Vikings find renewed life in NFC North

The Vikings were hoping for some help with the NFC North results over the weekend and got it with the Bears and Lions both losing.

For Vikings fans tuning into other games around 2 p.m. Sunday, it looked as though Week 5 was going to be an unqualified disaster. Both Chicago and Detroit were leading their games by 14 points and it appeared as though the Vikings were going to find themselves all alone in last place in the NFC North and two games behind the 4-1 Lions.

Thanks to the Vikings having one more conference win than Chicago, the Bears are technically in last place when tie breakers are factored in after coughing up a 14-point lead – being outscored 24-3 in the final 35 minutes to turn a 17-3 lead into a 31-24 loss. It seemed eerily reminiscent of the previous game, where the Bears had a 17-14 lead with five minutes left in the first half only to be outscored by the Packers 24-0 to start the bad karma rolling.

But of more interest to the Vikings were the developments going on in Detroit – the Vikings’ next opponent Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Lions have had a surprisingly strong defense – allowing 17 or fewer points in four of their five games. But it has been the offense – the side of the ball that has received a lot of draft and free-agent attention – that has been the fly in the ointment.

In the second half of Sunday’s game when Buffalo made its comeback on the Lions, Detroit had no answer. It’s two most dynamic offensive players – wide receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Reggie Bush – were on the sidelines.

For Bush, that’s nothing unusual. His name has appeared on the injury report about as often as Tom Brady has been listed for the Patriots as probable with a phantom “throwing arm” designation. But the difference Sunday – both last Sunday and next Sunday – is that, in many ways, the offense is geared around Bush. As a dual threat, he leads Detroit in rushing, but is also third with 20 receptions. Fourth place has nine, so the demarcation line starts below him.

With Johnson, it’s a similar story. He’s constantly on the injury report because he rarely practices in full all three days. He has been susceptible to lower-body injuries – knee, ankle, etc. – over the last few years. But when even the league itself refers to a player by a nickname instead of his own name – the NFL’s official website often refers to him simply as “Megatron” – that’s the kind of guy who ends up in the Hall of Fame. The Lions took him before the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson and is one of the only teams that doesn’t regret that decision.

Johnson has spent the last weeks dealing with an ankle injury that hasn’t seen him fully practice once in each of the last two weeks. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell admitted he was used primarily as decoy against the Jets because the injury was too inhibiting for him to do his Megatron thing like only he can do … when healthy. Currently, The Machine has been leaking fluid.

Under the barrage of questioning over the last two weeks, Caldwell has all but admitted that, if things don’t improve before Detroit’s bye week in Week 9, the team may have no other option than to bench Johnson for restorative repairs to his transformers. For the same reason the Vikings held out Teddy Bridgewater last Thursday, they were big-picture thinking. Miss him for one week and roll the dice or risk missing him for a month and having the type of quarterback performance we saw Thursday running on a one-month continuous loop.

Vikings fans have been trying hard to erase the ugly memories of Black Thursday. The best news they got was that, on Sunday, they didn’t lose any ground. Both the Bears and Lions came back to the pack and, five weeks in, the Vikings are one game behind the division leaders – one of whom they play Sunday.

If they play them without Megatron and Bush, things could get interesting quickly.

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