YES, LIONS SNATCH ANOTHER LOSS FROM JAWS OF VICTORY

CHICAGO — Stephen Boyd’s neck is nearly as thick as his New York accent. With his wide forehead, narrowed eyes, jutting jaw and broad shoulders, he has the look of a longshoreman, a guy born into white T-shirts, hard hats and lunch boxes. He moves slowly, as if lugging around that thick frame is hard, and it probably is. Just ask anyone he hits. He crunches them. He swallows them. Let’s put it this way. Stephen Boyd is not into hand tackles.

He was having a whale of a game Sunday, this unsung middle linebacker. It was so good, I had started writing a column about him near the end of the third quarter. Let’s face it. When a guy is in on two fumbles, recovers three fumbles, makes a sack, a strip and a series of squashing stops — and his team is winning by 17 points — you don’t have to think hard about your star of the game.

Unfortunately, you do have to think hard when writing about the Lions. Because just when you’re about to bury them, they grab your ankle from the grave, like that final scene in “Carrie.”

And just when you’re about to praise them for a season-turning road win — like the one we thought they had here in Chicago — they poke you in the eye with a stick.

So here was Boyd, the Lions’ leading tackler, a guy on pace to break Chris Spielman’s single-season Detroit record in that department, a guy who was all over the place in the first 45 minutes Sunday, and here he was sitting by his locker, head hung low, looking like he’d just been laid off.

“We can’t let that happen,” he said, his face red, the words coming up like bile. “We can’t let that happen . . .”

A few seats away, safety Bryant Westbrook had a blunter response. “This is bull—-!”

He shook his head. “Pardon my language.”

Make you a deal. We’ll pardon your language if you pardon our cynicism. How many more times do we have to watch this sitcom? How can a team desperate for another win have a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and give up three touchdowns in 11 minutes — without committing a turnover? I mean, that’s not easy. You have to be really good at losing to do that.

Give no quarter — till the fourth

But then, we all knew we were watching a team good at losing when this game began. Unfortunately, it was supposed to be the Bears. They had blown their first four games after leading them all at halftime. And they were specializing in handing over the ball and lots of points in the third quarter. They didn’t disappoint Sunday. They gave Detroit two fumbles and 17 points in that third period. The Lions led, 27-10.

And then, apparently, they left the stadium.

Hey, guys, it’s a 60-minute game, remember? The Bears marched through the Detroit defense for 75 yards, touchdown, 72 yards, touchdown, 58 yards, touchdown. The only thing missing was a police escort.

“They got on a roll,” sighed Luther Elliss, “and we fell out.”

Yeah. The way blue ice falls out of a plane. You want to know how bad this was? In those three drives, Erik Kramer — who used to work in Detroit, until the brain trust decided he wasn’t worth keeping — lit up the Lions’ defense for 10 completions, one touchdown passing and another running. Erik Kramer!

What’s next? Rusty Hilger comes out of retirement to beat us?

Batch looked like a rookie this day

Of course, I’m not being fair. It wasn’t just the defense. It was an offense that seemed to have as much interest being on the field as Woody Allen has in being at the Oscars.

In between the three Bears touchdowns in that fourth quarter, the Lions’ offense stayed out there for six measly plays. And if you added up those six plays, they gained — ta da! — minus-one yard.

Minus-one yard? This is supposed to be an offensive juggernaut, remember? Barry Sanders? Herman Moore? Barry was shut down — 28 yards total, a number he often racks up in a single run — and Moore remains a mystery. If he’s the best receiver in the game, why aren’t they going to him more? Why is Charlie Batch looking more often at — please — Walter Rasby and Germane Crowell?

Maybe because he’s Charlie Batch, only three games into his career. I have been saying all along: Do not expect this kid to be the first rookie quarterback never to look like a rookie. He looked like one Sunday, overthrowing passes, putting balls behind receivers, racing too quickly out of the pocket, only to find nothing there.

“Am I in shock?” he said. “Yeah. We had a 17-point lead and lost.”

Get used to it. Because if the Lions are honest, they’ll admit they lost because they weren’t prepared to play from the start. The fact is, after the first quarter, the Bears only punted once. The rest of the time they coughed up the ball. Five fumbles. The Lions acted as if they were entitled to those turnovers. And when the turnovers stopped, they were caught not defending — as they had been doing prior to those fumbles.

Same goes for the Lions’ offense. If not for two long passes — both to Johnnie Morton, both partly a result of the Bears screwing up coverage — they would have done very little. The blocking was bad. They had untimely penalties
(again). They converted only three first downs.

Still, no matter how you get the lead, when you’re up, you have to snuff out your opponent.

“27-10,” said Morton, “that’s game over.”

Not with the Lions. With the Lions, 27-10 means the ugly part may just be starting. And when it’s done, shoulda-been Detroit heroes like Boyd are reduced to sitting there, tongue-tied and red-faced.

Just like their fans.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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