|Tough running by Adrian Peterson helped the Vikings improve to 3-1 with a victory over the Lions. (US Presswire)|
At the start of the 2012 season, the Detroit Lions (1-3) were expected to contend for an NFC North title, and the Minnesota Vikings (3-1) were thought to be a team that that would have to fight for simple respect.
Four weeks into their respective campaigns, the two teams' roles appear to have been reversed.
Minnesota's 20-13 victory Sunday at Ford Field wasn't pretty -- the Vikings won without scoring an offensive touchdown. But superior special teams' play proved enough to beat an under-performing Detroit team that heads to its bye week holding more questions than answers.
“We're 1-3 because we deserve to be 1-3,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “Two defensive pass interference penalties set up Minnesota's only offensive scores [two Blair Walsh field goals]. We gave up five sacks. We couldn't run the football against good looks [Detroit had 55 total rushing yards]. We dropped touchdown passes and we fumbled the ball in [Minnesota] territory. When I say we deserve to be 1-3, those are the reasons.”
Schwartz's assessment of his team's performance is an accurate and damning critique of an effort that saw the Lions trail just 12 seconds into the game. Vikings WR Percy Harvin used a wall of blockers to return the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown, marking the second 105-yard runback surrendered by Detroit in as many games. The play set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Minnesota's defense was able to employ a bend-but-don't-break strategy all game. The Vikings took advantage of several dropped passes by Lions receivers and the complete lack of a Lions run game to hold Detroit to one score in three red-zone trips. Vikings DE Jared Allen and the rest of Minnesota's potent pass rush controlled the Lions offensive line for the entire game. The unit sacked Lions quarterback Matt Stafford five times -- more than Stafford had been sacked in Detroit's first three games combined.
“I play well in the [NFC North],” Allen said. "It pays when you play people so many times. You get a feel for them.”
Vikings QB Christian Ponder wasn't overly impressive [16-26 passing for 111 yards], but he didn't make any mistakes that cost his team. He didn't turn the ball over, continuing his run of four games without an interception. Ponder said getting the win despite not having their best game on the road was a huge step for the franchise. “There are still a lot of things we can get better at,” he said. “To come out and get a win on the road against a great team, a  playoff team, is huge.”
With the Bears idle until Monday night, the win gives Minnesota temporary sole possession of first place in the NFC North. That distinction may be surprising to the rest of the NFL, but Vikings coach Leslie Frazier says his team is prepared to make a run at an unlikely division crown.
"We talked (before the game) about the fact that we're in first place, and we talked about what we have to do to stay in first place,” Frazier said. “It's not something we want to run away from or hide from. We want to embrace it. It was one of our goals when the season began, to win the NFC North."
When the game turned: Harvin's kick return for a score was damaging to the Lions' chances, but it happened early enough in the game that they should have been able to overcome the play. The nail in Detroit's coffin was Marcus Sherels' 77-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Lions' gunner Kassim Osgood had Sherels in his grasp on the play, and several other Detroit players had a chance to bring him down. Sherels found his way through the Lions' porous coverage, however, giving the Vikings what proved to be an insurmountable lead. Detroit's special teams have been an Achilles heel for each of the last two seasons. Sunday, they proved to be the driving force behind the Lions' loss.
Highlight moments: In addition to Minnesota's two special teams' scores, Ponder was able to exploit a favorable matchup against Lions' CB Bill Bentley all afternoon. Bentley was flagged twice for pass interference while covering Vikings WR Jerome Simpson. The plays were directly attributable to the return of the NFL's regular officials, since the contact in each instance was the type that typically went uncalled by replacement referees. Both fouls led directly to Viking field goals. The lone offensive touchdown of the day for either team came when Matthew Stafford went over the top on a third-and-goal play late in the fourth quarter. The call was after initial replays seemed to suggest Stafford was short. Detroit's comeback attempt would have received a major boost had the Lions been able to convert on a fourth-and-5 on the Vikings' 7-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. The series of downs included a pair of dropped passes in the end zone. Stafford finished the game 30 for 51 passing for 319 yards, but he was let down throughout the game by his receivers.
Top-shelf performances: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson -- 21 carries for 102 yards, four receptions for 20 yards. Peterson said before the game that his knee wasn't quite 100 percent following knee surgery, but his dominating performance Sunday changed his mind. “I felt real good,” he said. “I feel myself just continue to get stronger each week. I'm just blessed.” Peterson's ability to control the clock by breaking containment on several runs wore down an injury-depleted Lions defense throughout the afternoon.
What they said about the Vikings' two kick returns for scores
- Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: “In our first special teams kickoff return meeting we saw some things and we pointed out that if everybody holds their blocks, Percy (Harvin) is going to score. I mean, it was obvious. There were some things that we saw if we just held our blocks and our guys did it. They leveraged the football. They got where they needed to be and Percy did the rest.”
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz on Harvin's return: “One of our major points this week was what we needed to do on kickoffs because we know Harvin is a threat. We got a great kick from Jason Hanson. This time we had great location. We knew he'd bring it out, we didn't get guys off blocks and we gave up a touchdown.
- Lions kicker Jason Hanson: “You come out the gate and you're trying to make a statement and you let them make a statement. You're 15 seconds into the game and there's boos and there should be. We fought back from that. We played some ball, but it's just completely unacceptable. I mean, everybody knows [it's unacceptable] and it still happens. So that's got to get fixed.”
- Schwartz on Sherels' return: “Honestly, I thought we were going to force a fumble on the play. We had a free guy on the play. I couldn't believe [Sherels] didn't fair catch the ball. He ran through one tackle and we absolutely did a poor job."
- Schwartz on whether special teams' coordinator Danny Crossman's job is in jeopardy: "That's not a consideration. If we were getting out-schemed, if we were making continual mistakes, [that would be an issue]. There are physical plays that we have to make and we're professional athletes. We have to make them.”
Numbers you should know: The Lions also surrendered a kick and punt return for a score during their Week 3 loss to the Titans, giving them the dubious distinction of being the first team to allow both a kick return and punt return for a touchdown in back-to-back games since at least 1940. No records in STATS LLC's database are available on return touchdowns before that year.
Injury update: No players suffered serious injuries during the game, although WR Calvin Johnson was given concussion protocols after receiving a helmet-to-helmet hit from Vikings LB Chad Greenway. Lions DE Cliff Avril injured his back in the second half, but he told reporters after the game that the injury was minor.
Going forward: The Lions now head to their bye week, which will be followed by difficult road games against the Eagles and Bears. Minnesota hosts a Tennessee team next week that will enter the game facing questions about the health of QB Jake Locker. If Locker isn't able to play Sunday, it's entirely possible that the Vikings could enter their Week 6 meeting with Washington with a 4-1 record.
Follow Lions reporter John Kreger on Twitter at @CBSLions and @JohnKreger.