WASHINGTON -- In the Detroit Lions' previous appearance here, in the season opener, there was no Barry Sanders in the backfield. There was no winning streak to speak of, no establishment of team unity and no track record of playing in big games.
This was supposed to be a different Detroit team from the one that got crushed by the Washington Redskins, 45-0, on Sept. 1, and the Lions were looking forward to yesterday's rematch in the NFC championship game. What they weren't expecting was the 41-10 beating that ended their surprise season one game shy of the Super Bowl.
"Wow," was the reaction of Detroit coach Wayne Fontes after his team was dominated by a veteran Redskins team. "Did that look like a rerun of last time, or what?"
xTC With the exception of Sanders' being a non-factor, it wasn't really a rerun of that first contest, when the Lions gave up 21 points in the first quarter on the way to their worst loss of the season. Yesterday, despite mistakes that put them in a hole early, the Lions trailed by just a touchdown after the first half. That led to the key series of the game, the Redskins' opening possession of the second half.
"I told our guys that we could break their spirit if we stopped them," Fontes said. "But the opening drive of the third quarter broke our back. And it snowballed from there."
The key on that drive was a 45-yard pass from Mark Rypien to a wide-open Terry Orr. Four plays later, Chip Lohmiller made a 28-yard field goal, and the Redskins led, 20-10. By the end of the quarter, Rypien (12 of 17 for 228 yards and two touchdowns) had hit Gary Clark on a 45-yard scoring pass for a 27-10 Redskins lead, and the rout was on.
"When Rypien is on -- well, I haven't seen a long ball thrown like his since Terry Bradshaw," said Detroit linebacker Chris Spielman, who made a team-high seven tackles.
Just a week ago, it was Detroit quarterback Erik Kramer on the receiving end of that type of praise after his 29 completions for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys. But yesterday, Kramer committed the key turnovers that took the Lions out of the game early. The second-year quarterback lost a fumble and was intercepted on Detroit's first two possessions, leading to the 10-0 first-quarter deficit.
"Going into the game, that was the one thing we felt we couldn't do, give up turnovers," Kramer said. "And once they got out early, they were able to bring heat on me. I threw a lot off balance, and I threw a lot off my feet."
Fontes said Kramer had a rough day, but he was not about to criticize the quarterback who came off the bench after Rodney Peete's injury and performed better than anyone had expected.
"We would have loved to have given him more time," Fontes said. "But he got us to this point -- and to do that he must be pretty good. I'm just happy he brought us to the championship game."
While Kramer was getting pressured much of the day out of the run-and-shoot (a style the Redskins are 5-0 against this season), Sanders was having as much trouble running the ball. After rushing nine times for 45 yards in the first half, Sanders carried just twice and lost a yard while the Lions tried to play catch-up in the second half.
"It was just a good, solid defense not giving us anything," said Sanders, who missed the first game against the Redskins because of injured ribs. "I didn't come into the game thinking I would be the difference; I came in looking to play my role, and with that, hopefully coming out with a win."
That would not be the case, but the Lions did not leave RFK Stadium with their heads down. No one expected much from Detroit before the season, but the NFC Central Division champions made their first playoff appearance since 1983. They did so in a season in which lineman Mike Utley suffered a paralyzing injury.
"We never quit, and because of that we can hold our heads up," said Spielman, wearing a "Thumbs Up" T-shirt that stands as a message to Utley. "This team has accomplished a lot when no one thought we could. A lot of people put limitations on us, but we made it to the championship game. We're going to build on this, and we're going to get better and better."
Those were the sentiments of Fontes who, in his third season, was named the NFL Coach of the Year for his job in turning the Lions around.
"Without a doubt, they outplayed us, they beat us up and there are no excuses," Fontes said. "But I'm very proud of my football team and I will not go back to Detroit with my head down.
"The taste of losing is bitter," Fontes said. "And because of that, we're going to do our best to get back."