PONTIAC, Mich. - The question may now be asked. When, if ever, will the Detroit Lions win a game?
Yesterday was supposed to be as good a time as any with Cincinnati, supposedly shell-shocked from a 24-0 loss at home to Chicago, visiting the Silverdome.
But it didn't happen, not with Corey Dillon scoring three touchdowns in a 31-27 Bengal victory as the Lions dropped to 0-6 for the first time since 1955.
On the horizon? A trip next Sunday to San Francisco, then a home date against the unpredictable Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Lions, on the other hand, have been totally predictable. If there's a way to lose, they'll find it.
Yesterday, the Detroit defense surrendered 412 yards, 96 of them on the first offensive play of the game when Dillon broke through the line and found no defenders waiting beyond it.
“He hit a seam and he was gone,” said Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg. “Where were the safeties? I don't know. That's the problem.”
Sparked by the kick-return prowess of Desmond Howard, the Lions actually roared back from a 21-6 deficit to take the lead, but Cincinnati manufactured a textbook, 83-yard drive that took 71/2 minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter for a 31-27 lead.
How did the Lions respond?
Two three-and-out possessions and then one of those absolutely inexplicable penalties that took the fight out of the Detroit offense just when it hinted it might actually be ready to rumble.
On a second-down play from the Detroit 44, as quarterback Charlie Batch threw incomplete to Larry Foster, 6-6, 380-pound offensive tackle Aaron Gibson blocked his man to the ground, then took a running start, so to speak, and belly-flopped on top of him. Referee Johnny Grier did a double take, realized that his eyes were not deceiving him, then threw his flag for a personal foul worth 15 yards.
“I didn't see what happened,” said Mornhinweg, but you just knew that he did because the flag had barely hit the artificial turf before Mornhinweg was ripping off his headset and screaming for someone, anyone on the sideline to replace Gibson.
“I was just finishing my block,” Gibson said later. “I was just going until the whistle. I sure didn't expect to get a penalty for it.”
When Mornhinweg yanked Gibson, the Silverdome crowd of 69,343 roared its approval.
“I didn't hear it,” said Gibson, but you just knew that he did the way he hurled his helmet against the team bench after lumbering to the sideline. “I just knew I was being taken out. That was as bad as getting a penalty I didn't deserve.”
That, of course, would be one man's opinion.
The Lions did move the ball at times, mostly after being invigorated by kickoff returns of 91 and 65 yards by Howard.
The first came after a 30-yard pass from John Kitna to Darnay Scott gave Cincinnati a 21-6 lead with 1:53 left in the first half.
Howard answered with a 91-yard return to the Cincy 9 and Lamont Warren took it in from one yard out three plays later.
Howard then returned the second-half kickoff 65 yards to the Bengal 28, setting the stage for a 27-yard pass from Batch to Johnnie Morton and a one-yarder for the score from Batch to tight end David Sloan.
The Batch-to-Sloan combination paid dividends again later in the third quarter. They hooked up for a 26-yard gain to the Cincinnati 6 and, two plays later, another one-yard TD strike. It marked Sloan's first multiple-TD game.
“We are moving the ball well and doing some good things, but I don't know why we can't get anything in the win column,” Sloan said.
The fourth quarter was the reason yesterday. The Bengals scored and are 4-3. The Lions shot themselves in their collective foot and are 0-6.
“Both teams fought and both teams played very well,” said Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau. “Our guys were just fortunate to make the right plays at the end.”
The Bengals, Kitna in particular, made them during a 13-play drive that Mornhinweg said “took away a lot of the fourth quarter.”
Still, the Lions got four more possessions, even if one was a desperation drive in the waning seconds.
On the first three, Batch was 2-of-8 for 26 yards. The possessions ended with two punts and an interception.
“We had plays to be made the last couple series, “ Mornhinweg said.
But with Lions running back James Stewart inactive because of an ankle injury, the Bengals knew they could throw caution to the wind and blitz on every down late in the game.
“They played us completely different without James,” Batch said. “We weren't using the same protection on every play, but by the end they were really aggressive, blitzing on every play. You try to make big plays in those situations, but we couldn't get anything done.”
Batch completed 20 of 35 passes for 239 of the Lions' 276 total yards. The Bengals were much more balanced with Kitna throwing for 204 and Dillon (27 carries, 184 yards) sparking a 224-yard rushing day. Dillon rushed for two TDs - the first and the last - and caught a TD pass out of the backfield.
“We put 31 points on the board today, so we feel good about that,” Kitna said. “This was a huge game, a pivotal game for us. With a young team and a fragile state of mind coming off the game last week, this was huge.”
The Lions, meanwhile, are left only with the fragile state of mind.
“Emotionally, it's very frustrating,” Sloan said. “No one is giving up, there is no division, no one is throwing in the towel, there is no finger-pointing. It's just frustrating that we don't have a win.”
So when will it happen? Probably when it's least expected, which would be any week from here on out.