Football fans get a special Holiday Season treat this Thursday when two of the best teams in the NFC face-off in Minnesota, when the Detroit Lions travel to the Vikings.
Both teams come in red-hot, having won three in a row, and both coming off convincing Thanksgiving Day wins. The Lions pasted the Patriots 34-9, while Randy Moss led the way as the Vikings came from behind to beat the Cowboys, 27-15.
Many thought the Lions would compete for a playoff spot this season, but after being humbled at home by the Dolphins, 23-8 on Nov. 5, the Lions had fallen to 5-4. Bobby Ross resigned as head coach on Nov. 7 and former Michigan Head Coach Gary Moeller took over.
Since then, the Lions have won three in a row.
Quarterback Charlie Batch has responded to Moeller’s leadership, and started to deliver on his immense talent after starting the year poorly. The Lions have topped the 30-point mark in their last two games, against the Giants and the Pats, and Batch has certainly gained the respect of his teammates with his fearless play. Detroit has had offensive problems all season. They’ve had to rely on their defense and fine special teams to keep their heads above water.
The Lions have had some trouble throwing the ball this season. Their offensive line has been shaky at times and they’ve had to deal with the loss of wide receiver Germaine Crowell, their best receiver last season, to injury. Johnnie Morton has been his usual, consistent, self, but Herman Moore has been just a shell of what he once was, and the Lions have lacked a solid third receiver throughout much of the year. Tight end David Sloan has very good hands, but the Lions haven’t been able to find him around the goal-line. He caught his first touchdown pass of the year on Thanksgiving.
Detroit brought in James Stewart from Jacksonville through free agency to beef up the running attack that had been lacking since Barry Sanders’ retirement. Stewart is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, but with 245 attempts, he has provided some stability to the offense. He has scored eight touchdowns on the ground, and is third on the team with 28 catches. The Lions also have one of the best special teams in the league. Desmond Howard still ranks among the most dangerous return men in the business, and Jason Hanson is virtually automatic, especially in domes.
Defensively, Detroit has very good linebackers in Stephen Boyd and Chris Claiborne, fine corners with Bryant Westbrook and Terry Fair and a ferocious defensive line led by Luther Elliss and Robert Porcher. Safety Kurt Schulz has been a great pickup, leading the team with seven interceptions. He missed the Thanksgiving game, and is questionable for this Thursday’s game. The Lions will need him against the Vikings.
The Vikings haven’t lost at home yet this season, going 6-0 so far this season. In their last two home games, against the Cardinals and Panthers, the Vikings have scored 31 points, while holding their opponent to 14 and 17, respectively. Most thought the Vikings would be headed for a losing record and a high draft pick this season, after losing so many quality veterans over the off-season, but quarterback Dante Culpepper has answered Dennis Green’s call, and could be headed to the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter. He has completed nearly 63% of his passes, thrown 25 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions. He is second on the team in rushing, and is averaging over five yards per carry, along with scoring five touchdowns on the ground.
It helps that Culpepper has the best combination of receivers in the league. Cris Carter leads the team with 71 catches, and has been as consistent and sure-handed as ever, but Randy Moss is having an even better season than he had in either of his first two, spectacular, seasons. Anybody who saw Moss’ performance against the Cowboys had to be impressed. He has made a habit of making the incredible catch commonplace, and is the biggest threat in the game every time he’s on the field. Moss is averaging 18 yards per catch, and has scored 12 touchdowns already. Robert Smith, the Vikings top running back, is also having a great season, averaging almost five and a half yards per carry, and he’s made 29 catches out of the backfield.
The Vikings’ biggest concern is their defense, which is much improved over last year’s unit, but still a bit shaky. Minnesota has just six interceptions so far this season, and opposing offenses have been able to move the ball on them. While the secondary hasn’t been great, the Vikings’ front seven is, at the very least, solid. Top draft pick Chris Hovan has been strong inside, allowing John Randle to move to the outside of the line, and Ed McDaniel, Kailee Wong and Dwayne Rudd have done a good job stopping the run from their linebacker spots.
While Tampa Bay was supposed to be the team to beat in the NFC Central, it is highly likely that these are the two teams that will decide first place in the division, and the winner this week takes a big step in accomplishing that task.