It’s no fluke: Vikings lead NFC North

Leslie Frazier had a wide smile as he hugged receiver Jerome Simpson on the field after the Minnesota Vikings’ 20-13 win at Detroit on Sunday.

Frazier had good reason to be happy. He took over as Minnesota’s coach 11 games into the 2010 season, replacing the fired Brad Childress on an interim basis and then earning the permanent job with three late-season wins. One thing Frazier hadn’t done was win a divisional game. That was eight losses in the NFC North extending the Vikings’ streak to 11 losses in a row against the division.

But Minnesota (3-1) went on the road to beat the reeling Lions (1-3) to snap the streak and keep the Vikings on top of the NFC North standings through the first quarter of the season. Chicago (2-1) plays at the Dallas Cowboys on Monday.

Here are five things we learned from Minnesota’s streak-snapping win on Sunday:

1. The Vikings are better than many expected.

Minnesota was predicted to be at the bottom of the NFC North this season after last year’s 3-13 record. It’s a fact even the Vikings expected and didn’t downplay, like linebacker Chad Greenway admitted during training camp when he acknowledged expectations nationally were based on last year’s disappointment. But Minnesota believed in what it was putting together. Four games in, and the Vikings have already matched their total from last season.

Sunday’s win at Detroit helps prove last week’s win against San Francisco was no fluke. Minnesota, whose last road win in the NFC North was during the magical 2009 season, has posted two straight, fairly impressive wins against two teams that were in the playoffs last season. It was important for the Vikings to come out Sunday and keep the momentum going after last week’s win and not suffer any sort of letdown. The Lions ended up challenging late, but the Vikings started strong and didn’t commit the kind of mistakes that had been an issue in previous contests against the North and held with a defensive stand at the end, another weakness the first two weeks of the season. The schedule has five straight games outside of the NFC North now, with only Arizona (3-0) holding a winning record.

2. The defensive resurgence is real.

The turnaround for Minnesota from last season can be pointed straight to two aspects — quarterback play and defense. Quarterback Christian Ponder has played smart football, avoiding turnovers. The Vikings’ defense has been getting better each week, notable after the constant breakdowns last year, especially in the secondary.

Rookie safety Harrison Smith came up with a few big plays Sunday, in one instance dislodging a sure touchdown to Detroit’s top playmaker Calvin Johnson on a hard hit in the endzone after Johnson had appeared to haul in the pass. Jamarca Sanford, back in the lineup at safety for the injured Mistral Raymond, had a big pass interference penalty early, but came through later with two passes defensed, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. The cornerbacks have stayed healthy, with Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook starting and rookie Josh Robinson playing in the nickel.

Detroit entered Week 4 with the top passing offense in the league and Johnson led the league in receiving yards. Johnson was held to five catches for 54 yards. The Vikings also had five sacks, finally finishing off the pressure they’ve generated all season. And one of the league’s best run defenses, Minnesota held the Lions to 55 yards rushing as a team a week after limiting San Francisco’s Frank Gore.

3. Percy Harvin makes the Vikings go.

His teammates spent the week pumping him up and calling him the league’s best player, and Harvin again showed his value by taking the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. The team’s most explosive offensive playmaker again set the tone and got Minnesota off to the quick start it needed on the road. Harvin can affect the game in so many ways and did so again Sunday. Even on a team with Adrian Peterson, it’s becoming clear the Vikings’ offense will go as Harvin goes. Harvin was limited to a season-low three catches and Minnesota’s passing offense couldn’t sustain drives. Meanwhile, after the opening kickoff, and with the Lions’ poor coverage units, Detroit decided to kick away from Harvin the rest of the game and gave up prime field position to the Vikings in the process.

4.The passing offense is still a work in progress.

With Harvin taken out of the flow of the offense, and the Lions defensive backs keeping a keen eye on the screen passes Harvin has been so effective on, the offense finished with just 100 yards passing. Ponder didn’t commit a turnover and was sacked just twice, but he was also just 16 of 26 passing for 111 yards. The Lions took Harvin out of the game and Ponder struggled to find other receivers. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, coming off a two-touchdown game last week, had just two catches with the first coming late in the third quarter.

Not all of the offense showed up in the yards though. In his first game back, receiver Jerome Simpson caught four passes for 50 yards, including a big catch to help keep the clock running in the fourth. But more importantly, Simpson was a deep threat for Minnesota and drew two pass interference calls for a total of 57 yards. Simpson’s presence should help open the short passing game for Harvin and Rudolph going forward. Minnesota just wasn’t able to take advantage on Sunday.

5. Adrian Peterson is getting closer to 100 percent.

Peterson, the franchise running back less than nine months from major knee surgery, continues to amaze with what he’s been able to accomplish. Sunday, he seemed to have more acceleration and explosiveness than he had in the first three weeks and went over 100 yards rushing for the first time this season. Peterson showed some of his trademark burst through the line and made several big cuts proving his knee is no longer an issue. He appeared close to breaking a few runs as well.

The Vikings didn’t put a large workload on Peterson, still giving him some breaks with backup Toby Gerhart. Even against a defense designed to stop him in the second half though, Peterson had 14 carries for 50 yards in the second half. Peterson finished with 21 carries for 102 yards and helped Minnesota control a bit of the play clock in the second half while trying to nurse the two-touchdown lead.

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