief, that last play, getting that ball. We played so hard, we deserved to win.”

Admit it. You didn’t see this coming. Vick was the kind of talent that eats the Lions alive, right? You had visions of him running wild through desperate Lions defenders, juking and spinning past a mediocre pass rush, finding receivers when the coverage broke down, gilding his resume the way so many other quarterbacks have gilded theirs at Detroit’s expense — Brett Favre, Daunte Culpepper, Trent Green, Donovan McNabb.

Instead, Vick had just 29 yards rushing on five attempts, and 196 yards passing — while making more mistakes than miracles. Want a stat you never expected to see? Vick’s quarterback rating for the game was 67.6, while Joey Harrington’s was 96.9. That’s impressive — and I don’t even believe in the quarterback rating!

“I wish you could see how fun that locker room is to be in before a game these days,” Harrington said. “There’s this attitude now. You can feel it. One side isn’t worried about making a mistake, because it knows the other side will pick up the slack.”

This from a quarterback who has lost his starting running back, fullback and two best receivers to injuries, thanks to Roy Williams’ exit with an ankle problem Sunday. The Lions adjusted. They fed Artose Pinner, who made his first start. They rediscovered Az-Zahir Hakim, who turned a huge catch into a huge touchdown on a fourth-and-five play late in the second quarter.

“We were gonna be a different kind of Detroit team today,” Pinner said after gaining a workmanlike 68 yards on 23 carries and scoring a touchdown. “Especially when Roy went out. We couldn’t be finesse out there. We were gonna be the down-and-dirty Detroit team.”

Down and dirty?

Do I have the right stadium?

Taking down one legend at a time

Well, apparently I do, even if nobody played his traditional role. Why, even the Falcons’ coach, Jim Mora, was saying nice things about the Detroit defense, complimenting its schemes, the way they were able to control his star quarterback.

Meanwhile, the Lions were happy, but not giddy.

“We still have to learn how to finish stronger,” Pinner warned.

“We have to string victories back-to-back before we can achieve anything,” added Hall.

Somebody get me some glasses. The miracle machine I expected to see was missing, and the mangle machine was humming like a gospel chorus.

Oh, OK, it had a few hiccups. Too many penalties. Too many “just-short” third-down efforts. And Steve Mariucci continues to baffle me with his declining of certain penalties. On Sunday, he refused a 10-yard holding call that would have pushed the Falcons out of field goal range. Instead he gave them a fourth-and-five, which they promptly converted and churned on into a touchdown.

“I wanted to force a punt or a long field goal try, or stop them and get our defense off the field,” Mariucci said.

Good ideas. Too bad none of them happened.

But a coach gets credit when he wins, blame when he loses, and the Lions have won three of their four games now, and nobody can say they haven’t beaten a quality opponent. Atlanta was 4-0 coming in, and the week before had trounced the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

Dare we say it? This is what good teams do? They make other good teams deliver less than their billing? They take legends and keep them human? Dare we say it? The Lions can do this?

Well, if we don’t say it, the scoreboard will. And the whispered word around the NFL is that the Lions could get in the playoffs if they simply win against Minnesota and play near .500 the rest of the way. It won’t take a 10-6 team to represent this division. And the Lions could be that non-10-6 team — if that makes sense.

But first things first. They took down one legend on the road Sunday. They have another (Favre) coming to Detroit next weekend.

As for Vick, if I were the Falcons, I’d stop trying to squeeze him into Joe Montana’s clay mold. For one thing, at least visitors could find him more easily.

But that’s just me.

“Are you surprised at the win?” someone asked Pinner as the team was heading for the bus.

“Not really,” he said. “We were tops in our division and they were tops in theirs, so we wanted to win and we did.”

So simple it’s scary, isn’t it?

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

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