There are times when NFL players can be accused of giving too much credit to an opponent. A standard response to a question concerning their domination of the Lions is that they can't overlook Detroit and simply expect to show up and win the game. The numbers, however, tell another story.
The Vikings have dominated the Detroit Lions consistently over the years – winning the last six meetings and 16 of the last 17. The lone win in that span came in 2007 when the Lions won 20-17 in overtime – a game in which Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell hit the upright on a 50-yard field goal as time expired and the Lions went on to win the game in OT.
While the Vikings have had spirited, back-and-forth rivalries with the Packers and Bears, their rivalry with the Lions has been more akin to the rivalry between a hammer and a nail – with the Vikings routinely pounding the Lions.
They are far from alone, however. The Lions have lost 10 or more games in nine of the last 10 seasons and haven't a winning season since 2000. In 2008-09, the Lions had a combined record of 2-30. When they dropped 10 of their first 12 games this season, while they were able to match their win total of the two previous seasons, they still had a dismal record of 4-40 over their last 44 games – the worst mark in NFL history.
It took Detroit 44 games to win just four in that span, but, with a win over the Vikings, they can match that win total in the last four games of the 2010 season. Riding a three-game winning streak, the Lions have proved that they can win and have the Vikings' attention.
"It hasn't been a case of us just paying lip-service to what the Lions are capable of," Longwell said. "They've had a really rough stretch, but they have been able to add a lot of talent through the draft. If you get enough high draft picks that pan out, you will turn the corner and it looks like they're in the process of doing that."
The Lions became a national punch line by losing all 16 games in 2008. While some teams strive for an undefeated season, the Lions were just defeated. As a franchise, Detroit hit bottom in 2008, but the process of building was already in place.
One of Detroit's biggest problems was general manager Matt Millen, who consistently swung and missed on draft day. From 2002-05, Millen tried to bolster the offense, but despite having the second, third, seventh and 10th pick in those drafts, they came away with QB Joey Harrington and wide receivers Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and Roy Williams. All of them were unqualified busts except for Roy Williams, but he quickly tired of the team's consistent losing and became disgruntled, eventually being traded to Dallas.
When Millen was finally sent packing, the Lions started to amass talent and build from the ground up under new G.M. Martin Mayhew. The results have been exceptional.
In 2007, the Lions had the second pick in the draft and took wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is now one of the dominant wide receivers in the league. In 2008, they used a first-round pick on offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, who immediately became a starter. They also added linebacker Jordan Dizon in the second round and RB Kevin Smith and DE Cliff Avril in the third round – all of whom became starters. In 2009, Detroit used the top pick of the draft to take QB Matthew Stafford, who, despite missing time in both of his first two seasons due to injuries, is viewed as the future of the franchise. They had a second first-round pick from the Williams trade and selected tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who has emerged this season as a consistent big-play threat. Not satisfied, they added safety Louis Delmas in the second round and linebacker DeAndre Levy in the third round – a pair of players that have become stalwarts of the defense. In last April's draft, the Lions had the second pick in the draft and took DT Ndamukong Suh, who was named a Pro Bowl starter earlier this week. They also cut a deal with the Vikings to get back into the first round to take running back Jahvid Best.
While the Lions still aren't seeing the fruits of their labor translate into a playoff contender, they have shown a lot of improvement and have the attention of the Vikings.
"They definitely have improved, even from the time we played them this year (in Week 3)," wide receiver Percy Harvin said. "They're a very feisty team, very sound on defense. They've got a big hitter at safety (Delmas), so we'll definitely keep an eye on him. They're definitely playing good ball right now."
The Lions have built their team through the draft and appear on the verge of turning the corner after enduring two seasons in which they won just two games. Teams like that can fall apart at the seams. Vikings wide receiver Greg Camarillo can empathize with their situation. He was on a Miami team that went 1-15 in 2007 and said he knows how frustrating a season like that can be.
"I know what they've gone through, because we had a season that we won only one game," Camarillo said. "It got frustrating because we had a lot of close games and we had leads in the fourth quarter, but just couldn't close the deal. The year after we went 1-15, we went 11-5 with pretty much the same team. We didn't quit on what we doing and eventually things turned around for us. I see a lot of that in Detroit."
Camarillo said that football is a game of momentum and confidence. The Dolphins found both in 2008 and went to the playoffs. The Lions appear on the verge of doing the same and things could have been different earlier. In their season opener at Chicago, the Lions appeared to have won the game with a touchdown to Calvin Johnson in the closing seconds – only to have the play overturned on a technicality in the rules.
"Who knows how different things can have been for them had they got that win?" Longwell said. "Teams can get on a roll and the entire mood changes for them. They had that win taken away from them and, considering how Chicago has played since, that win could have made a big difference for both teams as time went on."
What has the Vikings most impressed was that Detroit never packed it in and called it a season. Lions teams of the past have been known to collapse late in the season when it became clear they weren't going to go anywhere. But head coach Jim Schwartz has them playing at a high level down the stretch, despite the fact that, in the big picture of things, they have nothing to play for.
"To get off to a 2-10 start can tear a team apart, especially one that has struggled as much as they have over the last couple of years," cornerback Lito Sheppard said. "But these guys have pulled together and played as well as anyone over the last month. They have a lot of talent that is learning to play together. They have explosive players on offense and are building on defense. They have the core players they need to be successful."
Linebacker Heath Farwell said that he sees some similarities between the Lions and the Vikings team that was built under Brad Childress. The success didn't come immediately, but, as time passed, the improvement came and it was steady.
"That first year (2006), we went 6-10," Farwell said. "Then we went to 8-8 and had a chance to make the playoffs in the final couple of weeks. We improved to 10-6 the next year and won the division and last year we improved to 12-4 and came close to going to the Super Bowl. It started back in that first year. That's where the seeds were planted. We kept adding talent to the roster and improved on both sides of the ball. When you look at guys like Calvin Johnson, Stafford and Best on offense and Suh on defense, they have the important pieces in place already. They are a team to watch."
It's been a long time since anyone could say that about the Detroit Lions, but, with a win over the Vikings, they will avoid finishing last in the NFC North this year – an unexpected role the Vikings would assume. The Lions remain a distance away from being viewed as one of the elite teams in the NFC, but one thing is for sure, they're getting closer.
"You can't sleep on those guys anymore," Sheppard said. "They're getting better. It may not look like it when you see that they have 10 losses, but they're a team that has a lot of talent and it's young talent. They're only going to get better as those guys grow and learn the NFL game together."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.