WASHINGTON 41, DETROIT 10LIONS FLY HIGH, FALL HARDTHEY DIDN’T QUIT, EVEN AS ALL WAS LOST

WASHINGTON — The day began to die on the second play from scrimmage, when Erik Kramer was smothered and the ball squirted loose and the Redskins picked it up as if lifting a penny off the sidewalk. You knew then, somewhere in your stomach, that the theme of this chilly championship game would be simple and sad: The dream ends here.

That it did not end quickly, that the Lions found some moments, some muscle, some spit to hurl in the face of overwhelming odds, is both tribute to this remarkable team and quite likely its legacy. There was no joy in the start of the game and there was no joy in its avalanche finish, but like the season itself, there was something to be said for the middle.

Something good, I think.

Oh, it may be hard to see that right now. This morning, all you see is an image as unsettling as sour milk, Washington quarterback Mark Rypien standing in his backfield, alone as a city beggar, picking his receivers, playing his own personal game, throwing one bomb after another, touchdown, touchdown. Compare that with the image of Kramer, who had somebody’s helmet in his mouth on every play, and you pretty much have this year’s NFC championship game.

“Every time I looked up it seemed like there were one or two of them,” said a bedazzled Kramer, who was sacked four times and knocked down maybe a million more as the Lions evaporated one game shy of the Super Bowl, a 41-10 drubbing by the Redskins.

“Will you be sore tomorrow?” he was asked.

“I’m sore right now.”

No doubt they all are. And yet, there were moments. A touchdown here. A drive there. The Lions gave the Redskins maybe half a game, which is half more than most people expected. And if that sounds like we’re making excuses for this team, just ask yourself if you really believed they could survive this game nine days ago? The 1991 Lions probably never had enough to beat the Redskins, not in this stadium, not on this surface; it’s like trying to beat the devil in hell by burning him to death. But they got here. That was surprise enough.

In the locker room after the game, they peeled off their uniforms for the last time this season. Chris Spielman left his on, his silver pants covered with the mud of defeat. “They are the better team,” he said, looking at his feet. Spielman, more than most, had lusted for this game to be different from the season opener, which was lost to this same team in this same place, 45-0. Sunday was different. Not different enough.

“They’re the better team — right now — and that’s hard for me to face. But it’s true. It is.”

He shrugged.

The dream ends here. Surviving a bad beginning

And yet, for a few minutes, they had people convinced, didn’t they? Let’s face it: The Lions began this game about as badly as you possibly can begin a game — short of coming out without your clothes on. They had their first ball batted away, their second ball fumbled, their fifth dropped, and their sixth intercepted. And yet, somehow, come the second quarter, they found themselves trailing by just three points, 10-7. Their Silver Stretch offense had produced open receivers, Kramer got his balance back, Barry Sanders worked a little magic, and the defense held off a goal-line drive, forcing a field goal, and later forced a punt.

“That’s when I felt most optimistic,” said Sanders, who rushed for 44 yards on 11 carries. “I knew we had played badly, but we were still in it.”

“When did you stop being optimistic?” he was asked.

“Somewhere in the third quarter,” he said.

Indeed. As it turns out, that second period was the apex of the Lions game. The Skins scored again, they took a 17-10 halftime lead, and in that third quarter, after the Lions had a field goal blocked — maybe their last gasp of the year — the dam finally burst. Rypien uncorked a 45-yard touchdown to Gary Clark, the crowd went crazy, and somewhere in the parking lot, the Lions driver started the bus.

“You want to win this game so badly, when it starts to slip away like that, it really hurts you,” said Lomas Brown, standing by his locker, as if not wanting to go home. “They were the better team today. We know that. We got to within two games of the Super Bowl. Now we have to learn how to win those two games.”

Well said. This was a thorough defeat, but think of how it differs from the last time the Lions lost a game. It was November, against Tampa Bay. Do you remember what people were saying then? “Same old Lions.” “Tampa Bay?”
“They’ll never be any good until they stop beating themselves.”

Guess what? They stopped. They won the next seven games, and they came into Sunday with a lot of people thinking they had a chance to upset maybe the best team in the game right now. You know what they call that?

Progress. Moments to remember

“What do you think you’ll remember most from this season?” someone asked Ray Crockett, as he packed his bag.

“I’ll remember a bunch of guys who came together for one cause . . . and I’ll remember one special guy who went down for that cause, trying to be the best. We just lost the last game. But we did a lot to get here.”

And maybe that’s the best way to remember this season, by the moments that defined it — from the dejection after the first Washington loss, Spielman saying it was “my lowest moment,” to the elation after the Miami win, when Spielman and the defense proved themselves noble with a goal-line stand to win the game in the fourth quarter. There was the comeback over Minnesota, in which the Lions, for the first time in years, developed a closing kick, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to win it. And how about the Thanksgiving Day coming of age, when they stole the ball from Chicago six times and stuffed the Bears and warned them there may just be a new king in the Central Division — and then proved it with a season- ending victory in the freeze of Buffalo’s Rich Stadium. That’s the Buffalo Bills — as in the team that’s going to the Super Bowl.

Will you ever forget the sight of the Lions huddling together at midfield, heads bowed in prayer, thumbs up, a sign to Mike Utley, who sat in a wheelchair 2,000 miles away? Will you forget the sight of Herman Moore, coming on in the playoff against Dallas, suddenly confident, a promise of things to come? Will you ever forget the sight of Jerry Ball in street clothes
— about a mile’s worth of fabric — screaming his team on, or Rodney Peete, or Mike Cofer, faces that will be back next year, healthy, and oh, the possibilities of that!

Isn’t that what this whole little adventure was about? Possibilities? They won’t understand this in other cities, where their football teams have gone to a playoff or two, maybe a championship, but in Detroit, the biggest miracle of this year was getting people to believe in pro football again.

After that, everything’s gonna be easy.

“We will be back, I promise you that,” said Crockett. “Hopefully not in this locker room. Hopefully back home.”

And he packed and walked out, joining his teammates as they headed for the bus.

So it ends, a most remarkable little football season. There was a sign in the end zone in RFK Stadium Sunday, a sign that hung prominently in the corner, near where Willie Green caught that first touchdown pass. It read
“Silence Of The Lions.”

Wrong. If we learned anything Sunday, it’s that you will be hearing from these guys again. Take that with you this morning as you head to work. It’s what came from the best part of this season, the middle. It’s something worth saving.

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