Back-to-back losses marred by startling examples of solid playoff hopes in question. They'll be hoping their newfound success against the Minnesota Vikings can help them get their act back together.
The Lions will be shooting for their first season sweep of the downtrodden Vikings, who may be without two vitally-important offensive players, in 14 years when the two NFC North members renew their longstanding rivalry Sunday at Ford Field.
Detroit had appeared well on its way towards ending a postseason drought that's lasted since 1999 after winning its first five games of this 2011 campaign. The Lions have dropped five of seven contests since, however, which includes three double-digit defeats to fellow conference contenders in a four-week span.
The last two losses have been particularly newsworthy. A 27-15 home setback to powerhouse Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day was highlighted by an ejection for troublesome defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for kicking a Packers' offensive lineman, while a wave of irresponsible penalties helped led to the Lions' demise in a 31-17 ousting by NFC South leader New Orleans this past Sunday.
Detroit was flagged 11 times for 107 yards against the Saints, including two unsportsmanlike conduct calls and an unnecessary roughness infraction that all wound up stalling drives and killing momentum.
"We lost to the Saints, but we beat ourselves [last week]," an annoyed Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said afterward. "Our offense continued to get derailed by penalties. We need to act accordingly. We cannot afford to be selfish and put the team at risk of taking points off the board and there was way too much of that."
Turnovers and poor defense have also been contributing factor to Detroit's rough 1-3 stretch, which began with a 37-13 manhandling by divisional foe Chicago on Nov. 13 in which quarterback Matthew Stafford threw four interceptions. The 2009 No. 1 overall pick was picked off three times by the Packers two weeks later, and the defense has been lit up for 130 points over the four games while surrendering 393 total yards or more in each of those tilts.
The Vikings hope to continue that trend after putting forth one of their best offensive showings of the year, albeit in yet another loss. Minnesota piled up a season-high 489 total yards against resurgent Denver last weekend, but wound up on the short end of a 35-32 decision after the Broncos kicked two field goals in the final two minutes, the last of which came as time expired.
Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder was impressive for Minnesota in his sixth career start, throwing for a personal-best 381 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-47 passing. The 2011 first-round choice also had two costly interceptions, however, with the final one leading to the deciding kick.
Ponder suffered a hip pointer in the loss as well, and his status for Sunday's showdown may not be determined until pregame warmups. Raw second-year project Joe Webb would draw the start if he can't go.
"He didn't look too good walking [Wednesday], so we'll just have to see if he continues to heal up as the week progresses," Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave stated on Thursday.
The Vikings, who have lost four in a row and have compiled their worst record after 12 games in the franchise's 51 years of existence, did get some better news on running back Adrian Peterson this week. The four-time All-Pro has sat out the team's last two bouts with an ankle sprain, but returned to practice on Thursday and is optimistic he'll be able to suit up against the Lions.
He'll be attempting to help Minnesota halt a string of two straight negative results versus Detroit that followed a dominant nine-year run in the series in which the Vikings won 16 of 17 matchups. The Lions set up the possibility of a first home-and-home sweep of Minnesota since 1997 with a thrilling 26-23 overtime triumph at the Metrodome in Week 3, with Detroit overcoming a 20-0 halftime deficit to prevail.
The Lions enter this week's slate tied with both Chicago and Atlanta, which bested Detroit at Ford Field back on Oct. 23, in the race for the NFC's two Wild Card berths, but won't have Suh available for a second straight week after having his appeal of a two-game suspension for the incident against Green Bay denied by the league office.
The Vikings hold a 66-32-2 lead in their all-time series with the Lions but as previously mentioned, have lost the last two meetings between the clubs. In addition to the above-noted overtime win in September, Detroit topped Minnesota by a 20-13 score at Ford Field in the 2010 regular-season finale. The Vikings did record a 24-10 verdict over the Lions in Minneapolis during Week 3 of last year and have gone 7-2 in their past nine visits to the Motor City, with the only other blemish other than the most recent encounter at Ford Field a 20-17 overtime defeat in 2007. Minnesota had won six straight games in the set prior to Detroit's 2010 breakthrough.
Schwartz is just 2-3 against Minnesota since taking over in Detroit in 2009 but has won his only two head-to-head battles with Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, the latter's only two previous games against the Lions in his present position.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Minnesota's offense will have an entirely different look depending on who's under center on Sunday. Ponder (1522 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) is a more polished passer than Webb, who made two late-season starts in place of an injured Brett Favre as a rookie in 2010, but isn't quite as athletic as his teammate even though he's shown above-average mobility in his six assignments. Webb, on the other hand, is a dangerous scrambler who was originally drafted by the team as a wide receiver prospect, but the 25-year-old did display some passing skills as well as leadership in a 17-of-26, 195-yard, no-interception effort that helped the Vikings upset Philadelphia last December. Either way, Minnesota will lean on the immense talents of Peterson (872 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 12 total TD) as long as he's healthy. One of the league's premier backs, the fifth-year pro has run for 1,250 yards or more and scored double- digit touchdowns in each of his first four seasons and is the main reason why the Vikings rank seventh overall in rushing yards (135.3 ypg). If active, he'll likely share carries with hard-nosed backup Toby Gerhart (253 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions), who put up a career-high 91 yards on 21 attempts against the Broncos while adding eight catches totaling 42 yards in a solid relief job. Minnesota is just 25th in passing offense (213.0 ypg) but delivered its most productive game of the year in that department a week ago, with playmaking wide receiver Percy Harvin (59 receptions, 4 TD) amassing a personal-best 156 yards on eight catches as Ponder's go-to guy and deep threat Devin Aromashodu (15 receptions, 1 TD) added 90 yards on six grabs.
Expect Minnesota's backfield duo to receive plenty of work against a Detroit defense that's allowing 125 rushing yards per game (22nd overall) and 4.8 yards per carry on the season, and also could be without a few other regulars in addition to Suh. The greatest concerns lie in the secondary, however, with both top cornerback Chris Houston and valued free safety Louis Delmas doubtful with knee injuries that kept both out of last week's contests, and the Lions were burned for 338 net passing yards and three Drew Brees touchdowns by the high- powered Saints in their absence. Outside linebacker Justin Durant (41 tackles, 1 sack) is also a question mark due to a hamstring issue, while talented rookie tackle Nick Fairley -- one of the players tabbed to fill Suh's shoes -- likely won't play after aggravating a previous foot sprain that had hampered the 2011 first-round pick earlier in the year. Though depth on the line could be a problem come Sunday, Detroit does have two impact pass rushers ready to go in ends Cliff Avril (24 tackles, 7 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (27 tackles, 6 sacks), each of whom had a sack in the first meeting with the Vikings, as well as a pair of rangy linebackers who'll have the task of slowing down Peterson in Stephen Tulloch (78 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and weakside starter DeAndre Levy (83 tackles, 1 INT).
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit has relied on the strong right arm of Stafford (3527 passing yards, 27 TD, 14 INT) all throughout this season, and figures to stick to that philosophy this week as well. Only New Orleans has attempted more passes than the Lions in 2011, and Stafford is coming off a season-high 408-yard output against the Saints last Sunday. The 23-year-old also threw for 378 yards and connected with star wideout Calvin Johnson (69 receptions, 1092 yards, 12 TD) on a pair of scores to engineer the team's comeback over the Vikings in September, and he's completed a razor-sharp 72.8 percent of his attempts over the past three weeks. Johnson ended up with 108 yards on seven catches in that game and is in the midst of another terrific year, ranking second in the league in touchdown grabs and third in receiving yards. He's been somewhat quiet as of late with opponents game-planning to stop him, however. After stringing together four straight 100-yard performances during an October tear, the 6-foot-5, 236-pound matchup nightmare has been kept under that mark in four consecutive tests while scoring just once over that span. Veteran receiver Nate Burleson (51 receptions, 2 TD) has benefited from Johnson's constant double-coverages, with the ex-Viking having averaged over six receptions and nearly 70 yards over Detroit's last four games. Minnesota will also need to pay attention to tight end Brandon Pettigrew (56 receptions, 3 TD), who was a factor in the Week 3 win by hauling in a career-best 11 passes for 112 yards. While the Lions are well- stocked with targets for Stafford, the running back position is a bit short- handed with speedster Jahvid Best out for the season and capable fill-in Kevin Smith (229 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 4 total TD) appearing doubtful for this week after re-injuring a tender ankle in the New Orleans game. Expect 10th-year man Maurice Morris (268 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 2 total TD), a fine receiver out of the backfield, to see the bulk of the rushing duties come Sunday.
Stafford could be in line for another big day against a decimated Minnesota secondary that's lost both three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield and starting safety Husain Abdullah to season-ending injuries and hasn't had athletic young corner Chris Cook around since Week 6 because of a felony arrest on domestic assault charges in October. The defections have taken their toll, as the Vikings rank 31st in pass efficiency defense and have given up 11 completions of 40 or more yards, tied for the most in the NFL. The Lions will still need to account for pass-rushing terror Jared Allen (51 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 1 INT), however, and the energetic end was a one-man wrecking crew when these teams last played, sacking Stafford three times and also forcing a fumble. Opposite-side starter Brian Robison (28 tackles, 5.5 sacks) added two sacks in that game, but a concussion sustained in last week's loss has his status in doubt for Sunday's clash and promising sophomore Everson Griffen (18 tackles, 4 sacks) a prime candidate to draw his first career start. A run- stopping group anchored by accomplished tackle Kevin Williams (24 tackles, 2 sacks) and seasoned linebackers Chad Greenway (110 tackles, 1 sack) and E.J. Henderson (72 tackles, 2 sacks) limited the Lions to a paltry 20 yards on 19 attempts back in Week 3, but the Vikings have permitted 140 yards or more on the ground in three of their last five games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Who's at quarterback? The decision the Vikings make at the position will affect how both of this teams operate on Sunday, as Ponder and Webb bring two very different skill sets to the table. Though Minnesota won't be as balanced offensively if it's forced to use a third-stringer with just two career starts under his belt, the uncertainty could conceivably work in its favor with the Lions having to prepare for the possibility of two signal-callers with contrasting strengths.
Play smart. As the more talented team in the thick of a playoff race playing at home, the Lions shouldn't have too much trouble getting past a depleted Minnesota squad with all kinds of injury questions as long as they don't self- destruct once again by committing dumb penalties and losing their composure. A faster start than what they put together in the first meeting would also be beneficial, as the odds are against Detroit climbing out of a 20-point hole twice in a row.
The Lions also can't afford to be as sloppy with the football as they've been in recent weeks. After turning the ball over a mere five times during its 6-2 start, Detroit has had a whopping 13 giveaways in losing three of its last four games, with Stafford tossing 10 interceptions during that stretch. Clearly, the Vikings' chances of coming out with a win are greatly enhanced if the Lions once again are inundated with mistakes.
It's hard to decipher just how a Minnesota team that has little to play for at this stage and may not have Ponder at all along with Peterson at less than 100 percent will come out and execute, so there's certainly potential for a Detroit blowout here. However, the Lions' injuries on defense and mistake-prone tendencies over the past few weeks don't inspire a great deal of confidence that they'll be able to cruise to a much-needed victory. Though both of these teams have much different compositions than when they squared off back in September, it's still important to note that the game was decided in overtime and Detroit did have to scratch and claw its way to win. The Lions probably won't have as much trouble in the rematch, but their lackluster recent play on defense may allow the Vikings to score enough to keep it relatively close.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 27, Vikings 20