The Detroit Lions established a new team record with an and-coming club will attempt to achieve a pair of franchise firsts this century when it visits Mall of America Field for Sunday's divisional clash with the reeling Minnesota Vikings.
Detroit will be invading a venue in which it hasn't left triumphant since 1997, having lost at the Metrodome in each of the past 13 seasons. The most recent one took place during Week 3 of last year, a 24-10 setback in which Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson powered his way to 160 yards and two touchdowns.
It's been far longer, however, since the Lions started out a season 3-0 like they'll have a chance to do on Sunday. Detroit last opened up with three straight wins all the way back in 1980, en route to a 9-7 finish that year.
The Lions come in carrying quite a head of steam, however, after walloping the frazzled Kansas City Chiefs by a 48-3 count that now stands as the largest margin of victory in team history. It was the sixth consecutive win for the longtime losers dating back to last season, a streak that includes a 20-13 decision over Minnesota at Ford Field in the 2010 finale.
The Vikings find themselves in a much different position at this stage of the 2011 campaign, hoping simply to finish what they started. Minnesota has blown double-digit halftime leads in each of its first two contests, a Week 1 loss at San Diego followed by last Sunday's frustrating 24-20 home defeat to Tampa Bay.
In those losses, the Vikings have been outscored by a whopping 41-3 margin in the second half. The team squandered a 17-0 advantage at intermission against the Buccaneers by giving up a pair of touchdowns over the final seven minutes, with the go-ahead score coming with just 31 seconds left to play.
Minnesota had a 17-7 lead at the break against the Chargers one week earlier, before San Diego roared back with 17 unanswered points to forge ahead.
"We definitely know that you have to put your foot on the pedal and keep pushing strong," said Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb. "I think for all of us, it's not just one or two particular guys, we all have to stay in this together. When you have a team down, you have to step on their throat and finish the job."
Minnesota, which hasn't began 0-3 since a six-win season 2002, could get a potential boost by this week's return of standout defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The six-time Pro Bowl honoree sat out both losses while serving a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, but is slated to step back into his customary starting post on Sunday.
Williams and his defensive mates will be trying to slow down an explosive Detroit offense that's put up the second-highest point total through the first two weeks, with young quarterback Matthew Stafford having thrown seven touchdown passes over that span and talented wide receiver Calvin Johnson on the opposite end of four of those scoring strikes.
The Vikings hold a 66-31-2 lead in their all-time series with the Lions and had a six-game winning streak in the set halted with the above-mentioned 20-13 loss in the Motor City during the 2010 regular-season finale. Minnesota did come through with a 24-10 home triumph over Detroit during Week 3 of last year and as previously stated, have bested the Lions 13 consecutive times in the Metrodome. Detroit is just 2-16 against Minnesota since 2002, with its only other positive result over that stretch coming in 2007.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has lost in three of his four previous encounters with Minnesota since taking over in 2009, but did win his only prior head-to-head battle with Minnesota's Leslie Frazier with last January's verdict. That was Frazier's first and only game against Detroit as a head man.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
After missing substantial portions of his two initial pro seasons due to a host of injuries, Stafford (599 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) is now healthy and showing the promise that made him the top overall pick of the 2009 draft. The 23-year-old has completed 65.3 percent of his passes in the early going and is coming off a four-touchdown effort in last week's rout, with the dynamic Johnson (9 receptions, 4 TD) hauling in two of those throws. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound matchup nightmare is definitely the focal point of an outstanding aerial attack that's currently averaging 313.5 yards per game (6th overall), but certainly not the only weapon in the arsenal. Fellow wideout and ex-Viking Nate Burleson is a skilled veteran who leads the team in catches (12) and receiving yards (153), while rookie speedster Titus Young emerged as a factor with a five-catch, 89-yard output against the Chiefs and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (5 receptions) came up with 71 grabs a year ago. The Vikings will also have to watch out for running back Jahvid Best (129 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 2 total TD), an excellent receiver out of the backfield and extremely dangerous in open space. The 2010 first-round back compiled 123 yards from scrimmage (57 rushing, 66 receiving) and scored two touchdowns last Sunday.
Minnesota will look to combat the Lions' diverse passing game by unleashing a usually-strong pass rush that should be more formidable if Williams, the owner of 49 1/2 career sacks in eight seasons, is ready and over a plantar fasciitis issue that plagued him during training camp. He'll team up inside the edge- rushing tandem of ends Jared Allen (7 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Brian Robison (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks), while the quality cornerback combo of three- time Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield (21 tackles, 1 INT) and Cedric Griffin (7 tackles, 3 PD) headline a secondary that's permitted a somewhat concerning 280 passing yards per game (23rd overall) thus far. Williams should also help anchor a run defense that was gashed for 67 yards and two touchdowns by Tampa's LeGarette Blount in the second half of last week's loss, with linebackers Chad Greenway (13 tackles) and E.J. Henderson (10 tackles) also aiding the cause. The Vikings limited Detroit to just 63 yards on the ground in last year's meeting at the Metrodome.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota's offensive game plan will almost surely be centered around the talents of Peterson (218 rushing yards, 2 TD, 4 receptions), one of the league's premier backs who's fresh off a 120-yard, two-touchdown outburst against the Buccaneers. He's also had plenty of success when facing the Lions in the past, having eclipsed the century mark in five of eight lifetime encounters with Detroit. Peterson's strong running will also help ease the burden on the struggling McNabb (267 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), who's averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt so far in his first season with the Vikings and overseen an offense that's managed a mere 240 net passing yards, the second-lowest total in the league. The offense as a whole ranks 27th in the NFL (292.5 ypg) and has suffered from a lack of big-play ability, with the versatile Percy Harvin (9 receptions) the only true playmaker among the receivers. Minnesota has only one completion of over 20 yards through the first two games, a short toss to reserve running back Toby Gerhart (52 rushing yards) last week that went for a 42-yard gain.
An overlooked aspect of Detroit's soaring start has been the stout early play of a defense that has been a major trouble spot for the team in recent years. The Lions have yielded the second-fewest points (23) and rank seventh in yards allowed (291.0 ypg) while forcing eight turnovers, tied with Baltimore for tops in the league. Six of those takeaways came against the hapless Chiefs, with the unit intercepting quarterback Matt Cassel three times in addition to holding Kansas City to a paltry 116 net passing yards. Cornerback Chris Houston (10 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) has come up with a pick in each of the first two games and formed an impressive cover tandem with free-agent pickup Eric Wright (10 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD), and the duo gets lots of help from a steady pass rush up front from 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (4 tackles, 1 sack) and veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (7 tackles, 2 sacks), who's forced a fumble in both 2011 victories. A run defense headed up by middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (7 tackles, 1 sack) and strongside starter Justin Durant (15 tackles) has been inconsistent, having permitted only 56 yards in the season-opening win over Tampa Bay but giving up 151 to the Chiefs last week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Peterson. With a passing game that's been hit-or-miss at best, the Vikings will need to rely upon their feature back to churn out yards and keep Detroit's dangerous offense off the field, while the Lions have to prevent the perennial All-Pro from running wild like he's done in most of Minnesota's recent wins in this series. If they're able to keep him in check, it's likely another long afternoon for the Vikes.
Start fast. Of course, the Vikings have done just that in the first two games, yet were unable to win either time. Still, their chances of beating the more explosive Lions increase significantly if they're able to build an early lead and let Peterson take over from there. Detroit does have the firepower to come back from behind, but the jury's still out as to whether Minnesota can do the same.
Pressure the passer/protect the quarterback. A big reason why Stafford's had so much success is he's yet to be sacked this season, so it's critical for Minnesota that Allen, Williams and Robison to bring the heat and throw the gifted quarterback out of rhythm. Detroit's pass rush is a potent one, and McNabb is due for another unproductive day if his line can't guard him sufficiently.
The changing of the guard between these two franchises may have taken place with the Lions' season-ending win over Minnesota in 2010, and with a more balanced and disruptive team taking the Metrodome field this Sunday, Detroit stands a good chance of ending its long string of failures in Minneapolis if it continues to play at the level it has as of late. Though the Vikings are fully capable of extending their home dominance in this series if Peterson turns in a huge day and the defense can rise to the occasion, their overall inconsistency could very well lead to their undoing for a third straight week. The Lions have had this date circled on the calendar for quite some time, and their recent accomplishments suggest they're well equipped to handle the task at hand.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 31, Vikings 20