THIS TIME, LIONS CAN ONLY BLAME THEMSELVES

The ball came out of the lights in a quick drop — which is what Corey Raymond was doing beneath it. His feet got tangled. Down he went. He watched the ball land in the hands of the New York Giants’ Chris Calloway, who raced to the end zone with the catch, the victory, and any chance the Lions had of convincing people they are worth betting on this year.

Slip, stumble, watch it disappear. The Lions are not good enough to play a game in their sleep, and if they think they are, they’re kidding themselves. They sleepwalked through half of Sunday, made more mental mistakes than Dennis Rodman doing trigonometry, and blew a perfect opportunity to go 5-3 and hit the bye week as a contender, instead of a pretender.

Never mind the dramatic finish, the Lions’ thrilling comeback before the overtime bomb that blew the noise right out of the Silverdome crowd. It never should have come to that.

“We just gave them the game,” Scott Mitchell said after the stunning 26-20 loss to the Giants. “I’m standing here frustrated because there’s just no way we should have lost. No way.”

Slip, stumble, watch it disappear.

Give Mitchell credit for accuracy, which he could have used a little more of during the game. This was an eminently winnable contest, at home, against a team that had a pokey defense, a rookie quarterback and no discernible running attack. Here is how the Lions played it: as if they had all the time in the world. As if any mistake could be made up for.

Instead, it turned out that any mistake could be made. And they all were. From untimely penalties to fumbled snaps to defensive lapses to heck — even picking the wrong side of the coin flip to start overtime.

When Herman Moore can’t catch a wide-open two-yard pass, you know you’re in trouble.

Trouble began early and stayed late. And as darkness fell outside the Silverdome, it fell inside as well. The Lions finished the first half of the season at sea level. Four victories. Four losses. That’s no reason to hate them. It’s no reason to love them, either.

“We missed a great opportunity,” Reggie Brown said.

Slip, stumble, watch it run away.

Let us count the boo-boos

Now I am not forgetting the mad rush with which the Lions tried to finish this game. They dodged bullets and completed a few gritty third-down passes and finally, Mitchell spun and found Johnnie Morton in the back of the end zone for a score. The crowd came unglued, and the Lions appeared close to making up for their earlier sins.

But you know what they say about playing with fire. The Giants won the coin flip for overtime. And three plays later, Danny Kanell was lofting that sideline pass, and Raymond was falling down, and Calloway, the former Wolverine, was speeding alone to the end zone as if running a wind sprint back in Ann Arbor.

“It just happened,” said a stunned Raymond. “My feet got tangled and I fell. I had turned around to look back and then — boom.”

Sad. Regrettable. But not the only reason the Lions lost. This game could have easily turned their way a half-dozen times if they simply avoided mistakes:

There was the drive that stalled on the Giants’ 28 when Mitchell fumbled the snap.

There were two third-and-one plays the Lions couldn’t convert.

There was the crazy play where Mitchell ran around the backfield for half an hour, until he found an open receiver in the end zone, Tommie Boyd, who caught the ball, acrobatically, his toes planted to the ground. Except they were planted out of bounds. The Lions had to settle for a field goal.

There was the punt that came back when Scott Kowalkowski was called for a face-mask penalty. The re-punt: a 53-yard touchdown return by Amani Toomer.

“That play was very, very irritating,” said Lions coach Bobby Ross, who looked very, very irritated. Basically, I think that play blew Ross’s blood pressure for the next seven days.

Remember the last loss to Giants?

Now I know Ross doesn’t like to hear about the before-he-got-here tradition of winning the big ones and losing the little ones. But like it or not, he’s contributing to the lore.

The Lions are halfway through the season. They have beaten two of the best teams in football and have lost to one of the worst. Against middle-of-the-pack teams, they split. And that is why the Lions wake up today, half a year’s work behind them, smack in the middle of the sandwich.

The shame in this is that they could be so much better. When they play well, they are so impressive. When Barry Sanders and Moore are on their games, they are the best in the business. When the defense wants to get after people, it is swarming and emotional.

But it doesn’t happen enough, and it doesn’t happen when it has to happen. If the Lions want to be taken seriously, they first have to do so themselves. They have to — as Mitchell says — “put away a team.”

“We’re still 4-4, and we’ll make a run at it,” Stephen Boyd said.

Maybe. Last year, a loss to the Giants was the defining moment of a terrible collapse. We can only hope this one has no such overtones.

The good news is the Lions beat somebody Sunday. The bad news is they beat themselves.

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 8-9 p.m. Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Port Huron; 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Book Nook, Allen Park; and 8-9 p.m. Friday, Borders, Utica. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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