MINNEAPOLIS — Welcome to the 2000s, Lions fans, where you’ll find your playoff hopes in a rather unusual location: stuck in a Dixie cup, surrounded by ice.

Thumbs-down.

Whatever chance the Lions had in the postseason has, once again, been clunked by a hard hat. There was pain. There was ice. And there was quarterback Charlie Batch, swell guy, turned into Charlie Batch, swelling guy.

Didn’t we go through this last century?

“This has never happened to me before this year,” Batch said Sunday, sighing, as he slumped in the locker room with his right thumb puffed to the size of a fat breadstick. “Now it’s happened twice in one season. As soon as I did it, I said, ‘Oh, no! Not again!’ “

He, and a few million Lions fans. Batch damaged himself Sunday the same way he did two months ago against the St. Louis Rams: following through on a pass. His outstretched hand came down on a helmet and …yeeouwch!

Last time this happened, Batch didn’t play for five weeks. At least last time, it was an opposing player. This time, Batch thwonked the noggin of his own center, Eric Beverly. The instant he did it, he yanked his hand back and flicked it wildly, as if he could shake away the bad news. Then he knelt in obvious pain and anger. “It began swelling right out there on the field,” Batch said.

Thumbs-down.

Maybe we could ask the players to stop wearing helmets. Maybe we could ask Detroit’s offensive line to keep the bad guys more than an arm’s length away. Whatever. Time is short. The Lions, who haven’t won in a month, are now looking at a playoff game this Saturday against the Redskins without knowing who their starting quarterback will be.

As Lions coach Bobby Ross said after the 24-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings,
“We’ll have to see if Charlie can practice. We’re back to the same old thing.”

But with more serious ramifications. The playoffs, remember, are one loss and out. And, let’s be honest. There are injuries, and there are injuries. Losing Batch isn’t just losing a player. It’s losing an identity.

Thumbs-down.

Game plan was working

With Batch at full strength, the Lions are a threatening offense. Not a great one, mind you. Great ones actually run the ball, something the Lions do as well as Luciano Pavarotti pole vaults.

But threatening? Yes. The Lions are threatening with Batch. He is steady, gutsy, and seemingly without nerves. He can keep you in a contest. To be honest, with Barry Sanders gone, he’s the only Lion who can actually win a game for you on offense.

Take Sunday, for example: Batch was in a zone, the kind of laser focus that is his best feature. Before the thumb thwock, he had completed 17 of 24 passes, thrown for a touchdown and suffered no interceptions. The Lions’ game plan was to use Batch’s passing the way you use a running game: as possession offense.

And it was working. The most telling number was third-down conversions. Behind Batch, the Lions were successful eight out of nine times.

That’s eight out of nine times the Vikings’ defense had to stay on the field. Eight out of nine times the Lions kept the ball away from Minnesota’s high-powered offense. Eight out of nine times Batch stared down the pressure
— not to mention defensive tackle John Randle — and still found a receiver. You win games doing things like that.

After the injury, Batch was replaced by Gus Frerotte. And though Frerotte did a perfectly serviceable job — including a late touchdown bomb to Johnnie Morton — his third-down conversion rate was three out of eight.

That’s a telling number.

More to Moore, please

So is this: Herman Moore caught two passes Sunday for 16 yards. The week before, it was four catches. The week before that, it was two catches, and the week before that it was two catches, again.

Sorry. Uh, this is Herman Moore, right? The guy who used to regularly catch 10 balls a game — and that was when they had Sanders as an option?

Since returning from knee injuries, Moore is averaging just three catches and 34 receiving yards per contest. He insists he is completely healthy. If that’s the case, someone needs to tell the Lions’ coaches.

Even Batch admitted, “I don’t know why we’re not going more to Herman. He’s so tall. If it were up to me, I’d have him on the outside the whole time.”

Instead, the Lions’ staff is often using Moore in the slot, or over the middle, the way you use a receiver 6 inches shorter. Meanwhile, the Lions are throwing the ball to running backs such as Cory Schlesinger.

Hello? This is Herman Moore, remember? A perennial Pro Bowler, a guy who went three straight years with more than 100 catches? Call me naive. But if I have a guy who’s 6-feet-4, I might try using that height, using those hands, maybe throwing some fade passes to the end zone — remember those? The Vikings get a lot of mileage out their No. 84, Randy Moss, another tall guy who does a lot of things Moore used to do.

True, Moore may not have done a lot this year. But whose fault is that? He has proven over the years to be a weapon — meaning his skills can do unstoppable damage to an opponent. And if Batch doesn’t play Saturday, Moore may be the only offensive guy who can singularly make a difference.

But that is an issue for Saturday. The Lions have much to do between now and then. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Send Bryant Westbrook back to school. On Sunday, thanks to inept coverage and pass interference penalties, Westbrook helped the opponent more than he helped the Lions. I don’t know what’s wrong with the guy, but he has become a coach’s worst nightmare: a reliable liability.

2. Improve the offensive line protection. On Sunday, the Lions allowed seven sacks. Hey, guys, we’re running out of quarterbacks.

3. Find a running back.

4. And, oh, yes, a good thumb doctor wouldn’t hurt.

But having said all that, let me add this. The Lions have already given us a pretty good show. I’m not one of those screamers who thinks they should be flogged for going 8-8. What’s the difference if you lose four of your first six — as the Vikings did — or four of your last six? The Lions’ current situation — being in the playoffs — is still better than last year, and much better than anyone anticipated when Sanders decided to make like Jack Kerouac.

They played hard on Sunday, despite a perfect opportunity to roll over and die. And if Batch had stayed healthy — who knows? — they might have actually won the game.

So while the only thing going up for the Lions is the injured list, I wouldn’t walk away from them just yet. Charlie’s thumb — and Charlie himself — may indeed be on ice. But only Saturday will tell if the season follows suit.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

PLAYOFF FACTS

What: Lions vs. Washington Redskins in first round of NFL playoffs.

When: 4:05 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Washington.

TV: ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit).

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