While most skeptics had written off the Detroit Lions earlier this month, the Vikings face the Lions when they are in the middle of a three-game winning streak vs. the other teams in the NFC North. The Lions' playoff chances appear thin, but they have a chance to shake things up. From the Vikings' standpoint, they hope any upward move in Detroit comes against the Packers and Bears, not the Purple.
The Vikings have dominated the recent series with Detroit, winning the last five meetings and nine of the last 10. Under the Tice Administration, seeing Detroit on the calendar is a welcome sight, and it will be up to quarterback Joey Harrington to try to change that.
Harrington hasn't made the progress that coach Steve Mariucci would like. His completion percentage of 57 is among the lowest of NFL starters and he hasn't been able to sustain long drives consistently. However, he is making more good decisions and his TD-interception ratio is at 2:1. Don't expect to see him throw too many dumb passes. He isn't dominant, but he's not making the decisions that lose games.
One big asset to the Lions' offensive attack has been Kevin Jones' return to health. Out much of the season due to injuries, Jones established himself once he got on the field on a regular basis. He is a speed running back who can break a long run at any time — as proved by a rushing average near five yards a carry. He's backed up by Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner — a pair of bruising north-south runners. They'll see spot duty, but Jones is the guy the Vikings have to keep their eyes on.
For the second straight year, what looked to be a high-flying passing attack has been grounded with the loss of former first-round pick Charles Rogers with another broken collarbone. In his place, Roy Williams has emerged as a potential go-to star receiver of the future. He has shown the ability to be a game-breaker as a rookie and likely will get the call to duty if Antoine Winfield misses the game. He is joined by veterans Tai Streets and Az-Zahir Hakim — Streets a 6-foot-3 glider who will go over the middle and Hakim a speed burner who takes routes deep. With the depleted Vikings secondary, this will be a key to the Lions' attack.
Detroit has a solid offensive line that is its weakest in the middle. Guard Damien Woody is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, and tackles Stockar McDougle and Jeff Backus are bookends that were both first-round draft picks. In the middle, center Dominic Raiola is serviceable, but not spectacular, and left guard David Loverne is the product of a lack of Lions depth more than outplaying everyone else for the job. Teams that attack the Lions view the left interior of the O-line as the weakest link.
While the Lions defense is dotted with a lot of marginal talent, it has been a strong suit of the team — keeping them near the top of the giveaway-takeaway ratio all season and creating an average of two takeaways a game. When the Lions succeed, it is often the result of the middle of their defensive line. Shaun Rogers and Big Daddy Wilkinson are among the best D-tackle tandems in the NFL, able to stuff the run and collapse the pocket on passing downs. They're flanked by ends James Hall and Cory Redding. Hall is among the NFL leaders in sacks and will have a solid matchup with Bryant McKinnie as he tries to protect Daunte Culpepper's blind side. This is a deep group that can insert Kelvin Pritchett at tackle and Kalimba Edwards at end when needed.
Injuries have forced a lot of changes in Detroit this year. With Boss Bailey lost for the year and Donté Curry playing below expectations, rookie linebacker Teddy Lehman has been moved from the middle to the strong side, joining middle linebacker Earl Holmes and James Davis in a corps that has been abused in the short passing game. The Lions are near the bottom of the league in passing touchdowns allowed and this unit is largely responsible. Look for the Vikings to go after these guys with misdirection and draw plays.
The secondary is good on the outside but weaker in the middle. At the corners, Detroit has a pair of bona fide players in Dré Bly and Fernando Bryant, free agents brought in to help the Lions compete with the likes of Randy Moss and Javon Walker on a twice-annual basis. Both Bly and Bryant were signed by Detroit as much out of fear the Vikings or Packers would sign them as for the need. However, Bryant sat out last week and may not play against the Vikings either, which would leave Andre Goodman pair against Nate Burleson. While CB is currently thin in Detroit, the safety position is a mess. Bracy Walker and Brock Marion are in their 11th and 12th seasons, respectively, and their age shows. They are too often late providing help over the top, and teams with timed passing attacks have abused them much of the season.
The biggest X-factor may well be Eddie Drummond. He returned the opening kick on Nov. 21 for a touchdown and got Vikings fans nervous, but he's gone for the season and he's one less weapon the Vikings will have to worry about.
Since Mike Tice has been coach of the Vikings, he's been able to put a "W" behind every game he has coached against the Lions. With so much at stake, there will be no looking past Detroit. But, if the Vikings simply play their normal type of game, another "W" should be waiting by game's end.
RANDY MOSS vs. DRÉ BLY — In any key divisional contest, there are game-long battles between position players that rage from start to finish. With both the Vikings and Lions' seasons on the line — the Vikings for a division title and the Lions for a wild-card spot — that's the time for the stars to shine. For that reason, Randy Moss and Dré Bly are the matchup to watch.
Moss still hasn't fully recovered from his hamstring injury — he may not be 100 percent for the rest of the season — but at some point he has to try to test the hamstring for a full 60 minutes and become a difference-maker. Because of aging safeties in Brock Marion and Bracy Walker, Moss will get a half-dozen or so opportunities to take Bly deep. However and whenever the Vikings call for it, Moss will be asked to open up the jets and see how quickly they can propel him. There's no reason to hold back now — either it will be there or it won't.
Bly will be facing similar pressure. He was signed by the Lions almost solely to stop Moss. If you recall, the Lions made him one of the first free agents signed early in 2003. Bly had a visit scheduled with the Vikings the following day and the Lions refused to let him leave town — increasing their contract offers until he accepted. He likely will be assigned to Moss wherever he lines up — which isn't always done in the NFL. He will be instructed to neutralize Moss and make him work for every yard he gets.
Moss wasn't a factor the first time the teams met — he still was sidelined with his hamstring injury. Bly's preparation will have to change, and the threat of Moss being a Lion killer will play heavily into everything they do to prepare for the Vikings.
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