PONTIAC, Mich. — They are champions of football's most enduring and revered division, the NFC Central.
It is two days before their first-round playoff game against a longtime rival.
The tension in the Detroit Lion locker room is palpable.
"When I find out who did this, they are going to pay!" tackle Lomas Brown shouts.
A prankster has tied Brown's helmet and jersey to his locker. He is furiously trying to get them unknotted before practice.
"This doesn't just happen during the playoffs," he sighs. "This is all the time."
In another part of the room, the defensive linemen are preparing for their weekly game of "Pile-on."
After practice, they will order Lamar Leachman, the defensive line coach, to stretch out, face up, on the turf. The five or six of them will pile on him until he screams for mercy.
Leachman is 59 and has bad knees. He will definitely scream for mercy.
"We don't want to kill him, of course," lineman Marc Spindler says. "If we kill him, then we have to get up and run."
On a wall near Spindler is a picture of a grossly overweight man. Over his head, somebody has stuck a mug shot of guard Dave Richards.
Coming out of Richards' mouth are the words, "Just eat, baby."
Under that picture is a list of what players supposedly wanted for Christmas.
One entry reads, "Jason Hanson--Winnie the Pooh Blanket."
Hanson, the Lion kicker who led the NFC in scoring, shrugs.
"Because I don't hit anybody, they kid me about being a girl," he says. "Then, during kick-blocking practice, I'll kick one low, get somebody right in the face--accidentally, of course."
"You play on this team," Richards says, "you have a thick skin."
Erik Kramer walks triumphantly into a horde of cameras. He is probably the starting quarterback.
He has been anointed by Coach Wayne Fontes as the permanent starter and has held that role for the last four weeks, all of which means nothing on a team whose starting quarterbacks have the average life span of a haircut.
Rodney Peete was the \o7 permanent\f7 starter at the beginning of the season. A month later, Andre Ware took over, played well in his first game and was made the starter for the rest of the season.
\o7 Three quarters \f7 later, he was benched.
Back to Peete, who started three games, received his vote of confidence, then was demoted to third string.
"The strangest thing about all this is that you don't go from first to second string on this team," Peete says. "You go from first to third. Then back to first. Then third. Then first. . . ."
Or you simply get fired, which is what happened to offensive coordinator Dan Henning with a month left in the season.
And so it has been left to Kramer, once so low he could only have played if the other two quarterbacks had been maimed, to lead the Lions today against the Green Bay Packers.
Kramer has been so good in the last month--eight touchdown passes, two interceptions--that he is no longer receiving phone calls from the team owner.
Only on the Lions is this a good thing.
Earlier in the year, when the Lions were about to announce that Ware was the starter, Kramer found the following message on his answering machine from owner William Clay Ford: "Andre, give me a call, I've got good news."
Only on the Lions. Only here. Only now.
"It's strange," Richards says. "The other day I was telling my wife that I thought we could have won more games--and yet I can't believe we won 10."
It's strange. The Lions have won the Central Division title two of the last three seasons, but few seem to understand who they are.
Even fewer understand how they did it.
Fans know they have running back Barry Sanders, but Sanders hasn't played in five weeks because of a knee injury.
Fans know they have a distinctive looking coach, but Fontes is most often compared to Fred Flintstone.
Fans know they play football on Thanksgiving, but this season they had only two more points than turnovers in an embarrassing loss to the Chicago Bears, 10-6.
"Two championships in three years, baby," Fontes said. "When people ask about us, I just say, 'Two out of three.' "
It's not the fans. This is the only team in the NFL with more starting quarterbacks than season-ticket holders.
Largely because of their 80,368-seat stadium--the league's largest--only two home games have not been blacked out locally. Even today's playoff game did not sell out.
It's not the offense. The Lions ranked 24th in total offense, and only three teams in the NFL have given up more sacks.
Could it be their schedule, which was stacked with poor teams after their last-place finish in 1992?
Of their 10 victories, only two were over playoff teams.
The best team they played, the San Francisco 49ers, beat them, 55-17.
"Everybody said we weren't the best team in the division, but the bottom line is, we won the thing," linebacker Chris Spielman said. "Last I looked, nothing else matters but wins and losses."