Preview: Vikings vs. Lions
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (6-9) vs. Detroit Lions (5-10).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Ford Field (capacity: 65,000), Detroit.
Line: Lions by 3.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (interim 3-2); Lions -- Jim Schwartz (5-25).
Series: Vikings lead 66-30-2.
Last meeting: Adrian Peterson ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns, and Antoine Winfield and Ben Leber each had late interceptions to seal the Vikings' 24-10 triumph -- their 19th in the past 21 games against the Lions.
At stake: Frazier said he wouldn't bring it up, but Vikings players acknowledged they're aware a loss would leave them in the last place in the NFC North -- a place the franchise hasn't been since 1990. Both teams enter with 1-4 records in division play, giving the Lions the tiebreaker if they can end the season on a four-game winning streak. And for as much as that would mean to Schwartz's program, it would be an equal insult for a Vikings team that long ago saw its championship aspirations spiral down the drain.
Vikings: QB Brett Favre (concussion/neck/right shoulder) and WR Sidney Rice (concussion) are doubtful. WR Bernard Berrian (quadriceps), CB Asher Allen (abdomen), LB Erin Henderson (concussion) and FB Naufahu Tahi (ankle) are questionable. HB Adrian Peterson (knee) is probable. S Madieu Williams (concussion) and S Tyrell Johnson (knee) were placed on injured reserve this week, replaced on the roster by CB Marcus Sherels and WR Juaquin Iglesias.
Lions: CB Chris Houston (shoulder) is doubtful. WR Calvin Johnson (ankle) is questionable. HB Jahvid Best (toe), DE Lawrence Jackson (groin) and QB Drew Stanton (left shoulder) are probable. LB Landon Johnson (concussion) became the 17th player on injured reserve -- a list that already included RT Gosder Cherilus (knee), DE Jared DeVries (Achilles'), PK Jason Hanson (knee), RB Kevin Smith (thumb), QB Matthew Stafford (right shoulder) and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck).
Five things to watch
Pay day?: Vikings officials reportedly met with Frazier for more than 5 hours on Friday -- the surest sign yet he's the leading candidate for the full-time head coaching position. The result of this game seems unlikely to play heavily into the decision, barring a full-on meltdown that would leave a bad taste in ownership's mouth. Players roundly have thrown their support behind Frazier already. But another victory on a short week following Tuesday's snow-delayed stunner in Philadelphia certainly wouldn't hurt Frazier's chances of getting the deal he wants to stick around. A franchise seeking a new stadium on the heels of a wildly disappointing, drama-filled season needs all the positive momentum it can get.
Under center: Favre remained a long shot to play as of Saturday night, but there's no way of knowing how things might change on game day. Frazier has stayed on Favre's good side by showing unrelenting loyalty toward the 41-year-old quarterback. So, if Favre is cleared medically and wants to start what could be his final NFL game, there's virtually zero chance Frazier would say no. Either way, the Vikings' offensive game plan is likely to lean heavily on Peterson against a Lions defense that has been gashed for 330 rushing yards the past two weeks. The question is, if rookie QB Joe Webb gets his second straight start, how will Detroit defend him? Chicago seemed to have the right idea on Dec. 20 -- blitz less, disguise coverages and use linebackers, not defensive linemen, to contain Webb in the pocket.
Receiver shortage: No matter who starts at quarterback, they'll be throwing to a receiver corps that could be badly depleted. Rice almost surely won't play five days after his injury, while Berrian's status is on shaky ground after he apparently reported or suffered a leg injury on Saturday. Webb consistently connected with WR Percy Harvin last week, but what can the Vikings really get out of Greg Camarillo, Greg Lewis and Hank Baskett? Even against a Lions secondary that's run through 15 players this season, that group won't strike a lot of fear. Matching up those players on-on-one could allow Detroit to double Harvin and TE Visanthe Shiancoe, too.
Bringing heat: The success of the Vikings' surprise zone blitz attack against Philadelphia -- including 16 slot blitzes by CB Antoine Winfield -- suggests de facto DC Fred Pagac will keep his foot on the gas against the Lions. But an already depleted secondary might enter the game without Allen, too, leaving CBs Frank Walker and Lito Sheppard the bulk of action on the outside in nickel. And that sets up a highly favorable matchup for Calvin Johnson, who didn't practice all week because of the ankle but figures to make an impact whether he's healthy or not. Johnson had only 56 yards receiving in the teams' first meeting, but that was with bigger, better CBs Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook in the lineup. This time, the 6-foot-5 Johnson would be going against a cornerback group that is entirely 5-10 or smaller. Shadowing Johnson with Winfield all day seems unlikely, considering the Vikings prefer to play sides and use Winfield in the slot in nickel. Walker may have the best chance of the others, since he prefers to play press coverage, is a scrapper and has shown relatively good ball awareness. Either way, QB Shaun Hill, who struggled in his return from a broken finger, figures to look for Johnson all day -- if he's in uniform.
Looking ahead: Two things that will be finalized for the Vikings by the end of Sunday: draft slot and schedule. Had the Vikings lost to Philadelphia, they could have landed anywhere between Nos. 4 and 9 in the draft order, which is based on inverted record and strength of schedule. Now they can finish no worse than 6-10 and will be somewhere in the middle of the pack. Whether the Vikings finish third or fourth in the North will determine the last two games on their schedule. They're due to face the comparably placed team in the NFC West team (Seattle, San Francisco or Arizona) at home and the comparably placed NFC East team (Washington or Dallas) on the road.
The line suggests precisely what this is -- a toss-up between two injury-depleted teams that know they're beginning the offseason on Monday regardless of what happens on Sunday afternoon. The guess here is the Vikings summon whatever pride they have left and find a way to stay out of the cellar.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Lions 20.