THEY GAVE THEIR BEST, BUT IT FEELS THE WORST

The ball popped loose, it bounced on the turf, and Paris Lenon went for it. If he held on, the playoffs were alive, and this was the shocking headline of the NFL weekend.

“I was jumping for joy,” said Lions tackle Damien Woody, who watched on the sideline. “If we fall on that, that’s the end of the game.”

Lenon instead tried to scoop it up, and like the Lions on Sunday, he couldn’t hold on. The ball shot off his leg and a Cowboy pounced on it.

A few blinks later, Tony Romo hit Jason Witten for a TD with 18 seconds left, completing a breath-stealing drive, and the headline was: “Dallas wins again. Detroit loses fifth in a row.”

Oh, the Lions. In some ways, their games are like sunsets. They make you sigh. You shake your head in awe. And no matter how often you see them, you can’t stop staring. The difference is you don’t want to see them again.

But you do. Tragic loss is a Lions trademark. Sunday, they did big things well but small things badly. Missed field goal. Bad kick coverage. Red-zone drives for field goals, not TDs.

A one-point loss. It might as well be 100.

“We’re here to win these types of games,” coach Rod Marinelli said after the 28-27 loss. “… There’s nothing good to feel good about.”

Running game magically reappears

There was, undeniably, some good. The offensive line, near useless the past month, did an amazing turnaround, opening holes for the ground game, which came out of the Witness Protection Program behind T.J. Duckett and Kevin Jones. Jon Kitna, our weekly human sacrifice, wasn’t sacked until the last play. And without star Roy Williams, the air attack still saw seven pass-catchers collect 248 yards.

But the Lions were playing the 11-1 Cowboys, so you sensed the Lions’ early leads – 10 points, 13 points – were a hare to the tortoise. Not enough cushion. When they should have had a second TD, they got a field goal. When they needed a third field goal, they got “wide right.”

Marinelli admitted the missed Jason Hanson 35-yarder in the fourth quarter – a chip shot for him – was the emotional turning point.

“But it shouldn’t matter,” Marinelli said.

It did. It does. This team is not talented enough to survive leaks in its emotional gas tank. Had Detroit won, it might have erased the scars of four straight losses. It might have restored real playoff hopes. If this. But that.

Ifs and buts and berries and nuts and Merry Christmas and – ah, I hate that expression.

A sweep of the stat sheet

Let’s call this what it was. The Lions’ moment. It slipped away. They stymied Terrell Owens but gave up 15 catches to Witten. They fell to 6-7, their first losing record this year. Even winning out, they need things to happen.

No wonder the locker room was so quiet. Kitna seethed. Ernie Sims shook his head and wouldn’t speak. Shaun Rogers – well, that was the first I remember seeing him Sunday.

But they all knew the truth. Detroit had won every important stat – yards, possession, turnovers – and still fell one point short because “very good” against a great team isn’t enough.

“Tomorrow morning, they’re gonna feel what we did to them,” Woody said, “but they still won the game.”

The Lions are a dent in the Cowboys’ limo, but that limo rolls on to the playoffs, leaving the Lions watching, again, in the rearview. No bouquets for effort. Just another tragic sunset on the postseason, one you can’t take your eyes off, no matter how much you try.

MITCH ALBOM will sign books at 7:30 tonight at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills.

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