It's been a long and frustrating season for the Vikings, featuring year-long questions at quarterback, and a defense that just couldn't stop anyone.
As much angst as the Vikings have caused themselves and their fanbase, they can look back at 2013 and say, "Well, at least we're not the Lions."
Yes, the Lions have had a better season than Minnesota, but the frustration levels in Detroit are off the charts after the Lions hit the three-quarter pole mark of the season at 7-5 and in control of the NFC North.
Since then? Well, Detroit has simply become the Lions once again, dropping three straight games, including two at home, and they'll miss the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.
Sunday's game features two head coaches whose seats are hotter than Google stock. Leslie Frazier has seemingly spent the whole season on thin ice and last Sunday's disastrous performance, an ugly 42-14 thrashing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals, might have been the final nail in his coffin.
The Vikings were playing for pride and perhaps their coach's future, and they came out listless and flat, with the attitude and performance of a team that was simply playing out the string.
Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying the season wasn't a failure, but that's sort of like Leo DiCaprio's character saying it'd been a lovely cruise just before going under water in Titanic.
Win or lose, Sunday's game might be the last time we see either Frazier or Schwartz as the head man on their respective sidelines.
The Vikings have played .500 football for their last seven games, and anyone who's been watching closely would predict a win on Sunday. It's the final game in the dome, which lends a little bit of sizzle to a matchup that would be otherwise forgettable.
Minnesota has won three games in a row at home, and it would be a surprise if they didn't make it four against the Lions. Matt Cassel, while brutal last week in Cincinnati, clearly is the Vikings' best option at quarterback, and Adrian Peterson has had another week for his sore ankle to heal.
Let's take a look at four key matchups that will go a long way in deciding Sunday's game.
Phil Loadholt vs. Ezekiel Ansah
The 2013 Detroit Lions season can only be described as a disappointment, much like many of the seasons before it, but the Lions can certainly be excited about the top of their 2013 draft class. Right defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, the fifth-overall pick in the draft, has been exceptional, recording eight sacks and two forced fumbles.
Ansah was thought to be a raw prospect with a very high ceiling heading into the draft, and he's done nothing to change that opinion. For a kid who's still relatively new to football, eight sacks is a phenomenal number that will only grow larger in the coming years.
|First-Round Pass Rushers|
|Dion Jordan, Miami||24 tackles||2 sacks||0 TFLs||0 FFs|
|Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit||31 tackles||8 sacks||2 TFLs||2 FFs|
|Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland||40 tackles||5 sacks||4 TFLs||0 FFs|
|Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis||18 tackles||2.5 sacks||2 TFLs||0 FFs|
The Vikings made right offensive tackle Phil Loadholt their No. 1 free-agent priority last offseason, signing him to a 4-year, $25 million deal that made him among the highest-paid right tackles in the game.
Loadholt has had a decent season, but didn't take a leap forward like Minnesota probably hoped the 27-year-old would. A concussion in early November obviously slowed Loadholt and his play, like that of the entire Vikings' offensive line, has been uneven in 2013.
Ansah will provide a tough challenge for Loadholt, given his combination of size, speed and strength.
Loadholt, like every Vikings player, would like to finish the season on a strong note, and this game should provide a preview of a one-on-one battle that Vikings and Lions fans will be seeing for years to come.
Adrian Peterson vs. Stephen Tulloch
Adrian Peterson is not going to rush for 2,500 yards in 2013. It was a lofty goal, to say the least, that Peterson set for himself before the season, after rushing for over 2,000 yards in 2012.
Injuries have hampered Peterson throughout 2013 and his offensive line seems to have vanished on him for much of the season.
Having said all of that, if Peterson can rush for just over 100 yards on Sunday, he'll have the second highest encore rushing total of any of the seven players who've posted 2,000 yards seasons, trailing only Barry Sanders, who ran for 1,491 yards before retiring in 1998.
Peterson has nothing left to prove as an athlete; he's the undisputed best running back in the NFL, and he's shown time and time again that not even injuries or poor blocking can keep him from putting up impressive numbers.
He heads into Sunday's game with 1,266 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, a season that would be spectacular for anyone other than Peterson.
Expect a big game from him on Sunday, but it won't satisfy his competitive appetite, which will take him roaring into the 2014 season.
Across the ball from Peterson on Sunday will be Stephen Tulloch, the Lions middle linebacker who continues to amaze every season. Projected as too small and slow to ever be much of a player in the NFL, Tulloch's 123 tackles heading into Sunday rank 10th in the league.
Tulloch is simply one of those players who is blessed with an over-abundance of football instinct. He has a nose for the football, he always seems to know the quickest path to the ball and he's able to arrive at contact with momentum in his favor.
He's a pro's pro who's having his best of three seasons in Detroit after putting up back-to-back monster years in Tennessee.
There are no frills or gimmicks to the games of Adrian Peterson or Stephen Tulloch. You'll never see either one of them celebrate to excess. What you've got is two lunch-pail guys who just happen to be among the best players in the league.
Cordarrelle Patterson vs. The Lions Kickoff Team
Amid an otherwise lost season for the Minnesota Vikings, the play of rookie wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson has been a giant adrenaline boost.
While he gets better and better each week as a wide receiver, Patterson has been a revelation since day one as a kick returner.
|NFL's 2013 Kickoff Return Leaders|
|Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota||40 Attempts||1,342 Yds||33.6 Avg||2 Tds|
|Devin Hester, Chicago||47 Attempts||1,315 Yds||28.0 Avg||0 Tds|
|Quintin Demps, Kansas City||30 Attempts||892 Yds||29.7 Avg||1 Tds|
|Keshawn Martin, Houston||33 Attempts||864 Yds||26.2 Avg||0 Tds|
Possessing an abundance of size, speed and elusiveness, Patterson has combined those traits with an aggressive mindset and an instinct for kickoff returns that you just can't teach.
His 1,342 kickoff return yards are the most in the NFL, and he needs just four yards Sunday to break the Vikings single-season mark set by Buster Rhymes in 1985. Patterson's 33.6-yard average is the second-highest in the NFL since 1970. Percy who?
The Lions kick coverage team is nothing special, ranking 18th in the league, giving up 27.3 yards per kick.
Detroit will obviously try to keep the ball out of Patterson's hands as much as possible, but don't be surprised if Patterson is able to break a couple of long returns on Sunday.
Chris Cook vs. Calvin Johnson
Like the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson is having an amazing season. Like Peterson, the problem Johnson is having is that he's set the bar so high, that his season, while incredible, still feels a little underwhelming.
Megatron enters Sunday with 84 catches for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's still the undisputed best receiver in the league, and the fact that those gaudy numbers can be even slightly disappointing is a testament to how great Johnson has become.
Across the ball from Johnson on Sunday will be the Vikings' Chris Cook, who fairly or unfairly, has become one of the poster children for the Vikings defenses' failures in 2013.
The Vikings top pick in the 2010 NFL draft is still looking for his first career interception. That just won't do in today's pass-happy NFL.
Cook is frustrating to watch as a Vikings fan, as he looks like a good enough athlete to stay with most receivers, he just seems unable to make plays on the ball.
The Vikings have faced a long list of top-notch receivers in 2013 and almost all of them have seemed to get the best of Cook. It has to be hugely disappointing to Vikings coaches that Cook has less tackles and four less passes defended this season than Marcus Sherels.
One of Cook's best games of 2013 was, however, against Johnson and the Lions in Week 1. Cook helped limit Johnson to just four catches for 37 yards. Cook had five tackles and a pass defended in that game.
The Vikings would take those numbers in a second this week, but don't expect a repeat. With their playoff hopes officially kaput, expect the Lions to come out slinging the ball and swinging for the fences. Look for Johnson to have a big day, but the hope is that Cook can make a play on at least one of them and get that monkey that is zero career interceptions off his back.
In the end, look for Adrian Peterson and Matt Cassel to rule the day, both having big days as the Vikings should be able to cruise to a victory over a Lions team that can't get to the offseason quick enough.
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