Detroit Lions: Minnesota Vikings

The Detroit Lions had to figure at least one of their games down the stretch of the season would be flexed out to a different time for television.

This, though, was not the one everyone was targeting.

The Lions and Minnesota Vikings will now play their Week 15 matchup at 4:25 p.m. on Dec. 14 instead of the typical 1 p.m. kick. Right now, the Lions are 8-4 and hold the No. 6 seed in the NFC after Green Bay's win Sunday over New England.

Detroit has played the Vikings once this season already, a 17-3 win in Minneapolis in October.

The Lions have yet to hear about their Week 17 game against Green Bay and whether that would be flexed to a later time slot depending on potential playoff situations.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
6/19/14
10:00
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The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.

Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?

Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?

Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?

And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?

These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.

First Down

Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.



Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.

Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.


Second Down

The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.



Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.


Third Down

Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.

Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.

Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.


Fourth Down

The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.

On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC North

March, 10, 2014
3/10/14
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A few deals have been signed around the NFC North in the days leading up to free agency, but plenty of valuable players are about to hit the open market.

Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).

We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.

1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.

Cassel
Cassel
6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year deal with the Vikings on Friday, just before teams could start contacting his agent. He will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.

McCown
10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: He proved he is capable of filling in for Jay Cutler in a pinch and is instrumental behind the scenes for nearly every skill player on the offense. It's not a slam dunk he will be back, and talks with the Bears haven't been especially productive.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.

Upon Further Review: Lions-Vikings

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss the state of their teams after Sunday's game.
Stafford/HendersonGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford's Lions are playing for pride, Erin Henderson's Vikings to send off the Metrodome.

When the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions squared off in Week 1, both teams had legitimate designs on playoff spots in what was expected to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Now, they’re the only two teams with no shot of winning one of the most mediocre divisions in football, and headed into their Week 17 rematch, both the Vikings and Lions could be playing their final games with their current coaches. The Vikings have reportedly been doing their homework on potential replacements for Leslie Frazier, while Jim Schwartz could also be on his way out in Detroit after the team followed a 6-3 start with five losses in its next six games. The final game at Mall of America Field (aka the Metrodome) could also be the last before each team embarks on some major changes.

To get you ready for the game and for what might be next for both teams, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discussed the matchup and the future of these NFC North foes.

Goessling: Michael, I’d wish you a relaxing offseason, but I think we’re probably both a ways from that starting, in light of what’s going on with these two teams. Frazier has been unable to get consistent quarterback play or reliable defense, particularly against the pass and at the end of games, but as usual, what’s happening with the Lions seems more combustible than that. After another late-season meltdown, do you think there’s any chance Schwartz survives as coach?

Rothstein: I guess there's always a chance, but I have an extremely difficult time seeing it after the Lions lost five of six games entering Sunday and played themselves out of a divisional title. That plus the mistakes Detroit has made, from turnovers to penalties to fourth-quarter collapses, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

But this is the Ford family, and it has shown more patience than almost any other owner in any sport, so there's always that chance it just rides things out with Schwartz. Still, it would send a pretty bad message after four seasons out of the playoffs in five seasons under Schwartz.

Flipping that question back to you -- what do you think Minnesota does with Frazier? The players really seem to like him, so do you think that plays into what we'll see Sunday?

Goessling: I have a hard time seeing Frazier survive, as much as the players like him. Adrian Peterson said on Sunday he planned to go to the Wilf family after the season and let the owners know he wanted Frazier to stay on as coach. He’s also said he wants to play the rest of his career for Frazier. Those are pretty strong statements from a guy whom the Vikings probably want to keep happy more than anyone else on their roster. But they also wouldn’t give Frazier a contract extension after he went 10-6 last season, and with everything that’s looked disjointed at times this year -- five blown leads in the last minute of games, the reluctance to use Cordarrelle Patterson early in the season and, of course, the mess at quarterback -- I can’t see the Wilfs standing pat. GM Rick Spielman is responsible for a fair share of this, possibly more than Frazier, but heading into a new stadium, the Vikings are looking for a jolt. They’re more likely to get that with a new coach than a new GM.

Shifting to Sunday’s game, the Lions came back to beat the Vikings in September because of how well they used Reggie Bush, but he hasn’t looked like the same guy in a number of games since then. Is that mostly attributable to the calf injury he’s had, or is there something else going on?

Rothstein: It's tough to tell with Bush. I think he is, in some ways, hampered by the calf injury and all of the earlier injuries he's suffered this season. There are also the issues of his fumbles, which have been a problem all season, and his dropped passes. Bush is still an electrifying player, but his ineffectiveness at times has been due to how Detroit chooses to use him. He sliced up the Vikings with screen plays and short passes out of the backfield, and Detroit hasn't done as much with him in that area lately. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Joique Bell, a gifted runner who plays hard.

Sticking with the game, and really this might be more of a finality point as well, how does Jared Allen view Sunday? Is this it for him in Minnesota, and how much of a problem can he cause for a somewhat-struggling Lions offense?

Goessling: I do think this is it for Allen in Minnesota. He’ll be a free agent after the season, he’s carrying a cap figure of more than $17 million this year and he’s talked in recent weeks about how he’d rather retire than be a situational pass-rusher. He might be overestimating his value, and he could be singing a different tune when he does get out into the free-agent market in March, but I don’t think he’ll be back with the Vikings. They gave an extension to Brian Robison during the season, and they could also bring back Everson Griffen, who’s inconsistent (and a bit unpredictable) but immensely talented.

Allen has talked about how he’s still creating opportunities but just hasn’t been able to finish a few sacks. But when did you ever hear him say that in the past? It seems he’s lost a bit of his ability to get around the edge in time, and a handful of his sacks have come because he’s so relentless. The Bengals did a fantastic job of getting the ball out quick on Sunday, and Allen was shut out. If the Lions can do what they did in September, it’s possible to keep Allen pretty quiet.

Last one from me: What kind of an effort do you expect from the Lions on Sunday? It seems a bit like they’ve packed it in after all the losses, and with nothing on the line now, I can’t imagine they’re going to suddenly be able to reignite themselves. Will the shot at an 8-8 record and the chance to save Schwartz a little face be enough, or will the Vikings close down the Metrodome against an uninspired opponent?

Rothstein: That's one of the biggest questions of this week, and it is a question I really don't know the answer to. I think it depends how much they have left. Calvin Johnson is banged-up. Matthew Stafford has struggled in the second half of the season. DeAndre Levy was hobbling out of the locker room Sunday. There are a lot of guys hurting at this point, a lot of key guys for the Lions going forward.

It might be the most unanswerable question with this team right now. All season, even during the losing stretch, there was the possibility of the playoffs and a division title to cling to. Now there's just pride. It'll be an interesting thing to see.

So I'll finish up with this for you. Since this is the last game in the Metrodome -- and my first -- is there any particular memory that stands out about the place to you?

Goessling: Boy, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been watching all kinds of games -- NFL, MLB, college football, college basketball and high school football -- since I was a kid, and I’ll have a piece on my blog on Friday with some of those memories. But I’ll share one quick story. It was from one of my first college football games when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was the fall of 2001 against Purdue, and there were too many bizarre things that happened in the game to recount here, but it wound up in overtime, and after Purdue scored, the Gophers lost the game on a finish that could’ve happened only in the Metrodome.

Here’s what happened: Travis Cole threw a touchdown pass to Antoine Henderson that would’ve tied the game. Henderson was clearly inbounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Why? Well, the Gophers used to paint their end zones gold but left a strip of green turf between the gold paint and the sideline to make it easier to convert the field for Vikings games. Henderson’s foot was inbounds but outside the gold paint, so the official lost track of the sideline and called him out of bounds. That’s kind of the Metrodome in a nutshell -- built to be serviceable for any number of different sports, but not really ideal for anything. Still, at a cost of $55 million in 1982, it’s certainly paid for itself several times over.

Live blog: Vikings at Lions

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
12:44
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Minnesota Vikings' visit to the Detroit Lions. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. See you there.

Double Coverage: Vikings at Lions

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz AP Photo Neither Leslie Frazier nor Jim Schwartz enters the season with much long-term job security.
Two teams in win-or-else mode will open the season Sunday at Ford Field.

In 2012, the Detroit Lions had their third losing season in four years under coach Jim Schwartz. A fourth in five years could end his tenure.

The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, decided not to extend the contract of coach Leslie Frazier after his 10-6 breakthrough season last year. His deal is up in 2014, and assuming the Vikings don't want to bring him back in a lame-duck situation, Frazier will either get a contract extension or be fired after this season.

The Vikings swept the Lions in the 2012 regular season after the Lions did the same in 2011. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert discuss the matchup:

Kevin Seifert: Ben, the Lions have had all offseason to prepare for Adrian Peterson, who gashed them for 273 yards in two games last season. They've got Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing next to each other on the inside and overall have a bigger and more physical defensive line than they had last year. I'm not saying the Lions are going to shut down Peterson on Sunday, but I do think the Vikings can't go into the game relying on him to carry their offense. So that brings me to the big question surrounding this team: Do you think the Vikings' passing game has improved enough to do its share?

Ben Goessling: They'd certainly have to hope so based on what they did for Christian Ponder this offseason, adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson to their group of receivers. But the thing that concerns me with Ponder in this matchup is how he'll respond to the pressure the Lions will bring. He still seemed to struggle with that in the preseason, though he had one of his best games of the year against the Lions in the Metrodome last November. The Lions pressured him on just 11 drop-backs in both games last season, but if they can get to him more often than that, I don't like Ponder's chances of carrying the Vikings, should he need to do so. And if the Lions can exploit the Vikings' new-look secondary, Ponder could find himself playing from behind, where he hasn't been terribly good. The question is, will the Lions be able to burn the Vikings with their passing game enough to put Ponder in a hole?

Seifert: That's a fair question, Ben. The Lions seemed to do what they needed to this offseason by signing running back Reggie Bush, who would presumably keep defenses off balance and give the Lions a big-time outlet for all those times when Calvin Johnson was in the middle of some kind of exotic coverages.

But for many reasons, the offense never really looked sharp in the preseason. The most obvious factor was that Johnson didn't play much, of course, but Bush had almost no running room behind a still-evolving offensive line. It also seemed pretty clear that the Lions don't have a No. 2 receiver to play alongside Johnson, a role that was once targeted for Titus Young before his well-publicized off-field issues.

With all that said, however, the connection between Stafford and Johnson is real and special. There is every reason to consider them a formidable challenge for the Vikings -- especially considering the state of their secondary. Why don't you fill in our good readers on that situation, Ben?

Goessling: I'd be happy to. Essentially, it's my opinion that the Vikings' secondary depth might be the biggest issue facing their defense headed into the season. As a whole, it's probably the second-biggest concern behind Ponder.

The Vikings let Antoine Winfield go in March, moving ahead with a secondary that features one injury-prone corner (Chris Cook), a second-year man trying to replace Winfield's excellent slot coverage skills (Josh Robinson) and a rookie (Xavier Rhodes). There's enough talent and size to make it work, especially with safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford offering help in coverage, but the Vikings are rolling the dice with the cornerbacks they've got. The Lions might not be deep enough at receiver to fully test the Vikings' depth, but Calvin Johnson is as big of a challenge for Minnesota as Adrian Peterson is for Detroit.

The Vikings bottled Johnson up at Ford Field last year, bracketing him with Smith or Sanford on top of Cook and hitting him throughout the game. But with Cook injured at the Metrodome, Johnson went wild for 207 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Lions use him, and what kinds of matchups they can generate against an inexperienced secondary.

You brought up Bush earlier, too, Kevin. The Vikings' run defense isn't what it used to be, and it looks like they could be dealing with injuries at the defensive tackle position this week. Stafford threw the ball a combined 93 times against the Vikings last year, and lost both games. Will Bush be effective enough to give the Lions the balance they need to win?

Seifert: Let's put it this way. If the Vikings use the typical kind of defense the Lions usually see for Calvin Johnson, and Bush still can't get any yards against a depleted defense, then the Lions are going to have problems this season. The Lions have to be able to run the ball this year better than they did in 2012. Teams gave them more six-man boxes than any team in the NFL and they still couldn't get it done. It was a primary offseason goal and it has to be better this season.

Any last words, Ben? You're going to be out there in Detroit. I'll be elsewhere. What's the one thing that has to happen to ensure a Vikings victory? From the Lions' perspective, I'll say it will be Bush getting 100 rushing yards.

Goessling: I think it's Ponder playing like he did in the second game against the Lions last year. The Vikings don't need to get into a shootout -- and if the game turns into that, they probably won't be able to keep up anyway -- but they need confident, reliable quarterback play this season, and this game seems as good as any for him to start it.

#NFLRank: An offensive NFC North

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
11:45
AM ET


The history of the NFC North takes you back to the old NFC Central, when hardscrabble teams brutalized one another with violent trench play in cold weather. The Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings ran the ball hard, hit their opponents harder, scored only when necessary and produced a well-deserved nickname as the "Black and Blue" division.

I think we can all agree that times have changed.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDetroit's Calvin Johnson narrowly edged Adrian Peterson for the No. 2 spot in the #NFLRank project.
The finale of our #NFLRank project brings another reminder of what this division has become. The NFL's top three offensive players all come from the NFC North, according to 63 ESPN football analysts. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ranked No. 1, followed by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson.

Reasonable people could quibble with the placement of Johnson and Peterson, but there shouldn't be much debate about the trio's status in the league. Rodgers is arguably the NFL's best player, on offense or defense, and Peterson was the 2012 MVP. Pass-catchers aren't always valued in the same breath as quarterbacks and running backs, but Johnson set the NFL record for receiving yards in a season last year, and his unique skills and production were rightfully recognized in this project.

How have these three players affected the NFC North? Last season, the Black and Blue division hosted the NFL's second-most-prolific passing offense (Lions) and its highest-rated passing game (Packers). Peterson, meanwhile, elevated the Vikings to the NFL's second-most-productive rushing team in 2012.

All four NFC North teams, in fact, finished among the top half of the NFL in scoring offense last season, led by the Packers (27.1 points per game) at No. 5 overall. Over the past five seasons -- a time when Rodgers, Johnson and Peterson have all been regular NFC North players -- the division has had six instances of a team's finishing in the top five in NFL scoring. This division's teams have finished among the top half in NFL scoring 14 times (of a possible 20 opportunities).

I'm sure many of you are wondering whether Johnson finished ahead of Peterson based on the strong belief that he is a better player -- or if it reflects the modern-day obsession most of us have with skill-position players in the passing game.

First, it's important to know how close the voting was. Our 63-person voting group rated players on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest a player could get. They had the same number of 10s, but Johnson got one more 9 than Peterson.

So is there any way to differentiate between the two?

As a running back, Peterson touches the ball far more times -- 388 times in 2012 -- than Johnson, who had 122 receptions last season on 204 targets. But as a receiver, Johnson produced nearly as many yards (1,964) as Peterson (2,097) in far fewer opportunities.

Both players attracted extraordinary defensive attention last season and succeeded despite a near-total lack of offensive balance. The Vikings were the NFL's weakest downfield passing team in 2012 -- their average pass traveled a league-low 6.3 yards past the line of scrimmage -- while the Lions faced more six-man rushing boxes than any other NFL team.

I don't think I could pick between the two. I gave both players 10s on my ballots -- once I remembered they play in the NFC North. Historically, it's something to behold.

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