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.