Long-time rivals kick off the 2013 NFL season in the Motor City on Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings and reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson face off with the Detroit Lions.
Rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson skewed a lot of perceptions around the NFL last season. You're not supposed to succeed as a freshman quarterback in the league but those three turned that kind of thinking on its head in 2012. But, before you think there has been some sort of seismic shift in the development of signal callers at the college level, understand Luck, RG3 and Wilson are the exceptions that prove the rule, not the actual rule.
All you have to do is rewind back to 2011 and pay closer attention to the struggles players like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are still enduring.
After a poor preseason in which he didn't receive all that much playing time the questions surrounding Ponder in Minnesota have only increased.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has put together a championship-level roster around Ponder and it's now time for the third-year quarterback out of Florida State to start carrying his own water.
Those who still believe in Ponder point to last December when the Vikings made an unlikely playoff push by winning four straight games without now departed star wideout Percy Harvin.
And to his credit Ponder did rebound from an awful midseason slump in which he would often have trouble reaching the century mark in passing yards, an almost unthinkable struggle in today's pass-heavy NFL.
To those watching closely, however, it was clear offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave dialed everything back and asked Ponder to do little other than manage the game as Peterson and a solid defense did all the heavy lifting.
The Vikings need more from the embattled signal caller this time around.
"I do feel established. I do feel like I belong here, I feel comfortable," Ponder said. "Knowing everybody, all my teammates, all the coaches, knowing the area and everything, knowing how things work. I just know that I need to continue to become a better football player and a better quarterback."
The Lions, meanwhile, came into the 2012 season with high hopes after putting behind years of frustration in 2011 with a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since 1999. Last season's Lions, though, looked a lot more like those hapless teams that have plagued the Motor City.
An eight-game losing streak capped a 4-12 season as the team stumbled through a tough campaign which saw bad decisions from both the coaches and players, along with plenty of undisciplined penalties.
That said, there were some positives to take away as the Lions were close in most of their games, dropping just three by double-digits while suffering two losses in overtime and losing another two by two points.
The highlight of the season was of course Calvin Johnson's record-setting campaign as he broke the single-season receiving yards record with 1,964 yards, topping Jerry Rice's high-water mark which had stood since 1995.
Detroit also made a few splashes in the offseason, signing running back Reggie Bush away from the Dolphins, and using the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft to take promising defensive end Ezekiel Ansah out of Brigham Young.
"You know, we feel good about our offseason acquisitions," said head coach Jim Schwartz. "We felt good about the players we brought back and the players we drafted."
Ansah, however, suffered a concussion late in the preseason and could miss the opener against the Vikings.
Minnesota swept the season series against the Lions in '12 and will be seeking its second consecutive regular season opening victory. The Vikings also lead the all-time series by an imposing 68-33-2 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
The strengths of these two teams match up against the other's weaknesses so the coach who can exploit things the best figures to come out on top.
With battle-tested veteran Antoine Winfield in retirement after a short stay in Seattle, the Vikings' roster now sports cornerbacks Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels. Those five players combine for 41 career NFL starts and just three career interceptions, two from Robinson in his '12 rookie season and one from Jefferson while he was with the Arizona Cardinals.
That's the group being asked to match up with the All-World Johnson along with ex-Viking Nate Burleson and the talented Ryan Broyles, who are both returning from 2012 injuries. Cook, Robinson and especially Rhodes, a 2013 first-round pick out of Florida State, are very talented but they have to turn potential into production very quickly.
"He's a great player," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Johnson. "He's one of those guys where when you game plan, much like with Adrian (Peterson), you have to have a plan for Calvin Johnson. He's a tremendous player. Even though you may know that he's going to be getting the football, you can't always stop what he does."
Detroit, meanwhile, is asking first-time left tackle Riley Reiff to handle one of the best pass rushers of this generation, Jared Allen. Reiff replaces veteran Jeff Backus, who retired after 12 seasons and 191 starts for the Lions.
Allen had a down season in 2012 due to knee and shoulder injuries yet still registered 12 sacks. A healthy Allen had 22 two years ago and could make life miserable for Matthew Stafford, who signed a monster contract extension in the offseason despite some serious mechanical issues that surfaced last year.
"You get a security blanket having a guy like Jeff Backus out (there)," Schwartz said. "He's always there week-in and week-out. But Riley has a lot of the same characteristics. He's very tough. He's quiet. I think he's had a very good training camp, a good preseason and we expect him to hold that position. It would be nice if he could do it as long as Jeff Backus did, with as much as consistency."
Allen has recorded 13 1/2 sacks, one interception, four forced fumbles and three pass breakups in 11 career games against the Lions.
"He's very difficult to handle because he can do so many things," Schwartz continued when asked about Allen, a four-time All-Pro. "He rushes inside, rushes outside, he's hard to figure out. Whoever is blocking him is going to really go to battle every single play and never have one play where you're not at your best, because Jared can make you pay. A lot of forced fumbles, tipped balls, sacks, that's what he's known for. Those are the game-changing plays that he makes for Minnesota's defense."
The rest of the Lions' offensive line, if anything, is less proven than Reiff and will be dealing with a Minnesota front seven which also features talented defensive lineman Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, as well as another first- round pick, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, and Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Greenway.
Detroit could get a break, though, with the possible absence of veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a five-time All-Pro who is dealing with a knee injury.
"He's really improving," Frazier said when talking about Williams on Wednesday. "He's making a lot of progress."
Offensively the Vikings figure to same the same formula as they had last season, ride Peterson and keep things simple for Ponder so he doesn't make the big mistake.
The only way Detroit wins this one is in a shootout and the Lions certainly have the offensive firepower to accomplish that but it's hard to imagine Detroit's back seven on defense stopping Peterson on a consistent basis.
In 11 career games against Detroit, A.P. has rushed for 100-plus yards seven times and amassed 36 different rushes of 10-or-more yards.
"We're excited about the kickoff of the season and we've got what we needed to get out of the preseason from my perspective and our coaches perspective," Frazier said. "We'll be ready when we line up against Detroit on Sunday. We have enough time to continue to hone in on some things and we're going to continue to work as hard as we can to be prepared."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 24, Lions 20