MINNEAPOLIS – Detroit and Minnesota are due for their second of two annual matchups. The Lions and Vikings might need a reintroduction to each other, even though they're NFC North foes that played just six weeks ago.
They've each looked a lot different on the field lately, since that convincing Sept. 30 victory in Detroit by Minnesota.
"Much more balanced," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said, assessing the change in the Lions since their 1-3 start. "They're running the ball well."
The Vikings held the Lions, who haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher in any season since Kevin Jones in 2004 and last year didn't even have a guy get to 400 yards, to 55 yards on the ground on 20 attempts when they met earlier. The Vikings used two special teams touchdowns to win 20-13 that day, and despite only 227 total yards of offense they were in control from kickoff to finish.
After becoming the first modern-NFL team to allow scores in consecutive games by both punt and kickoff returns, the Lions (4-4) haven't yielded a special teams touchdown since. They've also found a featured runner from their oft-injured backfield, now that Mikel Leshoure is healthy and beginning to blossom. Last year's second-round draft pick scored three times in the first half last week in beating Jacksonville and is averaging nearly 4.7 yards per carry over the last four games. The Lions have won three of those.
"I never questioned myself. It was just a matter of getting on the field. Talent-wise, I've always had confidence," Leshoure said. "We're on a roll and we're doing some good things. We're doing a good job of being balanced and if we can keep doing that, it'll be hard for teams to defend us."
The Vikings effectively quieted star wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the last matchup, hitting him hard almost every time the ball went his way, and the man they call "Megatron" has just one touchdown catch this season while being bothered by a bad left knee. But quarterback Matthew Stafford is in fine form again, and with each productive carry by Leshoure the offense can only be better. Their 3,287 total yards are the most in franchise history through eight games and second in the NFL behind New England.
The Vikings (5-4) peaked the week after their victory at Detroit and have given up a 100-yard rusher in each of the last four games. Guys getting out of their gaps and failing to finish tackles have been a big problem lately.
"I don't think it's a crisis. I mean, we're still 5-4 and we still have our entire division ahead of us," Allen said, adding: "I know it seems glaring, but it's just doing some little things here and there that allow things to leak out. So we've just got to be more consistent."
Perhaps they can rediscover their success and swagger with a few improvements, but turning that into many more wins will be a tall order. The game against the Lions on Sunday will serve as the movie trailer for the division drama that awaits the Vikings after their Nov. 18 bye. They must play Chicago and Green Bay twice each and visit AFC-leading Houston, with a trip to St. Louis looking like the only respite.
"There's nothing declared at this point in the season. There's a lot of football to be played. There are teams that will go through bumps in the road along the way," coach Leslie Frazier said, adding: "So the sky's not falling."
The NFC North's combined 22 wins are the most in the league, with the NFC West next at 18. The four teams have a combined plus-179 scoring margin, and the only other division with more than a plus-25 is the NFC South at plus-77.
"There's nobody lagging behind. There's a lot of teams playing good football and winning different ways. That makes it tough," Stafford said.
The Lions have a similar challenge ahead, so whichever team loses will find those playoff hopes hurting. Looking for a second consecutive postseason appearance for the first time since three in a row from 1993-95, Detroit has two games left against Green Bay and one more with Chicago. Throw in matchups with unbeaten Atlanta, Houston and surprising Indianapolis, too. The solace for the Lions is that five of their last seven contests are at home. This game at Minnesota is their fourth out of five since their bye on the road.
"Whether it's the first game of the year or the ninth game of the year, whatever it is, when you're playing a division opponent it becomes more important because a win for you also puts a loss on them," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "The way they started the season, they put themselves in the picture. We can't worry about that. We need to worry about just this game."
Although Adrian Peterson leads the NFL with 957 yards rushing this season after his season-best 182 against the Seahawks, the Vikings badly need to put their passing game back on track. Christian Ponder passed for only 100 yards at Detroit the first time, but he connected with Jerome Simpson for four receptions and 50 yards. Simpson, who returned that afternoon from a three-game suspension, also drew pass interference penalties of 31 and 26 yards in that game to help set up field goals for the Vikings. Simpson hasn't done a thing since then, bothered by a lower-leg problem that has sapped some of his explosiveness.
"He's not where he was prior to that injury. He's not. You look at the tape and you know that," Frazier said.
The Lions aren't where they were prior to their last meeting with Minnesota, either. This is a better place.
"We're just being more efficient. You know, continuing drives, being better on third down and punching them in at the end with touchdowns in the red zone. That's been the big difference," Stafford said.
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