LIKE I’VE BEEN saying for years, once the Lions dump that Sanders guy, they can win a few football games.

Well. You got a better explanation? This is no longer the team you knew and loathed, Lions fans. That was clear at the start of the fourth quarter Sunday, in Game 2 of The Year of Living Barrylessly. The Lions (now known as “The Silver and Who?”) lined up for a punt near their end zone. Everything went fine until the snapper actually snapped the ball, which subsequently flew over John Jett’s head and landed somewhere in downtown Pontiac.

How embarrassing. A safety. Two points for the other guys. And worse, snickers, laughs and the sarcastic summation: “Typical Lions.”

I mean, here they had played a pretty inspired game, and were clinging to a lead over the mighty Green Bay Packers. And now, with one dumb Flying Wallenda punt snap, they were about to give it all away. The Packers, no dummies, took their free two points, marched downfield and scored a touchdown to take the lead, 15-14.

In years past, that would have been the story. Lions lead game. Lions blow lead. Lions lose game.

But things are different now. It’s as if our football team is celebrating New Year’s in September.

Maybe the Lions are Jewish.

“In years past we would have hung our heads over that bad snap,” linebacker Stephen Boyd said when it was all over. “But this year, we pull together. The way we overcome adversity has been great.”

Great? It’s been their identity. Fans might not know who’s wearing the Detroit uniforms anymore, but the Lions have won two games they were not favored to win and are all alone atop the NFC Central.

What was that running back’s name again?

Mistakes were made to be overcome

Sunday’s win, at a sold-out Silverdome, was full of glory and gulps. It featured two great Charlie Batch touchdown passes to counter two awful Charlie Batch interceptions. It featured a terrific fourth-down defensive stand to counter a pathetic third-down defensive collapse. It featured a wonderful kick return to counter the snap that is still rolling down Pike Street.

“What are you proudest of,” someone asked Batch, after the Lions came back to beat the Packers, 23-15, “the things you did right today, or overcoming the things you did wrong?”

“Overcoming the wrong,” he said. “I’m teaching myself if I make a mistake, just let it go.”

It must be a group class. Also attending: cornerback Terry Fair. He could have focused on how Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman beat him for a 50-yard catch. Instead he put it behind him, and ran a kick back 91 yards to set up the winning touchdown.

Another student: defensive back Robert Bailey. He could have focused on two lousy plays in the third quarter. First he got beat for a 46-yard catch. On the next snap, he was called for interference.

Hang his head? No way. Bailey compensated by intercepting Brett Favre and breaking up several of his most critical passes, including the Packers’ last gasp. Fourth-and-2 at the Lions’ 27. Favre scrambled, fired, but Bailey leapt in front of Freeman, swatted the ball down. That was the game.

“Do you plan to celebrate?” someone asked Bailey afterward.

“I’ll celebrate at the end of the season,” he said. Then he added, “If we have a winning season.”

I told you these are not your father’s Lions.

Come to think of it, these are not Barry Sanders’ father’s Lions either.

These Lions can take a little constructive criticism

Those Lions teams were characterized by an ugly inevitability that clung like a wet sheet. No matter what, they seemed destined to blow it. Last season, for example, despite excellent predictions, the Lions lost four of their first five games and were neck-high in floodwater the rest of the way.

“That’s why the first few games are so important for setting a tone,” said safety Mark Carrier. “If you get on a roll, you start believing you can do it.”

Now, let’s not kid ourselves. The Lions are still missing their two biggest offensive stars of last year — Sanders and Herman Moore. Their three-headed rushing attack — Ron Rivers, Cory Schlesinger and Greg Hill — gained an anemic 82 yards Sunday. The offensive line allowed too many sacks. The defense still surrendered too many third downs.

We won’t talk about the punt snap.

But for every bugaboo Sunday, there was a bonus. For once, the Lions viewed their mistakes as detour, not destiny.

If you ask me, this comes largely from Batch, who seems about as easy to rattle as Jack Palance in “City Slickers.” Batch comes back from interceptions to throw bombs. I like that. The attitude rubs off. Meanwhile, the Lions’ defense is underrated and improving. And no doubt, the us-against-the-world mentality is a great motivator.

“How many fans do you hope you convert with this win?” someone asked Rivers.

“None,” he said, grinning. “I hope people keep telling us we’re no good.”

Funny. When we used to say that, they hated it. But then, that was in the previous era, when old what’s-his-name was running the ball.

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).

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