Before the season, Mike Tice was asked about a weak NFC North division. His response included a phrase that he thought Detroit could be a good team by the end of the season. He found out the Lions have some ability early in the season as well.
The Lions pulled out to a 10-0 lead at Ford Field, but behind two touchdown runs from Daunte Culpepper, two explosive plays from Gus Frerotte after Culpepper was injured, and three interceptions from the defensive backs, the Vikings came away with a 23-13 NFC North win.
With the win, the Vikings improved to 3-0 with wins against each of the other three teams in the division. They also extended their regular-season winning streak to six games and their road winning streak to four games.
They did it with a defense that surrendered yardage but continually stiffened near the end zone or came up with drive-ending interceptions — one from Brian Russell, one from Corey Chavous and one from Denard Walker — all inside the 5-yard line. And when Culpepper suffered a bruised back late in the second quarter, Frerotte and Moe Williams managed a ball-controlling game mixed with two explosive plays.
Detroit found a running game in the first quarter as they overpowered the Vikings defense with a strong dose of Shawn Bryson. The combination of four Bryson carries for 15 yards and a key late hit from Kenny Mixon after a third-down incompletion set up the Lions with a fresh set of downs on the 20-yard line on the opening drive. After Joey Harrington scrambled for 15 yards on first down, Bryson ran over Chris Claiborne and into the end zone for a 7-0 Detroit lead.
The Vikings responded with first downs on passes to Jim Kleinsasser and Kelly Campbell, but after getting to the 19-yard line the drive fell apart and Aaron Elling couldn’t convert a 37-yard field goal, leaving it wide right.
The defense responded by limiting the Lions to one first down on the next series, but Culpepper’s protection breakdown also kept the Vikings from driving after a Dre Bly sack. So after an exchange of punts and a solid return, Detroit had the obvious edge in field position at the Vikings 24-yard line. On third-and-9, Charles Rogers caught a 13-yard pass to the 10-yard line, but from there the Lions couldn’t finish in the end zone and had to settle for a 27-yard Jason Hanson field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The teams exchanged punts again, but this time it was the Vikings winning the battle of field position, thanks to three straight Detroit penalties on their punt attempt. When the Vikings offense finally did get the ball, it was on the Detroit 36-yard line. A 22-yard pass to Williams on the first play and a 14-yard draw by Culpepper on the third play were all that were needed for a touchdown (with the extra point attempt failing on a bobbled snap) with 12:02 left in the first half.
The Lions drove nearly the length of the field on their ensuing possession, but when Harrington went to the air for a 29-yard touchdown, it was Rusell who came down with his third interception in as many games as a starter this season.
Setting up on their own 2-yard line, Williams took a carry for 1 yard and looked stopped again on second down, but when he bounced off a tackle and picked up a block by Culpepper, Williams found room to sprint down the right sideline. By the time he was brought down, he had a 61-yard run. A 5-yard pass to Moss, a 29-yard slant-and-run by Nate Burleson and a 2-yard run by Culpepper capped the impressive six-play, 98-yard drive. That gave the Vikings their first lead of the game, 13-10, with 4:57 left in the first half.
The Lions drove past midfield again, but two sacks by Lance Johnstone in the final three plays from scrimmage forced Detroit out of field goal position and brought on the punt team.
With Culpepper sustaining a bruised lower back on his touchdown run, Gus Frerotte got the call the rest of the game. Taking over on his own 20-yard line with 43 seconds left, he found Williams for 5 yards, then went deep for Moss. Despite an under-thrown ball, Moss still had Andre Goodman beat enough to haul in a 72-yard bomb to the 3-yard line. However, when Frerotte went for Moss on the next two plays in jump-ball fashion, he wasn’t able to make the plays. And when Frerotte’s third-down pass fell incomplete, the Vikings were forced to settle for a 21-yard field from Elling and a 16-10 halftime lead.
While Frerotte ended the first half on a strong note, his second pass in the second half was intercepted by Bly on another under-thrown ball.
This time the Lions responded with a scoring drive. After a drive-opening 10-yard pass to Rogers, Detroit was looking at third down again. Once again, a Vikings penalty allowed the drive to continue when Ken Irvin was called for pass interference. Bill Schroeder picked up another first down with a 10-yard pass to the 25-yard line, but the defense stiffened and forced a 37-yard field goal from Hanson. Still, the Lions had crawled back to within three points and the Vikings needed a comeback-thwarting drive.
They got that, thanks to a dose of Williams to start the drive and explosiveness to cap it. Williams got the first three touches and produced 14 yards on two catches and one rush, but facing third-and-8 Frerotte found Campbell on an in-out-and-in route and the tiny speedster was gone for a 72-yard touchdown with 7:52 left in the third quarter. With a successful extra point, the Vikings had their biggest lead of the game, 23-13.
Once again, Detroit put together a sustained drive, with Schroeder picking up first downs with receptions of 8 and 23 yards, but the defense shut down the Lions again.
Frerotte, Williams and company took over on their own 11-yard line with 2:48 left in the third quarter. While their drive only crossed midfield by 2 yards, it did take time off the clock. Between five plays to Williams and six to other players, it used more than seven minutes and put Detroit on the 20-yard line on the exchange of possession.
The defense came alive from the start of Detroit’s next two drives, forcing a three-and-out and, on the Lions’ next series, getting a Corey Chavous interception in the end zone.
While the Lions offense couldn’t sustain drives on its own, they were allowed to get to the 1-yard line on a series of close pass interference calls. On consecutive plays, Denard Walker was flagged at the 14-yard line and Ken Irvin in the end zone, both with tight coverage. Then, when Bryson fumbled on the 2-yard line and he was ruled down, it looked like the Lions were destined to score … eventually. However, when Lance Johnstone dropped into coverage on fourth down and prevented Mikhael Ricks from getting his hands on the ball, the most obvious pass interference wasn’t penalized and the Vikings took over on downs with 1:28 left in the game and a 10-point lead.
Walker then sealed the 23-13 win with a game-ending interception in the end zone, the Vikings’ third of the game. It gave them their third victory of the season with a solid defensive effort and a combination of explosive plays and grind-it-out style on offense for more than half the game without their starting quarterback.
They will need all of that next Sunday against San Francisco as they continue to defend their NFC North lead.