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Original Issue

Three's the Charm in Detroit

A third-string running back and a third choice at quarterback led the Lions to a victory over the Packers for the NFC Central crown

Four days before Sunday's game to decide the NFC Central Division championship, the 9-6 Detroit Lions—who all season had suffered the barbs of a local press and public demanding to know, "Who's our damn quarterback?"—chatted amicably with various writers in the depths of the Silverdome. Even coach Wayne Fontes seemed upbeat and charitable, though he had fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning a month earlier because the Lion offense resembled a sleeping kitten, and though he has been under pressure to crank up the attack or get a new job. He even suggested that losing star running back Barry Sanders on Thanksgiving Day with a knee injury might have been a blessing in disguise: In his view the Detroit offense has become more diverse, the Lions have rallied as one, and, concluded Fontes, "they stand with me." All for one and one for all!

Meanwhile, in Green Bay the 9-6 Packers were making preparations for the divisional showdown in their singular way. Wide receiver Sterling Sharpe looked with disgust at a reporter trying to make small talk. Isn't it nice, the scribe offered, that Sharpe's younger brother, Shannon, of the Denver Broncos, credits Sterling with having encouraged him to play college ball after high school rather than join the Army? Isn't that nice?

"Why don't you ask him?" snapped Sterling.

Well, the scribe has already done that. And Shannon has said, "Yes, it is nice."

Sterling, who would enter Sunday's game as the league's leading receiver, with 106 catches, two shy of the single-season NFL record he set last year, mumbled something in reply. He does not much like talking to ink-stained wretches—or to Packer fans. He does not care to comment on his triumphs or his miscues. like his drop of a fourth-quarter pass that cost Green Bay a victory over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 5. In the days leading up to the game against the Lions, he had been scheduled to participate in a conference call with reporters, presumably to chat about his impending record. He did not show up. His voluble teammate Reggie White was forced to fill in for him. All for one and one for all!

In Detroit the musketeer the Lions were now rallying around was Erik Kramer, a 29-year-old career backup quarterback who in 1991 stepped in for injured starter Rodney Peete at midseason and took the Lions all the way to the NFC Championship Game. After that it was back to the bench. But Kramer rose again, stepping over Peete and former Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware four weeks before Sunday's game to become the main man. With his steely gaze and careful skill in dissecting defenses, Kramer belatedly gave the Lions something they had sorely lacked on offense—steadiness.

Last week he said he had changed since the old days, since he led his Pierce (Calif.) Junior College team to a berth in the 1984 Potato Bowl. He now had a six-month-old son, Griffin, whose near-fatal bout with a staph infection as a newborn had given Dad a new view of life. "I know what's important now," said Kramer, "and I'm more focused when it comes to the mental parts of the game." Griffin's current good health had his father smiling. "He laughs all the time," Kramer said. "Plus he's got all these teeth, and he's huge. I don't know what they fed him in the hospital, but it agreed with him."

It was the Lion defense that seemed to agree with Kramer's counterpart, Packer quarterback Brett Favre, as Detroit and Green Bay squared off in the Silverdome. The 24-year-old Favre, who sometimes suffers the mental meltdowns of a 12-year-old flag-footballer, appeared confident while throwing a 39-yard scoring pass to running back Edgar Bennett to stake the Pack to a 7-0 first-quarter lead. But then, on Green Bay's next possession, he threw an ill-advised pass that Lion cornerback Ray Crockett picked off and returned 31 yards to the Packer 22.

Two plays later Detroit tailback Eric Lynch ran the ball in from the five to tie the game—and score his first NFL touchdown. "He knows he's not Barry Sanders," Fontes had said of Lynch, a second-year man from Grand Valley State, who was filling in for the injured Derrick Moore, who was filling in for Sanders. But Lynch would finish the day with Sanders-like stats: 30 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and five pass receptions for 29 yards. And he showed admirable humility after the game when he said simply of his performance, "I'm trying to keep my head as level as possible."

Which is a lot more than could be said for Favre's head. While the Pack's Chris Jacke and Detroit's Jason Hanson were nailing field goals, Favre was doing what he has done best all season: making the game interesting. He threw four interceptions, leading his frazzled but kindhearted coach Mike Holmgren to describe his play as "careless." Holmgren would no doubt describe Rip Van Winkle as "tired." But with the Packers leading 20-16 at the end of the third quarter—Bennett had scored on a two-yard run, followed by another Jacke field goal—it seemed even Favre would be unable to blow this game and that the Packers would own their first division title in 21 years.

But Kramer moved the Lions smartly from midfield on a drive that ended with Lynch's tucking in behind a scrum of blockers for a one-yard touchdown. Chief among those blockers was linebacker Chris Spielman, Detroit's leading tackier, who comes in as a goal line fullback to shatter things the way a log might shatter a windshield. "I don't have a person to block," Spielman explains. "I put my hat on whatever's there."

With the Lions holding a 23-20 edge, Favre, who can look so good at times, looked awful once more. He threw a pass that defensive end Robert Porcher deflected and linebacker Pat Swilling intercepted. Three plays later Kramer hit tight end Rodney Holman on an eight-yard out pattern for a touchdown and a 30-20 Detroit lead.

With three minutes left, Favre inexplicably threw a dying quail late and down the middle—isn't that the first habit coaches break quarterbacks of in high school?—where it was intercepted by linebacker George Jamison at the Lion nine-yard line. Game over. Detroit had won the division, which simply meant that it would face these very same Packers again this week in the Silverdome, in the wild-card playoff round.

Afterward it was hard to know what Favre had been thinking when he heaved the ball up for grabs, because he declined to speak with the press—see how Sharpe Disease spreads?

As for Sharpe, his six receptions gave him a record 112 for the season, a remarkable accomplishment, especially since he played much of this season with a "turf toe," which prevented him from practicing for almost half of Green Bay's games. Surely Sharpe would want to reflect on his achievement.

Reporter: "Sterling, could I talk to you for a moment?"

Sharpe: "What the——for?"

Meanwhile, in the Lion locker room Griffin Kramer, drooling, happy and huge, rested in his father's steady hands. A TV guy put a microphone near the baby, who lunged for it. "Watch out, he'll eat it," warned Dad, whose 15 completions on 29 attempts for 182 yards and a touchdown made for a respectable day.

Erik put his son on the floor before heading off to take a shower. The kid gurgled and grinned for the media, winning points for Dad, making the best of an unusual situation.

Amazing the things a child could teach a man.



Filling in for Sanders's understudy. Lynch carried the ball 30 times for 115 yards.



Kramer (above) had the steady hands and Sharpe (84) the sure ones, but afterward only the Lion quarterback had anything to say.