Few teams in the NFL have had a bigger roller coaster ride during the 2012 season than the Detroit Lions. When they met the Vikings in Week 4, it appeared as though their season was on the brink of destruction. Thanks to a pair of special teams touchdowns – a 105-yard kickoff return by Percy Harvin to start the game and a 77-yard punt return by Marcus Sherels in the third quarter – the Vikings came away from Ford Field with a 20-13 win that dropped the Lions to 1-3 and had Detroit on the ropes. Coming off a rare playoff appearance in 2011, the once-awful Lions appeared to be heading in the opposite direction of the Vikings.
But, just as the Vikings have lost three of their last four games to come back to the pack in the wild card chase, the Lions have won three of their last four games to even their record at 4-4. With a win over the Vikings Sunday, they will pass Minnesota in the standings at 5-4. With a loss, they would fall a game-and-a-half behind the Vikings with a season sweep in Minnesota's favor, which would in effect drop them further behind the Vikings with six games remaining on the Vikings schedule, since the Vikings would win all tie-breakers with Detroit in the division due to head-to-head records.
The biggest problem the Lions have faced much of the season is that they have dug themselves a hole that they've had to spend both the season and individual games digging themselves out of. Detroit has scored 192 points this season – 85 points combined in the first three quarters and 107 points in the fourth quarter/overtime. They have found ways to consistently dig themselves a hole that they sometimes could climb out of and sometimes couldn't.
The Lions are notoriously slow starters, trailing at halftime of seven of their eight games this season. To their credit, they have been able to rally to win three of those games, but a team is playing with fire when it finds itself playing catch-up as often as the Lions do.
Detroit has more than its share of weapons, but when the team caught fire last year it was largely due to the play of quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. In 2011, Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns, vaulting himself into the discussion among the top quarterbacks in the league. Megatron earned his spot as the pre-eminent wide receiver in the NFL. This year, however, has been a much different story. Stafford has thrown just eight touchdowns and Johnson has just one TD – and that came from backup Shaun Hill after Stafford was injured against Tennessee. If the Lions are to contend for a playoff spot, both of them will have to find their end zone groove or it will be a long, hard battle.
The Lions have had a resilient defense that has found ways to make second-half stops to keep Detroit in games, but injuries have taken a significant toll on the team. Defensive tackle Corey Williams has missed three games with a knee injury and is listed as questionable after not practicing all week. But more significant issues are taking place in the secondary, where there has been a revolving door in the starting lineup.
At cornerback, the Lions have started five different starting combinations between Chris Houston, Bill Bentley, Jacob Lacey, Drayton Florence and Jonte Green. At safety, the same story is true, where four different safety combinations have started featuring Erik Coleman, John Wendling, Ricardo Silva, Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas. Expect that depth to again be tested, as both Delmas and Spievey have been ruled out of Sunday's game.
The Lions find themselves in a precarious position that they have experienced almost the entire 2012 season. When they fell to 2-4, they were on the brink of disappearing from the playoff race. They responded with wins over Seattle and Jacksonville to get back to .500 and come into the Metrodome on a roll knowing that they will play their next three games and five of their final seven games this season at home with a chance to make some noise and do some damage. However, if they lose to the Vikings, all of the gains they have made over the course of the last month could evaporate as they get thrown back in the hole they created for themselves early on and have yet to fully emerge from.
A desperate team is often the most dangerous. The Lions know a win can get them right back into the fray for a wild card spot and will have a lot of home cooking waiting for them – after Sunday's game, the Lions won't go back on the road until the second weekend in December. With a loss, their 2012 season may effectively be over. With the Vikings looking to head into their bye week on a positive note, they have just as much to play for as the Lions, which could make their second go-round this season a physical matchup decided by the team that makes the fewest mistakes. One of these teams likely will point to this game as being the one that revitalized their season … or the game that effectively ended it.
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.
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