Pelissero: Vikings send message they're 'for real' with another upset
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DETROIT -- Just two weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings were crumbling against the depleted Indianapolis Colts, seemingly confirming everything that was supposed to be wrong amidst a major roster overhaul.
On Sunday, they stabbed a second straight dagger at mass perception, riding return-game heroics and opportunistic defense to a 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions that snapped an 11-game division losing skid and seized sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
"And we didn't play that well," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Offensively, what'd we get, six points? Defensively, at times, we really weren't very good. But good teams find ways to win."
That's the simplest way to explain what has happened since that loss on Sept. 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the offense needed the luckiest of bounces to prevent a blowout and the defense became a sieve in the clutch.
Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield lit into teammates the next day, issuing the first of several challenges the Vikings met with authority in last week's stunning upset of the San Francisco 49ers.
"Our focus all week was, can we be that same team?" Greenway said. "Can we prove it's not just we can do it one week and then we kind of jump around?"
Sunday's taming of the four-point favorite Lions wasn't as dominant across all three phases. But it may have been even more heartening for a young team that at 3-1 has already matched last year's win total at the quarter pole.
The offense generated only two field goals, both set up by interference penalties on Lions cornerback Bill Bentley, but chewed more than 29 minutes of possession with an efficient running game (4.5 yards per carry) led by electric Adrian Peterson and no turnovers.
And the defense made all the plays that have seemed so elusive since the Vikings last sat alone atop the North at the end of the 2009 season, before an aging roster caved and ushered in the rebuilding process that suddenly looks like it may be ahead of schedule.
"Guys are playing hard," Winfield said. "I kind of felt like that Indianapolis game, we just thought we were going to go in there and win. They had a rookie quarterback. I told them, 'Study more film. Put in the extra effort. Be the last one out of the locker room during the work days.' And guys have taken it to heart. Working hard and playing well."
Jamarca Sanford's 56-yard pass interference penalty against star receiver Calvin Johnson on the first snap was the only play the Lions made downfield all day.
The Vikings kept rolling coverage Johnson's way, mixing the same two- and three-deep looks while holding him to five receptions for 54 yards. Halfbacks Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell couldn't exploit the light boxes, averaging 2.0 yards on 14 carries.
Matthew Stafford needed 51 passes (30 complete, 58.8%) to get his 319 passing yards, 141 of which (44.2%) came while desperately trying to erase a 14-point deficit. He took five sacks, including Everson Griffen's takedown on fourth-and-5 off a rare blitz.
"I still believe you win on defense. I really do," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "And we have some players with a lot of pride and really want to set the table from a defensive standpoint."
Josh Robinson's coverage aided a third-and-8 incompletion for Tony Scheffler, holding the Lions to a field goal after Sanford's penalty. Fellow rookie Harrison Smith's hit separated Johnson from a ball in the end zone on another drive that ended in a field goal.
After Leshoure got free on a 14-yard run, Sanford forced and recovered a fumble. After Blair Walsh's first NFL miss kept it a two-score game early in the fourth quarter, Griffen got the sack to stop a drive that had reached the Vikings' 7-yard line.
And after the Lions finally scored six on Stafford's 1-yard plunge with 2:58 to go and the Vikings punted the ball back, the coverage held long enough for Letroy Guion and Griffen to get their second sacks of the day, the latter as time expired.
"We just weren't playing what our core was," right end Jared Allen said. "Hell, he weren't doing that the first two games. The first two games, we weren't us. Coaches really simplified things up front, and we get to play moving forward and let our big guys do what they do."
The Lions entered the game second in the NFL in total offense (436 yards per game) and tied for sixth in scoring average (29).
They ended up hearing boos on several occasions before the announced crowd of 63,616 fled for the Ford Field exits in the final minute.
"You don't get that timely turnover last year," Greenway said. "This year, in a couple games, we have. It's huge, to be able to hold a team like this to 13 points. It's huge.
"Our back end is playing as good as anybody. I would challenge anybody to play where we're at on our back end, which in our last two years, no way would you say that."
The Vikings went through a lot in those two years -- 23 losses, a coaching change and their own stadium collapsing, to name a few.
They hadn't won a division road game since Brett Favre's first return to Lambeau Field on Nov. 1, 2009. They hadn't had a winning streak since Frazier's first two games as interim coach in 2010.
"It's easy to come off a loss and get ready for a big game at home," Allen said. "But to come on the road, a division game and we haven't won in the division for a while, and to play the way we played and control the game -- I thought we controlled the game the entire game -- this was a huge team win."
It temporarily put the Vikings a half-game up in the standings on Chicago, which has a tough matchup in Dallas on Monday night. Green Bay survived a scare from New Orleans on Sunday to improve to 2-2 and Detroit headed into its bye in a 1-3 hole.
"It's not something we want to run away from or hide from," Frazier said. "We want to embrace it. It was one of our goals when the season began, to win the NFC North, and right now, all our goals are still in place for us."
The Vikings play three of their next four at home, and only one of the six opponents they face before their own bye -- the NFC's other big surprise, 4-0 Arizona -- has a winning record.
A letdown might be expected next weekend against Tennessee. But players sure responded when coaches preached this past week that frying the 49ers would mean nothing without another "W" in Detroit.
"We just let people know we are for real," Harvin said. "So, hopefully, people know. If not, we'll line up and keep playing."
Either way, the Vikings have reiterated their message more loudly than ever -- define their season however you want, but they intend to win and win now.
They're still young. They still have much to prove. Their days of sneaking up on people ended when Stafford hit the deck for the final time, though.
"And that's OK, too," Greenway said. "We have the type of playmakers on this team that we can play in those spots. We've been in those spots. We played at nearly the highest level of a game here in this league. We've just got to tell the young guys to keep coming."