Imust have missed the memo. Apparently the Lions’ season began Sunday and those first three losses were part of the exhibition schedule. Ach! If only they had told us! Think of all the nasty adjectives we’d have saved!

Finally, Sunday, against the previously unbeaten Saints, we saw the Detroit team they wrote about in the brochures. The defensive front was supposed to be the strength? It was. The new receivers were supposed to be playmakers? They were. Joey Harrington was supposed to be all that? He was. All that.

The Lions were supposed to be better than last year — not great, but good enough to pull a stunner now and then?

Consider us stunned. In their first victory of the season, and only their third victory in the last 21 games, the Lions showed something they had sorely lacked: an ability to make big plays.

There was such a smorgasbord of moments, I get heartburn trying to list them. It began on the opening kickoff, when Desmond Howard raced 70 yards. It continued with James Hall, the defensive lineman, scooping up a fumble and racing into the end zone. It rolled on with huge interceptions from the beleaguered defense. It peaked with a big gain by James (I Hurt, Therefore I Run) Stewart.

And it was cemented, over and over, by Harrington, the rookie, who dropped long bombs into receivers’ hands as if throwing bread crumbs into a salad, a 52-yarder to Az-Zahir Hakim, a 38-yard touchdown to Bill Schroeder, one laser sharp pass after another to keep drives alive.

Young quarterbacks are supposed to ripen slowly, like fine wine. This kid is more like a 5-day-old banana.

“How did you feel when you heard the fans yelling, ‘Joey! Joey!’ ” someone asked Harrington, who, in his second career start, threw for 267 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a baker’s dozen worth of first downs, to lead the Lions to a 26-21 victory.

“It was . . . flattering,” Harrington said, laughing, “but maybe a little premature.”

You see? Kids aren’t supposed to say things like that! Kids are supposed to say, “Yeah, baby! Where’s my NINTENDO ENDORSEMENT!”

Our pal Joey

Anyhow, with Harrington playing the Dennis Quaid role, the Lions were able to confidently control the ball, and survive a late surge by the Saints, who, in a nice switch, played the kind of football we’re used to seeing from the home team. They surrendered two interceptions, one fumble, six penalties and a couple of big kick returns. Y’all come up from the bayou anytime now, y’hear?

“It was just a matter of time before we got a win like this,” said Schroeder, who easily had his best day in a Detroit uniform, seven catches for 78 yards.
“Now that we have a taste of it, we just want to continue.”

There is only one way they do that: continue making plays. Chris Claiborne’s picking off a pass while pointed in the opposite direction? Need more of those. Claiborne’s dragging down Deuce McAllister on a two-point conversion attempt? Need more of that. Corey Harris’ intercepting Aaron Brooks and coming back 49 yards? Yes. We’ll take a dozen. Larry Foster’s catching several hard slant passes for first downs when the Lions were trying to eat the clock? Terrific. Order a crate.

The fact is, teams that win have guys who do those things, and all the rest just have guys who try. Football, after all, is mostly a game of head-knocking, pushing refrigerators a few inches this way, a few inches that way. The difference-making moments can be counted on one hand — an acrobatic interception, a catch that shouldn’t have been made, a timely kickoff return, a killer sack.

“We’ve had the effort around here for a while,” Hall said, “but not those plays. Today we got them.”

And tomorrow they’ll need them.

Don’t forget Marty

Now, we must do something here that, as far as I know, has never been done in print before: Give Marty Mornhinweg credit.

If a team reflects its coach, then Mornhinweg must be made of bulletproof glass. Few men have been ripped as badly as this guy. A few weeks ago, in the rain of Carolina, Marty looked like a wet puppy missing its leash. And his team played like it. It got blown out.

Usually, that kind of slide into embarrassment can end only in a pink slip. But Sunday, instead of folding, Mornhinweg’s Lions surged at the start, and surged at the end. They made few mistakes. And when New Orleans threatened a comeback, the Lions didn’t duck. They held them off. And this is a Saints team, remember, that was 3-0.

If you’re going to blame the coach when they fail, give him credit when they win. Obviously, he said something that they listened to — even if he’s not sharing it with us. He called a smart game for Harrington, giving him enough throws to feel important, protecting him enough to shield his confidence. And after the victory, again to his credit, Mornhinweg wasn’t jumping up and down. He said a few times: “It’s just one game.”

That it is. Then again, last season, the first victory didn’t come until December. Good lord. It isn’t even snowing yet, and the Lions are on the board!

It’s also the first pro victory for Harrington — and his first real victory since last season’s Fiesta Bowl.

“Did it feel like that long a time?” he was asked.

“No, because everything’s gone really fast.”

“But you’ve been losing.”

“But I’ve been playing.”

He grinned. “You don’t not play because you’re losing.”

From the mouths of babes. The Lions lived by that credo Sunday, and the result was a smart, complete game. Which kind of makes you wish they didn’t have next week off, right, Marty?

“Actually, the bye comes at a good time,” the coach said. “We’re running out of players.”

Too bad. This was the first week they actually found some.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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