Heading In Opposite Directions?

Chris Hovan's ability to get to quarterback Mike McMahon could be the difference when the Vikings look for their second road win of the season against the Lions in Detroit.

In the final week of the NFL season, most teams will be doing what is called playing out the string. However, the Week 17 meeting between the Vikings and Lions will be far from that. Before the Vikings beat New Orleans on Dec. 15, they were in their 25th month of road futility. With Detroit coming off a road loss to playoff-bound Atlanta, it'll be more than two years since it won away from home, too. So this is a chance for one of these teams to feel good about the way it ended the season and the other to walk into the offseason feeling disappointment.

When the teams met earlier this year, the Vikings won 31-24 at the Metrodome.

One player who will not be entering the battle is quarterback Joey Harrington. He is out with an irregular heartbeat, so former starter Mike McMahon steps into Harrington's spot. While McMahon hasn't proven he can get it done consistently in the NFL, he does believe he has a chance to garner attention from other teams with a strong showing Sunday.

Around him is an offense many thought wouldn't be there for long, if at all — especially at running back. James Stewart was forced to take a pay cut just to remain with the team. But he has responded with a solid season. He is going to be a 1,000-yard rusher once again and is also the team's leading receiver. While not a breakaway threat, he is a workhorse. He's had more than 80 percent of the running back carries for the team and is expected to run the ball 20 times a game. Fullback Cory Schlesinger, who made the Pro Bowl, saw as much action vs. the Vikings in the first game as any team all year, so he will likely factor into the game plan as well.

The receiver corps is a complete overhaul from last year and is different from the team the Vikings saw in Week 6. Az-Zahir Hakim is out for the season, and Bill Schroeder simply hasn't lived up to expectations. Look for the Lions to use Larry Foster more in the offense, as well as tight end Mikhael Ricks. After a pedestrian career in San Diego, Ricks has found a home in Detroit and has become more of a threat than in recent years, using his 6-5 height to his advantage.

Depth up front is so thin that on the Lions' official depth chart, no players were listed as backups at two of the five positions — both tackles — before another shuffle occurred. Second-year pro Jeff Backus and third-year man Stockar McDougle are lined up on the outside and, barring injuries, will be there for the foreseeable future. But McDougle isn't expected to play Sunday because of a toe injury. In his place, Matt Joyce would move from guard to tackle, and 17-year vet Ray Brown would be joined by Tony Semple at guard. In the middle, second-year center Dominic Raiola likely will be a fixture. The group is growing together and, with Harrington bound to improve when he returns next year, they may lead the charge back to respectability.

While the Lions offense has shown signs of improvement, the defense continues to suffer. The team has talent up front, with defensive end Robert Porcher and tackles Shaun Rogers and Luther Elliss, but beyond them it gets thin — and worse the farther one gets from the line of scrimmage. Third-year pro James Hall is in his first season as a starter at right end, and he is progressing, giving the Lions a solid front to work with, but the help needs to come behind them.

At the linebackers, the Lions have a playmaker in Chris Claiborne, but he is a natural outside linebacker. He is flanked by Barrett Green and Donté Curry, a pair of young, inexperienced linebackers forced to learn on the fly. As a group, they are athletic but are prone to making mistakes and allowing big plays over the middle by finding themselves out of position. Expect to see the Vikings attack these positions with a vengeance.

In the secondary, the Lions used to have some of the best corners in the business because they used high picks on them. Those days have changed. The current starters are 12-year veteran Todd Lyght and rookie Chris Cash. Opposing quarterbacks have gone after both of them, so Cash is learning under fire like many of the young Vikings corners have. At safety, the Lions have 11-year vet Corey Harris and converted corner Eric Davis — a 13-year veteran. Between the rookie Cash and the three grizzled vets, this has become one of the weaknesses of the defense, and they are victims of teams with speed receivers. Expect to see the Vikings go after the older guys, since this could well be the final game with Detroit for all three.

To take an uneducated look at the losing records of the Vikings and Lions, you would think they are teams with a similar fate. The Vikings could easily have a much better record than they do. The Lions, meanwhile, have been favored to win just once this year — at home against Dallas. The Vikings want to set a positive foundation for 2003. Hammering Detroit would send them into the postseason with a three-game winning streak and get the team started for a brighter outlook in 2003.


KEY MATCHUP
Chris Hovan vs. Dominic Raiola —
When the Vikings drafted Chris Hovan three years ago and the Lions drafted center Dominic Raiola two years ago, their new teams had similar intents. Both wanted a player in the trenches for the next decade. In the season finale, the winner of the game could well be determined by who dominates this head-to-head battle.

Hovan has made some great strides since emerging from the shadow of John Randle last season and becoming the leader of the defensive line. Raiola, in contrast, struggled to beat out incumbent Eric Beverly, but injuries and improvement by Raiola opened up that door and now he will be responsible for keeping Hovan off the team's top two offensive stars.

In the first meeting between the Vikings and Lions, QB Joey Harrington was making his first road start, and the Vikings were able to rattle him somewhat despite decent passing numbers. This time around, it is Mike McMahon behind Raiola, and the intimidation needs to be provided by knocking him down early and often. Hovan will be responsible for getting pressure up the middle and not allowing McMahon to establish a comfort zone.

That won't be Hovan's only duty on Sunday. He will also be asked to plug the middle gap for running back James Stewart. Not blessed with great speed, Stewart is primarily a between-the-tackles runner. When forced outside, he is often chased down. If Hovan can get a push on Raiola and take away the middle runs for Stewart, his effectiveness will be cut in half. As the Lions' top rusher and receiver, Stewart is the most important cog in their offense. Getting him off his game is critical.

Some think Hovan is moving into the realm of a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle in the NFC. Raiola isn't anywhere near that level for centers. If Hovan can dominate his matchup, he could single-handedly minimize a lot of the things the Lions want to do.

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