SOMETIMES THERE’S NO RABBIT IN THE MAGIC HAT

He’s gonna make plays. That’s what Steve Mariucci said when he went with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. He’s gonna make plays. And sometimes, he’s gonna make ’em for the other side.

So it was that Garcia, trying to conjure his magic, threw an ill-advised pass in overtime Sunday, across his body, on the run, in the middle of the field, near his goal line – about a thousand no-no’s wrapped in one ball – and it was picked off by the Bears’ Charles Tillman, who raced all the way back to Chicago with the touchdown, the victory and first place in the NFC North.

“I know from experience not to throw a ball across the field while I’m rolling one way or the other,” said a dejected Garcia, bravely facing the microphones just minutes after his interception sealed a 19-13 defeat. “It’s just looking for bad things to happen.”

And the Lions need no help in that area.

Joey Harrington had his letdowns at Ford Field. Now Garcia has his first. The truth is, like a man who insists on jumping out of airplanes, Garcia is gong to give you drama and, sooner or later, disaster. Already on Sunday afternoon, he’d had a flick pass, a shovel pass and something that resembled a hand grenade toss that bounced on the turf and was scooped up by the Bears for an apparent touchdown.

Luckily, the refs ruled that a forward pass, not a fumble, and threw a flag. Never were the Lions so happy to be called for intentional grounding.

But this is who Jeff Garcia is. He’ll juke. He’ll dance. He’ll make plays. And on occasion, he’ll get smacked in the face.

What about the running backs and receivers?

In the joyous Chicago locker room, Tillman was so mobbed by reporters he had to stand on a chair, like Moses at Mt. Sinai. One Bear walked past the crowd, rolled his eyes at a teammate and said, “Come on. He threw it right to him!”

So it depends on where you sit, doesn’t it? In the Lions’ locker room, that last play was the unfortunate result of a game effort. And across the hall, it was a silly mistake that handed them first place.

That’s football. Winners and losers see it differently. But this much is undeniable: The Lions have, this season, been given a gift by the map-making gods, placement in the weakest division in the NFL. If they win that weak division they ensure the playoffs. They had a home game Sunday to try to plant a flag atop that wobbly mountain.

And they threw it away.

“It was a huge game …” Garcia said. “It’s a major disappointment.”

But if the quarterback is the easy target – he was booed already by some home fans – he was hardly the only problem. Garcia played well enough. What about Kevin Jones, the running back they keep telling us is as good as any in the league? When does he break something big? He has played seven games now, he averages three yards a carry and – despite scoring the Lions’ only touchdown Sunday – he has not surpassed 87 yards a game this season.

And the receiving corps, which was supposed to be a new gold standard? The top receivers have been nothing but disappointment, injury, suspension and dropped balls.

And lastly – or firstly – what about the coaches?

Why can’t the Lions go on a winning streak?

Their play-calling remains, at times, bewildering. If you think Harrington invented the three-and-out, think again. The Lions went three-and-out on half their series Sunday. Special teams continue to be a problem. And the intangible of getting over the hump, of building from a small spark – the way last week’s victory at Cleveland should have snowballed into something bigger this week – has to fall on Mariucci and his staff.

The Lions haven’t won two in a row since the start of last year. That’s about momentum.

And momentum is a coach’s department.

“Tough game, tough loss,” Mariucci said, in what could be any Lions coach’s aphorism. “We fought back from a 13-3 deficit.”

Yes, but what needs to be explained is why they were in a 13-3 deficit. Or why they surrendered a 99-yard touchdown drive. They were facing a rookie quarterback (Kyle Orton) and a rookie receiver (Mark Bradley) and both put up better numbers than their Lions counterparts. There is always a good and heartbreaking reason for the Lions’ losses. For a while, people insisted it was Harrington. But as you see now, there’s a shadow on this team that isn’t cast from him alone.

Here’s the good news: The Bears lead the NFC North by only one game. Here’s the bad news: The Bears have the tiebreaker.

And Sunday’s last laugh.

“I need to be able to accept that there’s an end to the play sometimes,” Garcia said, nobly taking the heat for his interception, “and that I can’t always find ways to make plays and create and just take a sack and move on to the next play. …”

He exhaled. “It’s gonna be a work in progress.”

Not gonna be, Jeff. Is. And has been.

For as long as we can remember.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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