SAME OLD ENDINGLIONS SAVE WORST FOR LAST, FIZZLE AGAIN IN PLAYOFFS

They played like a car trying to start in cold weather. A cough here. A rumble there. In the end, the Lions bowed out of 1997 while sitting in the driveway. It was weird. It was weak. But let’s face it, any game that features Wayne Fontes’ tailgating in the parking lot was probably doomed from the start.

The Lions saved their worst for last.

Pop goes the season.

“It’s the same old story,” sighed defensive end Robert Porcher, after Detroit fizzled in its first playoff game in two years, losing to the revved-up Buccaneers, 20-10. “We had a chance and didn’t get it done. We have got to find a way to win playoff games.”

Right. And we’ve got to lose 10 pounds by New Year’s Day. The trick is doing it. No offense, Lions, but if Sunday was playoff fever, I’ll take malaria.

This was a snuff-out. A wet firecracker. An airless balloon. The Lions entered the game with the second-best offense in the NFL, but didn’t score a point until the third quarter, when they trailed by 20.

By then, Detroit fans were asking what time the Rose Bowl started.

“We lacked intensity,” moaned coach Bobby Ross.

Well, at the risk of being a simple-minded reporter, how on Earth can a team that does nothing but talk about a chance to prove something in the playoffs lack intensity when the playoffs come?

“That’s a good question,” wide receiver Herman Moore said.

“That’s a really good question,” Porcher said.

Right. Now, onto a few other cliches. Such as …

“We wanted to establish the running game,” said offensive lineman Jeff Hartings. This was echoed by Ross, the receivers and the rest of the offense. We wanted to establish the running game.

Really? Then how come the first three offensive plays were passes? How come out of 24 first-half plays only nine were runs?

“I don’t know,” said Hartings, shrugging. “Maybe we were trying to establish the passing game.”

And you think covering this team is easy?

Mitchell’s troubles

All right. Let’s talk about the biggest reason the offense, and thus the Lions, went nowhere, the quarterback, Scott Mitchell. He suffered a concussion in the third quarter and was taken from the field on a stretcher. He never saw the end of the game; he was already at the hospital.

Now, we’re told that Mitchell will be OK. I’m glad. Nothing is more important than safety and health. Football is just sport, after all, and given what happened with linebacker Reggie Brown last week, we don’t need any more reminders to keep things in perspective.

Having said that, being coldly analytical, I have to say this: The Lions are not going anywhere until Mitchell plays a big game when they need a big game. I don’t mean a good last two minutes. I don’t mean a good quarter. I mean a good game, where he starts strong and ends strong.

He showed no such ability on Sunday. He came out overthrowing and hurrying his passes, and he continued that awful pattern for 30 minutes. At halftime he was 6-for-15. He had not converted a single third-down pass. And he threw an interception that was a direct result of his jumpiness under a rush.

I’m not saying this loss was all his fault. Far from it. The offensive line was not sharp. Barry Sanders was well-defended. The play-calling was suspect
— particularly a fourth-and-inches in which Mitchell, instead of sneaking across the line, ran outside and threw an incomplete pass. And the special teams were only special if you consider fumbles, blown reverses and non-punts something of note.

And let’s not forget Tampa Bay is one of the best — and most brutal — defensive teams in the league.

But quarterbacks get the big money because they win the big games, and Mitchell has now crapped out of his two biggest chances. Two years ago, in a first-round game against Philadelphia, he threw four interceptions and the Lions were blown away. On Sunday, he was 10-for-25 for 78 yards with no touchdowns, and you’re not going to the Super Bowl with those kind of numbers.

Pop goes the season.

Wait till next year

“Tampa didn’t do anything we didn’t expect,” said Ross, after this was over.
“In fact, their plan was even simpler than we expected.”

Well, I shudder to think what might have happen if it had been complicated. Remember, the Lions were the hot team coming in. They had won five of six. Sanders seemed unstoppable, with a streak of 14 straight games over 100 yards rushing.

The Bucs, meanwhile, were suspect. They had lost three of their last five. But despite a 15-year playoff absence, they somehow found the “intensity” Detroit was lacking, and now the Lions suffered the indignity of seeing a laughingstock franchise turned into a second-round team, while they go home for the holiday.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Moore, the supposedly go-to receiver who had a meager four catches for 44 yards. “Every time this happens.”

And it seems to happen every time. This is Detroit’s fourth straight first-round playoff loss. That’s not coincidence. That’s habit.

By the way, I wasn’t kidding about Fontes. He lives in Tampa now, and he was here, in the parking lot, with drinks and cigars. So his streak of being present for Lions’ first-round losses continues. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”: “Of all the football joints in all the world, he has to walk into ours?”

Ah, well. A word here for the good about this team before it sails away. What Sanders did this season was remarkable. Same goes for his linemen. Bryant Westbrook looks like the real thing. And Ross does seem to have a new confidence with these players — although Sunday did a lot to undermine that.

Also, a well-done to Kevin Glover, the Pro Bowl center who, after 13 years, may or may not be back next season because he is a free agent.

“If it ends here,” Glover said, “I’ll say I gave everything I had. I leave with my head high.

“And if I’m back, well, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done.”

Let’s hope that’s not contagious.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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