RESPECT? LIONS BLOW A CHANCE TO EARN SOME

MILWAUKEE — As the winter sunlight slowly died on this, the town that made America burp, here were the Lions, trudging off the grassy County Stadium field, heads down, cleats clomping, looking like men who voted against NAFTA.

And here were the Packers, dancing off the field, waving to the cheering crowd. Reggie White, the massive defensive lineman, held the No. 1 finger high over his head and twirled it around a few times, as if fly casting, or doing an Arsenio Hall impersonation.

“REGGIE! REGGIE! REGGIE!”

“HERE WE COME, REGGIE!”

“WE SHOWED ‘EM TODAY, REGGIE!”

Don’t you hate it when the critics are right?

All season long, they have clucked at the Lions’ victories. All season long, they have said, “So what? Who have they played?” All season long, they kept saying Green Bay was probably a better team despite the records, and when the two rivals finally met, the Packers would prove it. The Lions responded by saying, “No respect. We get no respect at all.”

And what happens? The Lions come in here and get their chimneys swept.

“They dominated us from start to finish,” coach Wayne Fontes said. This wasn’t much of an explanation. But at least it was honest.

Lest you think that this game just slipped away, that the 26-17 score shows it was anybody’s afternoon, let me take you back to the very weird end of the third quarter.

This is all you need to know: Packers moved ball at will

Here were the Packers with a first-and-goal at the Lions’ 2-yard line. They lose five yards on a run. They throw an incomplete pass. On third down, Brett Favre buzzes around like a fly on a window glass, and finally finds Mark Clayton streaking across the end zone, fires a pass, hits him in the chest, touchdown. Clayton takes the ball and, like the showoff he has always been, spikes it in the face of Detroit’s Harry Colon.

At this moment, the Packers should be winning by five points. But wait. Here comes a flag. And there goes another flag. One for illegal player downfield — which is a pretty dumb penalty that close to the goal line — and one for Clayton’s in-your-face spike, which is also pretty dumb, considering there’s a rule against it.

Not only do both these penalties nullify the touchdown, they both count, one atop the other. Suddenly, Green Bay is back at the 27-yard line. Dazed and confused, Favre gets sacked trying to throw a long pass, and now they’re back at the 35. Hey. Green Bay. You’re supposed to move toward the end zone, not away from it.

With fourth down upon them, they call on placekicker Chris Jacke, who tries a 53-yard field goal. He misses, wide left.

From an apparent touchdown, they went to a missed 53-yard field goal.

And they still won the game.

Any more questions?

“They moved the ball at will on us,” sighed defensive lineman Dan Owens. Believe it. The Packers collected 404 yards of offense — nearly twice the Lions’ total. And this is a team that is known for its defense.

Green Bay got about as many yards out of Darrell Thompson as the Lions got out of Barry Sanders. In the final 28 minutes, Sanders carried the ball three times and lost seven yards. That won’t help the old contract negotiations.

“They outplayed us. They totally dominated us,” Fontes said. “We didn’t block very well, and we turned the ball over.”

True, Wayne, all true. But such statements don’t answer the one really important question:

Why? Critics can say: Told you so

If the Lions were truly angry at football’s lack of respect, why didn’t they play better Sunday? If they truly believed their 7-2 record was indicative of their talent, why didn’t they flex real muscle against the Packers? If they wanted so much to shut the door in the NFC Central, why didn’t they play with the intensity needed to do so?

“I don’t know,” said Rodney Peete, who threw for a slim 100 yards (two TDs) Sunday. “They’re a good team.”

“I don’t know,” Brett Perriman said. “But until we start winning games like this, we’re not gonna get that respect we keep talking about.”

He’s right about that. The critics will be all over this one, and the Lions will probably have to wait until the mid- December game against San Francisco for another crack at stomping the “soft” schedule snickering.

In the meantime, they have encouraged not only the Packers, but the Vikings and the Bears, who all feel a little better about a playoff bid this morning, with Detroit taking a step back to the pack. Or, in this case, the Pack.

“The only good thing,” said Kevin Glover, surveying the dejected locker room, “is that we get to play again in four days. So we don’t have to wait a week to hit somebody. After a game like this, we really feel like hitting something.”

Start with the mirror.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book “Fab Five” as well as “Live Albom III” Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Borders in Ann Arbor; Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Telegraph Road, Bloomfield Hills; and Friday, 2 p.m., Waldenbooks, Fairlane Town Center, Dearborn.

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