The Minnesota Vikings must have been salivating when they watched how the Detroit Lions covered kicks.
Or, more accurately, didn’t cover them.
Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 105 yards, and Marcus Sherels ran back the first punt of the second half 77 yards for a score, boosting the Vikings to a 20-13 win Sunday — and sending the underachieving Lions into a dubious category all their own.
”It was slow-motion, especially today,” Harvin said. ”That hole opened up, and you probably could have walked through there. The blockers did a great job. They told me all week they were going to do everything they could to get me in the end zone. Special teams was huge today.”
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said he and his staff pointed out Detroit’s deficiencies and predicted Harvin would score if everyone held their blocks.
”It was obvious,” Frazier said.
When Sherels scored, Detroit became the first team since at least 1940 to give up a kickoff and a punt return for touchdowns in consecutive games, according to STATS LLC. The Lions allowed scores on a kickoff and punt in last week’s 44-41 loss in overtime at Tennessee.
”We’re good, but we’re garbage right now and we’re killing our team,” kicker Jason Hanson said.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz, though, shot down any chance of him firing special teams coordinator Danny Crossman.
”No, that’s not a consideration,” Schwartz said. ”There’s physical plays we have to make.”
The surprising NFC North-leading Vikings (3-1) have already matched the number of wins of 2011, when they got off to an 0-4 start.
Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder said that is huge.
”That’s a good mark of improvement,” Ponder said.
The Lions, meanwhile, seem to be regressing quickly.
Detroit (1-3) goes into its bye wondering what has gone wrong with a team that began 5-0 last season and ended with 10 victories to snap the franchise’s 11-game postseason drought. The Lions have lost three straight — surpassing their longest skid last year — to turn cheers into jeers at Ford Field.
”We didn’t start off the way we wanted to,” Schwartz said. ”That’s not to say we can’t get it back. That’s s our challenge right now to dig our way out of this.”
Beginning with special teams.
Harvin fielded the first kick toward the back left of the end zone, cut across the field, sprinted up the sideline and into the other end zone 12 seconds into the game.
”We always talk about starting fast, and that’s the fastest start you can get,” Ponder said.
As soon as the Vikings got the ball in the second half, they went to work quickly as well.
Sherels took the punt in the middle of the field and made Kassim Osgood miss right away before wiggling through traffic and pulling away to put the Vikings ahead 20-6.
Ponder was 16 of 26 for 111 yards for Minnesota. Jerome Simpson had four receptions for a team-high 50 yards and drew a pair of penalties to help set up scores. Simpson missed the first three games serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Adrian Peterson had 102 yards rushing on 21 carries — running for more than 100 yards for the first time since Oct. 23, 2011 — and added more proof his surgically repaired left knee is just fine.
”It just seems like that was the Adrian that we were hoping to see,” Frazier said.
Minnesota’s defense wouldn’t let the Lions look good on the ground for the second straight week. Mikel Leshoure ran for just 26 yards on 13 carries after having 100 yards rushing and a TD in his debut last week.
Matthew Stafford was 30 of 51 for 319 yards without much help from Lions teammates — the ones that dropped passes and those that allowed him to get sacked five times after giving up just four sacks combined in the first three games.
”We got our butts kicked up front with sacks and we couldn’t run the ball,” Schwartz said. ”Physically we have to be better.”
Pettigrew dropped a potential TD pass one play after Calvin Johnson had the football jarred loose in the end zone, forcing Detroit to settle for a field goal and a 13-6 halftime deficit.
Just when the Lions looked as if they were going to break through offensively, safety Jamarca Sanford forced Leshoure to fumble and recovered at the Vikings 29 late in the third quarter.
Detroit drove to the Vikings 7 early in the fourth, but unblocked defensive end Everson Griffen sacked Stafford to end the threat.
The Lions got right back down in scoring territory and Stafford scored on a 1-yard lunge with 2:56 left.
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe pinned Detroit on its 2 with 1:42 remaining. Stafford was sacked on the last snap at his 33, a fitting end to a game dominated by Minnesota’s defense and special teams, ending an 11-game losing streak to division opponents.
If Chicago can’t beat Dallas on the road Monday night, the Vikings will be alone atop the NFC North going into Week 5.
”We want to embrace it,” Frazier said. ”It was one of our goals when the season began, to win the NFC North.”
NOTES: Detroit DE Cliff Avril left the game in the fourth quarter with a back injury. … Vikings WR Michael Jenkins had a rib injury during the game. … Minnesota avoided its first four-game losing streak against the Lions since losing five in row 1961-63.