Vikings desperate to end divisional skid

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings challenged themselves prior to last week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers and came through with the biggest win for the team since the team made it to the NFC Championship game in 2010.

Now, the Vikings’ challenge is coping with handling success and continuing the momentum gained from last week’s win.

“Talked about that, for sure, and what we have to get done, how important this week was from a preparation standpoint and how we needed to prepare so now we have to go out and play well,” coach Leslie Frazier said about talking with his team about handling success.

Minnesota (2-1) has a chance to build on last week’s performance as it heads to Detroit this weekend to face the 1-2 Lions on Sunday. Here are five things to watch as the Vikings play their first game within their division this week:
1. Can Minnesota end its NFC North slide?

It’s been a long time since the Vikings enjoyed any success in their own division. In fact, the last NFC North win was at home against Detroit in Week 3 of 2010, a span of 11 games. It’s the second-longest current streak in the NFL. Only the Cleveland Browns, who got an early jump on Minnesota by losing to Baltimore on Thursday night, has gone winless in their own division longer with a as 12-game losing streak. The Vikings were swept within the division last year and were 0-5 in 2010 following the win against the Lions. The last road win in the NFC North for Minnesota was in 2009 on the road against the Green Bay Packers.

Quarterback Christian Ponder was well aware of the streak. Running back Adrian Peterson said he didn’t know, but now that he does he wants to end it. Coach Leslie Frazier has talked about the importance of winning games in the division, and the two-game swing that goes along with it. Sunday will be the Vikings last chance for an NFC North win for a while too, as their next division game isn’t until Week 10 at home against the Lions. Five of the final seven games this season are in the NFC North.
2. Can Minnesota protect Ponder?

Like the Vikings, Detroit’s defense starts with its front four. The Lions rely on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril to stop the run and rush the passer. The fourth starter on the line, Corey Williams, had knee surgery Tuesday and will miss Sunday’s game. He’ll be replaced by Sammie Hill and Nick Fairley. The defensive line was responsible for all seven of Detroit’s sacks in the first two games. But last week’s loss to the Tennessee Titans was a different story. The Lions had no sacks and only one quarterback hit while Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker threw the ball 42 times.

Meanwhile, going up against San Francisco’s defense with pass rushers like Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, Ponder wasn’t sacked behind Minnesota’s remade offensive line. If Ponder has time to throw Sunday, he very well could continue his strong play and post another 100-plus quarterback rating and 70 percent-plus completion rate.
3. Is Chris Cook up to the task of covering Calvin Johnson?

Cook, the Vikings’ 6-foot-2 cornerback, says he relishes the chance to go up against Detroit’s 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson, the league’s toughest receiver to cover. Each had their share of highlights in last year’s first game between the two teams when Cook was in the lineup, but Johnson had the last laugh with two touchdowns in a comeback win by the Lions. Perhaps Cook’s best game in the NFL was last year when he drew the primary assignment of guarding Johnson and rose to the occasion. He will need to do the same this week. Johnson is third in the league with 24 catches and has a league-high 396 yards receiving.

This is what Cook was drafted for when he was the team’s top pick in the 2010 draft. Cook has had a solid start to the season, aside from when Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts got behind Cook and made a big 39-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of regulation in the season opener, but Cook was also supposed to have help on the play as well. Cook will need help against Johnson at times, but if he can slow down Detroit’s best receiver, it will be a big step in a possible Vikings’ win.
4. What impact does Jerome Simpson have in his first regular-season game with Minnesota?

Everyone has been eager to see Jerome Simpson back in a Vikings’ uniform after his three-game suspension to start the season. Simpson was signed in the offseason to be a speed threat that can challenge defenses down the field, something Minnesota has done very little of the first three weeks. Simpson has the speed and athletic ability to make defenses pay if they choose to commit too many players in stopping Peterson, receiver Percy Harvin or tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Simpson is coming off his best season in the NFL last year with the Cincinnati Bengals when he averaged 14.5 yards-per-catch, with 50 catches for 725 yards. Everyone, especially Simpson, has been eager to get him back in the lineup and add another element to the Vikings’ now versatile offense. Ponder and Simpson seemed to develop a rapport quickly in minicamp and they are hoping to do the same now that Simpson has been practicing for the first time in three weeks.
5. How healthy is Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford?

Detroit was playing coy with Stafford’s availability early in the week after he left last week’s game with an injury and backup Shaun Hill came in and threw for two touchdowns while bringing the Lions from behind to put the game in overtime. Stafford and coach Jim Schwartz avoided saying how Stafford was feeling or if he would be ready for Sunday, and Frazier said they would be preparing for Stafford and Hill.

Stafford then missed Wednesday’s practice and was listed with a hip injury after reports had initially said he was dealing with a hamstring injury. But as the week progressed, Stafford practiced more and appears ready to go for Sunday. He was limited in Thursday’s practice and was a full participant on Friday, drawing a probable designation for Sunday. Hill has proven to be a competent backup, but Stafford is coming off a breakthrough season with over 5,000 yards passing and 41 touchdowns in leading Detroit to the playoffs last year. The Lions own the league’s top passing attack this year, though Stafford’s been a bit inconsistent through three games. He will play Sunday, but how much will the leg issue be bothering him and will that allow Minnesota and it’s potent front four the chance to pressure Stafford.
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