It's hard to view a Week 1 game as a "must-win" game. Other than building momentum heading into a new season, as the Vikings make their final preparations for their Week 1 meeting at Detroit, history would tell you this is a must-win game. The last time the Vikings made the playoffs when losing to the Lions in Detroit was 1999, when Randy Moss was in his second NFL season and the Vikings had enough talent to overcome it.
The bottom line would seem to be that, if you lose in Detroit, your chances of going to the playoffs are historically very bleak. Given that the Lions are one of the trendy picks to be a surprise playoff-caliber team this year, the need for an opening day win is even more pronounced.
The Lions have had their struggles for longer than most of their coaches, players and fans would like to admit. The upside of that historical failure is that they have been able to draft some of the top college talent available. Unlike former general manager Matt Millen, who had many more misses than hits, the current Lions war room has been much more successful and, like most teams, success or failure often lands on the shoulders of their quarterback.
When the top NFL QBs are mentioned, you don't hear Matthew Stafford's name mentioned among the elite, despite the fact that he has two of the top five statistical passing seasons in NFL history. Over the last two years, he has thrown for more than 10,000 yards – an astronomical number that hasn't been matched by the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. It is the end result of an offense being too one-dimensional, but clearly it's a pretty solid dimension when you have the greatest wide receiver in the league (Calvin Johnson) and an impressive physical tight end (Brandon Pettigrew).
The X-Factor in the Lions offense may well be the free-agent signing of Reggie Bush. An inconsistent player who has never been able to carry a full running back workload, he is a dangerous player in space who is at his most deadly in space taking screens and running sweeps. With returning power runner Mikel Leshoure, the Lions may finally have the two-headed running attack they thought they would have with Leshoure and Jahvid Best, whom the Lions traded up into the first round with the Vikings to select in the 2010 draft before concussions ended his career.
However, for any offense to succeed, it is a must have a strong offensive line. The Lions have more questions than answers with three new starters along the offensive front, highlighted by 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff taking over for Jeff Backus at left tackle. It has been proved over the years that a team can have all the offensive talent in the world, but if they don't have the consistent horses up front, they're going to struggle.
The Lions defense has struggled badly over the years, but they have learned the time-honored belief that a good defense starts up front. Stop the run and rush the passer and you make the back end of your defense that much better and the Lions have taken that belief to heart. They have used first-round picks in three of the last four years on the defensive line and they're expecting it to pay off now and for years to come. Ndamukong Suh is regarded as one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league and he is flanked by 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley. With DE Cliff Avril leaving via free agency and Kyle Vanden Bosch retiring, the Lions used their first-round pick this year on Ezekiel Ansah. With former Titan Jason Jones on the right side of the defensive line, the Lions may have the deepest and most talented defensive front in the NFC for those teams that use a 4-3 defense.
The problem is that the Lions have and continue to struggle at linebacker and in the secondary. The group of Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Ashlee Palmer are serviceable, but not dominant, and cornerbacks Chris Houston and Darius Slay are risk-takers who make mistakes and can get burned. Safety is becoming a strength position, thanks to the addition of former Texan Glover Quin to team with Louis Delmas, but this is a group that is a work in progress and needs refinement.
The Lions are a team that has struggled to consistently be a winner and, after riding a strong start in 2012 to the playoffs, they fell back to 4-12 last season. They have the ability and the talent to be a playoff contender, so the Vikings can't allow them to get an early advantage over them in the division. It may sound a little crazy, but the must-win potential exists that the Vikings will have to put the Lions in the rearview mirror early because, if they get on a roll, they will be a difficult team to beat later in the season.
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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