MINNEAPOLIS — I would like to tell you how this dead skunk of a football game ended, but I must admit, I stopped watching somewhere between the Vikings’ third touchdown and the Lions’ fifth stupid penalty — which, I believe, was about nine seconds into the game. Talk about quick death! I could have left the stadium knowing the outcome of this game and scalped my tickets to fans still coming in.

Pathetic? Disgraceful? Embarrassing? There is not much you can say about a game in which the Lions had the snot kicked out of them by the only team they have beaten all season, but we can say this: They did something for the country, our Lions. They forced millions of viewers who were watching this game on national TV to switch over to the presidential debates.

By the way, if the game were a debate it would have gone like this:

LIONS: Good evening. We–

VIKINGS: HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Right after Mel Gray dropped the opening kickoff, right after Rodney Peete was sacked on the opening drive, right after Bennie Blades took a boneheaded unnecessary-roughness penalty on a third down, right after the Vikings scored their first of several long-bomb touchdowns on the Lions’ defense, right after that — well, right after that, I sat down. It all happened before I could take my coat off.

So much for gut-check time, huh?

The Lions came out like a water balloon. Penalties? I haven’t seen that much yellow since the Gulf War ended. Execution? Yes, they played as if they’d been executed. Our weekly Barry Sanders question — “How do we use him, since we got him?” — went unanswered yet again. And the defense, which had been a bright spot for this team, obviously took a look at the offense and said,
“Hey, what are we knocking ourselves out for?”

Score after the first quarter: Minnesota 21, Detroit 0.

You know what? I’m really mad at this team. Mad because they had me — and a lot of people — believing they really had turned the corner on their ugly history, learned how to win, learned how to regroup after a loss. They had a bad start to this season? OK. They blamed their offensive line. They blamed a couple of bad breaks.

But here, in the game they absolutely had to win for any chance at saving the season, a game they swore they’d be ready for, a game they had 10 days to get healthy for — here, in this game, they looked worse than ever. They looked hopeless.

So I stop listening. Right now, this team is bad news, and there is only one true sentence you can say about it:

The season is history.

More motivation?

“We got beat by a better team; they flat-out beat us,” said coach Wayne Fontes, using a line we have all heard before, after the Lions sunk, 31-14, to the Vikings. “I know I sound like an old record . . .”

That’s all right. The Lions play like one. At one point Thursday night, they went to the no-huddle offense. Unfortunately, the only thing that might work for them now is the no-defense offense. Even then, it might take them several downs to score.

Backwards? Last year, in this same stadium, against this same team — and with Mike Utley already gone, I might add — Barry Sanders had 220 yards.

Thursday, he had 52.

And that’s hardly the only bad statistic. The Vikings converted more than half of their third downs, while the Lions converted only one all game. The defense gave up nearly 400 yards. Rodney Peete threw two interceptions. The team took 10 penalties.

The Lions’ season has turned into a limbo contest: How low can it go?

And who makes it stop? Week after losing week, the Lions kept talking about

someone “stepping up.” But on Thursday, the only shoe-lifting they did was to avoid stepping in the mess they had made.

It is time to step up all right. And take some blame.

First, it goes to the players — since they are out there, making (or not making) the plays.

And then it goes, in my mind, to Fontes.

Sorry, Wayne. But when a team has this kind of talent — a Barry Sanders, a

Rodney Peete, All-Pro linemen like Jerry Ball and Lomas Brown, play-till-you-die linebackers like Chris Spielman — well, hell, that’s enough to win a ball game here or there, especially a crucial one. And it is the coach’s job to make sure the players are properly motivated — and prepared — for those games.

On a must-win night like Thursday, there is no excuse for the good parts of the team (i.e. the defense) to go in the tank. Fontes must admit there is something wrong with the machine, and that he, after all, runs the machine. Wayne is fond of being a players’ coach, a put-your-arm-around-you guy, but anyone who knows football can tell you, you can’t be their friend all the time and expect to win.

“There’s no problem with our motivation,” Fontes said. “I’m an excellent motivator. Just ask my team.”

I would. But they all had their heads down.

Why watch?

“How do you explain this year after last year?” I asked wide receiver Willie Green.

“Maybe that’s the problem,” he moaned. “Maybe we’re still living in last year. We have to get past that bleep.”

I agree. Erik Kramer came into the game late and threw a touchdown pass and that may inspire barroom arguments over who should be the starter, Kramer or Peete? Teams usually hate this, but if I were the Lions I’d be grateful.

It gives fans something to talk about.

Otherwise, there’s not much left, not if winning is what turns you on. The Lions are now 1-5. As I had plenty of spare time after the first quarter — I could have finished a Russian novel — I checked the records to see how long it had been since the Lions started a season so miserably. I found it was only three years ago, 1989, the first year of the Fontes’ coaching reign.

Before that, you have to go back to . . . 1988.

And before that, you have to go all the way back to . . . 1987.

In other words, this smells awfully familiar.

And that’s the worst part. How quickly we have returned to being embarrassed by this football team, to watching with one eye shut, to pointing at the TV and saying, “Ah, same old crap.” It’s as if last season never happened.

You know what?

At this point, I’m not sure it did.

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