Two games into the season and the Vikings are already at a critical juncture that could start determining when the Donovan McNabb era ends and when the Christian Ponder one begins.
After becoming the first team in NFL history to blow double-digit halftime leads in their first two games, the Vikings are in danger of falling three games behind in the NFC North when the Detroit Lions visit the Metrodome on Sunday. It’s the first time since 1981 — the year before the Metrodome opened — that the Lions (2-0) are favored to win in Minnesota.
Veterans Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson and McNabb — three team leaders with a combined 32 years of NFL experience — stood up and addressed the team Monday at Winter Park. The message, according to McNabb, was fairly simple: Don’t panic and/or point fingers.
However, while McNabb stresses the importance of not panicking, he’s also said on two occasions that this is a “must-win situation” Sunday.
“I’ve been 0-2 before and with the attitude of understanding it’s a must-win situation,” said McNabb, whose 2003 Eagles lost their first two games before finishing 12-4 and reaching the NFC Championship Game.
“That’s the way this team is approaching it. (Coach) Leslie (Frazier) doesn’t have to get up and tell us anything. We know what we need to do. The leaders on this team have already spoke up and addressed the team on what needs to be done.”
Simply put, the Vikings are a 30-minute team in a 60-minute league, having been outscored 41-3 after halftime. They led the Chargers 17-7 at the half before losing 24-17. Week 2 was even worse when they blew a 17-0 lead in a 24-20 loss at home to the Buccaneers.
“The Vikings beat the Vikings,” tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said three times during an interview with reporters this week.
It’s that mentality that’s soothing for the players. They believe they can fix their mistakes and everything will work out.
Of course, that’s easier said than done against a Lions team that’s coming off the most lopsided regular-season victory (48-3 over the Chiefs) in team history.
The Vikings are a team in transition at the worst possible time to be a team in transition. The 4 1/2-month lockout not only limited the Vikings’ ability to work through a new offense, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and a head coach in his first full season, it’s also been a huge advantage to the rest of the NFC North.
Like the Packers and Bears, the Lions’ coaching staff, systems and quarterback have been together for multiple seasons.
A loss and a 0-3 start won’t begin the Ponder era. But it sure will be a big step in that direction.
SERIES HISTORY: 100th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 66-31-2. The Vikings are 36-12-1 at home. Minnesota is 13-0 at the Metrodome since a 14-13 loss in 1997.
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – NOTES, QUOTES
–The Lions wouldn’t have gone 0-16 in 2008 without a phantom 42-yard pass interference penalty on Leigh Bodden with 2:22 left in a 12-10 loss at the Metrodome in Week 5. The penalty set up the Vikings’ game-winning 26-yard field goal with nine seconds left.
–One of the strangest plays in the 99-game series happened in that Week 5 meeting in 2008. The Lions were pinned inside their 5-yard line when Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky rolled out to pass. Without realizing it, Orlovsky stepped out of the back of the end zone for a safety in a game the Lions lost by two.
–How bad have the Lions been against the Vikings over the years? Well, put it this way: Les Steckel, one of the worst coaching hires in NFL history, was 1-1 against the Lions. Steckel lasted one season, finishing 3-13 in 1984 and forcing Bud Grant to come out of retirement for one more season.
–Speaking of Bud Grant, the Hall of Fame head coach was 26-8-1 against the Lions. But he doesn’t hold the best winning percentage against Detroit. That would belong to Mike Tice. Tice was 33-34 in his head coaching career, but 8-0 vs. Detroit.
–In 99 games, the Vikings and Lions have played only one overtime game. The Lions won it 20-17 in 2007.
–A long snapper has an odd place in the history of this series. In 2004, then-rookie Don Muhlbach, lined up to snap what should have been the game-tying PAT with nine seconds left in a game at Ford Field.
Muhlbach bounced the snap, and holder Nick Harris was tackled, giving the Vikings a stunning 28-27 win.
“I feel bad for him,” Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper said of Muhlbach. “But I feel good for us.”
–The Vikings lost the first five games in the series, including a 37-10 decision in the debut in 1961. Norm Van Brocklin (3-8-1) and current coach Leslie Frazier (0-1) are the only coaches in team history under .500 against Detroit.
BY THE NUMBERS: 42 — Longest reception of the season. And it doesn’t belong to a receiver, a tight end or even a starter. It belongs to backup RB Toby Gerhart.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’ve been 0-2 before and with the attitude of understanding it’s a must-win situation.” – QB Donovan McNabb, whose 2003 Eagles lost their first two games, both at home, but rebounded to go 12-4 and make it to the NFC Championship Game.
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Vikings defense gets a huge boost this week with the return of five-time All-Pro DT Kevin Williams from his two-game StarCaps suspension. Williams is battling plantar fasciitis in his left foot, but says the extra rest has him good to go for this game. If that’s the case, Williams is a force that can stop the run and push the pocket in the passing game.
To make room for Williams on the roster, the team released backup LDE Adrian Awasom. Awasom is a promising situational pass rusher, but he had a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s game. The Vikings also have depth at defensive end. Everson Griffen can back up both end spots. He got his first career sack while playing left end last week.
–CB Asher Allen might have to begin the game as the nickel back. He played the second half there when Chris Cook left the game because of a groin strain. Allen hadn’t played since the preseason opener because of a toe injury. He’s been a disappointment in his three seasons.
–SS Tyrell Johnson, who was jailed on suspicion of driving while intoxicated early Tuesday morning, will play Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier said Wednesday. Frazier said the team will handle the matter internally.
“I made a mistake,” Johnson said.
–DL Everson Griffen should get more playing time at tackle in the nickel. He played there last week for the first time in his two-year career. Griffen is 273 pounds and has position flexibility. The team even experimented with him at outside linebacker during the preseason.
–DT Christian Ballard, a surprising rookie, will have some of his playing time cut with the return of Kevin Williams from his two-game suspension. Ballard backed up Letroy Guion, who started in place of Williams. Ballard, however, can also play nose tackle in the nickel and even move out to left end if needed.
–RB Toby Gerhart could see more playing time, even though he backs up Adrian Peterson. Gerhart normally comes in for one series in the first half. He’s done so well — a 13-yard average on four carries — that he might get another series at some point in the game.
–WR Percy Harvin, the team’s second biggest offensive threat behind Adrian Peterson, played only 30 of 68 offensive snaps last week. Look for that to change because the Vikings aren’t going to be able to just pound the running game into a very strong Lions front four.
–CB Chris Cook (groin) was limited in practice, but that was a good sign considering he missed the second half of last week’s game because of a groin strain. Cook said the strain feels much better and predicts he’ll play Sunday.
–DE Jared Allen (shoulder) was a surprise addition to the injury report. He was limited, but don’t look for him to miss Sunday’s game. If anything, he’ll play a few more snaps while Everson Griffen gets a few reps.
–LB E.J. Henderson (knee), who missed two practices last week but still played in the game, was limited. The injury wasn’t expected to hamper him Sunday.
–PR Marcus Sherels (chest) was limited in practice. If he can’t play, the Vikings can use WR Greg Camarillo, who was a surprise inactive last week.
Pretty simple. The Vikings need to control the game on the ground with Adrian Peterson. The Lions play a 4-3 with wide gaps that put a lot of heat on linebackers to flow and make sound tackles. Peterson, of course, is tough to bring down, and TE Jim Kleinsasser has been a beast lining up as a lead fullback on some plays this season.
The Lions don’t run the ball particularly well, so the Vikings should be able to stop the run en route to chasing QB Matthew Stafford. Good safety play deep against WR Calvin Johnson and sound tackling on the perimeter vs. WRNate Burleson is a must defensively.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns in the first half, vs. Lions MLB Stephen Tulloch, a compact and quick player who has a team-high two forced fumbles — For a big back, Peterson can slip through cracks up front. And once he does, he’s tough to bring down because he has the quick feet, the burst and the power to get through tackles in a number of different ways.
OLB Justin Durant, the Lions’ leading tackler, also needs to be active and not over-pursue because Peterson’s cutback can lead to touchdowns in a hurry.
Vikings CB Antoine Winfield, who has a team-high 18 solo tackles, vs. Lions WR Nate Burleson, who has a team-high 12 receptions — Burleson, the former Viking, makes people miss after the catch. So with the Vikings’ Tampa 2 scheme designed to take away Calvin Johnson deep, Minnesota has to get Burleson on the ground once he catches those dangerous bubble screens. Winfield has been one of the league’s best tacklers for a number of years, but he’s missed four tackles in two weeks. He plays in the slot in the nickel, so he’ll be seeing plenty of those bubble screens to Burleson.