Preview: Vikings seeking way to take momentum on road after rare upset
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-1) at Detroit Lions (1-2).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Ford Field (capacity: 65,000), Detroit.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Line: Lions by 4.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd year, 8-17); Lions -- Jim Schwartz (4th year, 19-29).
Series: The Vikings lead 66-33-2, including 30-20-1 in Detroit. But the Lions have won three in a row and swept the season series in 2011 for the first time in 14 years.
Last meeting: Sidelined from practice most of the week with a hip flexor injury, Christian Ponder was benched after his fourth turnover and a Joe Webb-led rally fell short on a first-and-goal strip-sack as the Vikings fell 34-28 on Dec. 11 at Ford Field.
At stake: The Vikings are coming off their most impressive win in Frazier's tenure, a 24-13 triumph over 7½-point favorite San Francisco last weekend. If they can pull another upset in Motown, the Vikings could find themselves in sole possession of first place in the NFC North Division for the first time since the 2009 season ended. That'd require them to snap an 11-game division losing streak against the Lions, who are coming off consecutive road losses to the 49ers (27-19) and Tennessee Titans (44-41 in overtime).
Vikings: WLB Erin Henderson (concussion) and SS Mistral Raymond (ankle) are out. S Andrew Sendejo (ankle) and DE D'Aundre Reed (calf) are questionable. TE Kyle Rudolph (quadriceps), RE Jared Allen (neck), LB Marvin Mitchell (ankle) and QB Christian Ponder (neck) are probable.
Lions: DT Corey Williams (knee) is out. S Louis Delmas (knee) and LB Travis Lewis (quad) are doubtful. LB Justin Durant (back), RB Mikel Leshoure (groin), TE Tony Scheffler (calf) and S Amari Spievey (groin) are questionable. T Corey Hilliard (elbow), DE Lawrence Jackson (calf), WR Calvin Johnson (ankle), G Rob Sims (knee), QB Matthew Stafford (hip) and WR Titus Young (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Setting the tone: The Vikings opened last week's game with a 16-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ponder to Rudolph on fourth-and-goal. That reinforced the aggressive attitude and approach coaches had stressed all week, and the Vikings never relinquished the lead. If they're going to carry over the momentum, they need to take the same mentality into Detroit, where they've lost three times in the past 21 months (two to the Lions, another to the New York Giants after the Metrodome roof collapse). Falling into a 14-point hole, as they did by midway through the third quarter two weeks ago at Indianapolis, could spell doom.
Offensive evolution: WR Jerome Simpson is back from his three-game suspension, bringing much-need balance to speed on the perimeter and a vertical threat the Vikings have lacked so far. Ponder figures to take a shot or two downfield against the Lions' lousy secondary if Simpson is open. But the bread-and-butter of OC Bill Musgrave's offense remains a short and intermediate passing game played off the run, and Ponder's numbers (70.1% passing, four touchdowns, no interceptions, 104.9 rating) are a fair reflection of his accuracy and decision-making so far. They don't figure to get away from the dynamic space play of WR Percy Harvin, who leads the NFL with 27 receptions, 15 of them for first downs. If Simpson shows he can make some plays, defenses may be more reluctant to double Harvin as often as they have through three games.
Putting it together: Through three games, the Vikings rank ninth in the NFL in pass defense, having allowed just 209 yards a game on 63.8% passing. But they had letdowns at bad moments the first two weeks and get by far their toughest test to date against the Lions' No. 1-ranking passing attack -- albeit one that has seen Stafford throw more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (three) so far. Former Vikings OC Scott Linehan moves Johnson (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) all over the formation to create mismatches and he leads the NFL with 369 receiving yards, including nine catches of 20 yards or more. The Vikings have played sides against Johnson in the past, but using long CB Chris Cook in a situational shadow is always a possibility. TE Brandon Pettigrew (6-5, 265) poses a matchup threat, too, especially against a Vikings team that once again will keep MLB Jasper Brinkley on the field in nickel because of Henderson's injury. The Vikings' best defense may be their pass rush, which has generated seven sacks -- but only two with a four-man rush. Zone coverage only can hold so long. It's on the line to get Stafford off his spot and DC Alan Williams to keep the line on its toes.
Stand their ground: The Vikings were remarkably physical along both fronts against the 49ers and had an excellent game plan for stopping star DE Justin Smith. They'll need to do the same this week against a Lions line that has plenty of talent, even with Williams sidelined by knee surgery. Remember, RT Phil Loadholt had an epically awful performance against Lions DE Kyle Vanden Bosch last September at the Metrodome, allowing two sacks and 10 total QB pressures. Loadholt looked disinterested in the December rematch at Ford Field, too, giving up a strip-sack to DE Cliff Avril and five additional pressures. Ponder wasn't sacked last week after taking the first six games. The last thing the Vikings need is for him to start getting hit early and revive memories of the worst day in his young NFL career.
Buying in: Since Frazier took over as interim coach, the Vikings have been underdogs by seven points or more eight times, according to odds provided by Bovada. Before last week's win over the 49ers, their only previous upset in those games came on Dec. 28, 2010, when they stunned the Eagles 24-14 in Philadelphia. They lost the other six by an average of 18.2 points. Yet Frazier said he'd "be surprised if we have any guys in our locker room who didn't think we were going to win that game on Sunday." All three phases performed well. That's what winning teams do. But was it a sign of things to come or just the right performance at the right time? They haven't had a winning streak since Frazier's first two games, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 2010.
Judd Zulgad: Coming off an upset of the run-first 49ers, the Vikings defense will get a big test from a Lions team that has no trouble passing the ball. Stafford and Johnson could make life miserable on the Vikings secondary and having to start Jamarca Sanford at safety isn't going to help matters. Given the Vikings are a rebuilding team, it's only fair to assume there will be a bit of a letdown after last Sunday's game. Plus, this one is on the road. The Vikings' losing streak in the NFC North will reach 12 games. Lions 27, Vikings 17.
Tom Pelissero: The temptation to pick the Vikings is strong here, especially if Stafford's semi-mysterious leg injury limits his mobility. They're still a young team, though, and the pass defense has much to prove. Lions 30, Vikings 27.