In sports, there is a cliché that talks about how "on paper" one team is clearly better than another heading into a matchup. Some are quick to remind those who use that phrase that games are played on grass or Astroturf, not paper – rendering that contention moot.
With that said, on paper there is no reason to believe that the Vikings won't beat the hapless 0-12 Detroit Lions into submission on Sunday. The Lions are about as brutal as any team can be. They have the 30th-ranked offense and the 31st-ranked defense among the NFL's 32 teams. One of the time-honored keys to success is being able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. In 2008, nobody has been more anemic at those two foundations of winning football than the Lions.
Only Arizona has rushed for fewer yards on offense, and that is primarily because the Cardinals have the second-rated pass offense in the league. Defensively, nobody has allowed more rushing yards than the Lions – who have allowed a whopping 2,123 yards and 22 touchdowns through 12 games on the ground. Of their 12 losses, only two have been by less than seven points, seven have been by 13 or more and five have been by more than 17 points. The Lions not only lose, they lose big. Following a 6-2 start to the 2007 season, Detroit has lost 19 of its last 20 games and looks to be the most pathetic team in the league by a wide margin.
It would be understandable that the Vikings would be supremely confident heading into Ford Field on Sunday. But, given that the Vikings needed a field goal in the final nine seconds (as well as the benefit of a questionable pass interference call to set up the game-winning kick), the Vikings aren't taking the toothless Lions lightly.
"In some ways, it makes them almost more dangerous," offensive tackle Ryan Cook said. "They have nothing to lose at this point except for another game. It makes us have to concentrate more on being focused on doing what we have to do. They don't want to be the team that went an entire season without getting a win. Nobody wants to be part of a team that is remembered as being one that never won a game. We expect they're going to bring their best at us and it's our job not to let them get any momentum and get confidence going like they did the last time we played them."
Losing can become contagious at times and it would seem the Lions are completely afflicted. They have allowed 22 rushing touchdowns, 18 passing touchdowns, two punt returns for TDs and five of their 15 interceptions have been returned for scores. Being part of a team that finds ways to trip over its own feet so often can be frustrating. Vikings linebacker Ben Leber has been on that side of things before and said losing can snowball on a team as a season goes along.
"I was in a situation in San Diego where we were 4-12," Leber said. "You're going to play hard and give everything you have, but when you don't have anything to play for other than pride, when you get down by 10 or 14 points, you start to lose your confidence that the offense will be able to get you back into the game. The wind gets taken out of your sails pretty quickly."
The same was true for Vikings star defensive end Jared Allen last season. He was on a Kansas City Chiefs team that was 4-4 at the midway point of the season only to drop their final eight games – four of them by five points or less. He said the Vikings aren't getting caught up in the hype that winning Sunday is a foregone conclusion. He heard many of the same things about Kansas City games last season – the Chiefs would get blown out and there wasn't really much reason for the opponent to worry about winning. He said the gravity of the game and the close shave the Vikings had in the first meeting won't permit them to look to past anyone – even the winless Lions.
"We had some real hard times in Kansas City last year when we finished 4-12," Allen said. "We've been hearing everybody say all week that this could be the game that they win, because we come off an emotional win. Well guess what? This is a division game. This is going to be another emotional game. Football is cool that way, because you only play 16 games and every game means something. We just take it as being this week. We have to beat an NFL football team. They have good players. We have good players. We just have to go in there and win."
If anything, the Vikings should be concerned about playing Detroit so late in the season. Their opportunities to get off the goose egg are dwindling with each passing week and their level of desperation is growing.
"If I was in that position, I would be scratching and clawing to try to get that win and not go 0-16," Leber said. "Look at Miami last year. They were at this same point and got a win over a pretty good Baltimore team. I think they've got a lot of motivation to win, because you don't want to be ‘that team.'"
The Vikings say they're not concerned about the zero in the win column for the Lions. The team they played earlier this year didn't play like a team that is routinely being crushed. That, combined with the fact that the last time the Vikings played at Ford Field Detroit managed an overtime win, is incentive enough to remain focused and ready to put the boots to the Lions as if they were competing for the division title instead of the first pick in next April's draft.
"You can't look at records," Allen said. "This is a division game that we need. You can't look at how things played out last time and you can't anticipate things. You have to play like you do against any other team with the same intensity."
The focus for the Vikings will be centered on continuing to do what they've done over the last two months. After a slow start, the Vikings have won six of their last eight games, they have battled back into sole possession of first place in the NFC North and control their own destiny heading down the stretch to bring the first division title to Minnesota in eight years. The team is on a roll and aren't about to look past a team like Detroit – even though on paper this appears to be a mismatch.
"We're not just playing good football, we're playing good team football," Allen said. "We had games earlier in the season where we played a good half or a good quarter where we played good on offense, defense and special teams. These last couple of games have been really good games. We have to keep our focus and detail our work. When you get closer and closer to the end of the season and closer to the playoffs, you have detail your work even more. You have to pay attention to the little things. We look to go into Detroit and continue building on that momentum by taking care of the little things."
Vikings not taking Lions lightly
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