MIRACLE FINISH? LIONS ARE JUST PLAIN FINISHED

GREEN BAY, Wis. — This was all you needed to see, safety Ron Rice, pointing at the sky. “The sun! It was the sun!” he screamed, as if the refs should throw a flag on Mother Nature.

Sooner or later these Lions will stop pointing at the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and finally point at themselves. Because they are no better than a middle-of-the- pack football team with a lousy defense that still thinks it’s entitled to the playoffs by some miracle finish. You can forget that. No miracle finish for this group. The 1996 football season will end for Detroit after the last regular- season game.

That’s not being negative, that’s being realistic.

The sun? Did Rice really blame the sun? Here it was, the first quarter, and Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre had made a rare mistake, heaved a ball into no-man’s land, a perfect interception, it couldn’t have hit Rice better if the ball were metal and he was wearing magnet gloves.

Make no mistake. An interception here would have been huge. The Lions already had a 3-0 lead, and Barry Sanders was cooking. Pick off a pass here, maybe you got an upset going.

Instead, Rice tried to catch it the wrong way, with his fingers instead of his body, and it went off his pads and chin guard before laughing its way onto the ground. The Green Bay drive continued and resulted in a touchdown. The Lions lost.

He blamed the sun?

“That’s because guys on the field were asking me what happened,” Rice would say.

Oh.

Now, I’m sure Rice is a good guy and a hard-working player (he’s from Eastern Michigan, so we’ll cut him some slack), but this is such a typical pose for the Lions’ defense. How many times have sure interceptions been dropped — and the Lions player slams the ground in disgust? Or a tackle is missed — and the Lions player whacks his hands in disgust?

It is the semaphore of failure, the ballet of defeat. We can talk all we want about the offense, Scott Mitchell and his sudden rib injury, Johnnie Morton and his sudden fall from grace, why they don’t use Barry Sanders more often, but the fact is, this team will never go anywhere with as weak a defense as it has.

That’s not being negative, that’s being observant.

Secondary gets the primary blame

“We’ve got a defense right now that’s not playing very well,” Wayne Fontes said, showing great flair for the obvious, after the 28-18 defeat. Here’s the problem. The Lions like to rush the quarterback. Only they often don’t get to him. And when they don’t, they leave opposing receivers alone with their defensive backs, which is like leaving Charlie Sheen alone with the cast of “Baywatch.”

Take Sunday. The Packers are supposed to be depleted at the receiver position, right? Already lost Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman? It’s so bad, fans in Green Bay are offering to come down and try out?

So what happens? A guy named Terry Mickens — who had seven catches in his whole career coming into Sunday — catches seven passes against the Lions, including two touchdowns. Terry Mickens?

“We lack the long speed,” Fontes said. “They get behind us.” It’s not just that. It’s not just Ryan McNeil hopelessly chasing Don Beebe on a 65-yard touchdown bomb (McNeil looked like a guy trying to grab a bus as it pulled away.) It’s not just Jocelyn Borgella, on third-and-long, completely lost against Desmond Howard, draping over him and drawing an interference flag for a 41-yard penalty. It’s not just Greg Jeffries, pushing Dorsey Levens out of bounds — after Levens picked up 10 yards on a third-and-8.

It’s all that combined. It’s too slow, too late, too confused, too light. The Lions’ secondary began this year as a question mark. It is now an exclamation point. As “Lousy!”

But what did we expect? You know whom the Lions had out there Sunday? A second-round draft choice, a third-round draft choice, a fourth-round draft choice, two sixth-round draft choices and an undrafted player. And the Lions don’t draft that well.

Outside of Bennie Blades — who plays linebacker as much as safety these days — you know the last time the Lions had a Pro Bowl defensive back?

Lem Barney, in 1977.

That’s not being negative, that’s being historic.

Packers are a team with direction

“Our chant now is ‘Win seven in a row,’ ” said Fontes, who would be annoying if he weren’t so pathetic. There won’t be seven in a row. I know they did it last year. They played also-rans last year. They played Jacksonville, Houston and Tampa Bay twice in that run last year. This year it’s Kansas City, San Francisco, San Diego, Green Bay. Seven in a row? Who’s zooming who?

Sure, the Lions will pull a few surprises. Always do. Maybe a Monday night special. Maybe a Thanksgiving classic. But it won’t be enough. There’s not enough talent, there’s not enough smarts, there’s not enough direction, and, sadly, there’s not enough belief anymore. The act is over. It’s a talented mess of a football team, an untidy room that badly needs cleaning.

You know the worst part? I remember coming here a few years ago when things were bleak for Green Bay. But they hired a great coach and they’ve been building steadily; now you come and everyone from the hotel workers to the airline personnel is wearing Packers jerseys and rightly bragging about a Super Bowl shot. And here’s the Lions, still looking for a compass.

“We’ve played nine games so far,” Herman Moore said, “and we’re yet to play a complete one.”

That’s not being negative, it’s being honest.

Which, come to think of it, is worse.

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