NFL Preview - Detroit (3-2) at Minnesota (2-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not who you play, it's when you play them.
And the Minnesota Vikings may be getting the Detroit Lions this week without the NFL's best wide receiver, Calvin Johnson.
The three-time All-Pro did not practice Wednesday because of a high ankle sprain and the tea leaves say it's doubtful that Johnson will suit up Sunday when the two NFC North rivals clash at TCF Bank Stadium.
"He's certainly getting treated and coming along, but we'll see at the end of the week," Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said.
The Vikings, meanwhile, will be getting back rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from a sprained ankle, a virtual necessity because the team looked lost with former starter Christian Ponder running the show during a 42-10 thumping in Green Bay during Week 5.
Ponder rushed for a touchdown and completed 22 of his 44 passes for 222 yards and two interceptions against the Packers but sapped the entire team's confidence with his almost laughable, ineffectual play.
Matt Asiata rushed 15 times for 72 yards and Adam Thielen had 57 yards on four catches in defeat.
"We have to learn how to stop the run and quit doing dumb things," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said while trying to ignore the elephant in the room in Ponder's play.
The Lions are also coming off a loss when Buffalo's Dan Carpenter booted a 58- yard field goal with just four seconds to lift the Bills to a 17-14 win over Detroit.
Matthew Stafford went 18-for-31 for 221 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the Lions, who had won their previous two games. Golden Tate caught seven passes for 134 yards and a score.
"Obviously a tough one to lose but you have to give credit to (Buffalo), they did a good job shutting down the run and putting pressure on Stafford today," said Caldwell.
After Alex Henery missed his third field goal attempt of the game, a 50-yarder that wasn't even close, the Bills had the ball at their own 40 with 21 seconds to play.
The first snap saw Sammy Watkins bobble a pass, but he held on to it for a 20- yard gain. The Bills then called their last timeout and following an incompletion, Carpenter lined up for a 58-yarder and banged it through.
Detroit's final play saw the team try using the lateral after a reception by Corey Fuller, but it went nowhere as the Bills recovered the loose ball for the win.
The Vikings lead the all-time series by a significant 69-34-2 margin and have won three of the past four.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Bridgewater will attempt to pick up where he left off two weeks ago against the Falcons in his first NFL start when he threw for 317 yards and rushed for a touchdown while energizing an entire franchise which had been dealing with awful play at the game's important position for years. Overall the Minnesota offense complied 558 total yards against Atlanta, the fourth-best mark in team history.
"I've been able to spend a bunch of time in the training room since we got back from Green Bay," Bridgewater said. "The ankle is feeling good, and I'm excited to get back out there for this game this weekend."
When Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, makes his second start Sunday, three of the team's top-five projected playmakers will either be banished (RB Adrian Peterson), released (WR Jerome Simpson) or injured (TE Kyle Rudolph).
He'll also be facing the NFL's No. 1 ranked defense which features three No. 1 picks on the defensive line, led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in 2010.
"Their front four is very great, a great group of guys," Bridgewater said. "Very stingy in the run game, so we know we're going to be up for a challenge, but it's one of those challenges that we're looking forward to."
The Lions stop unit is allowing just 282.4 yards per game overall and is fourth against the run, surrendering 74.4 ypg and fifth in passing defense with 208 ypg. Detroit is also is second in points allowed at 15.8 per game.
"They're obviously number one in the league defensively for a reason," Zimmer said. "It's not just their front, but they're playing good in the back end as well, but their defense kind of thrives from their front guys."
For Detroit, Johnson has been ailing for weeks, originally suffering a high ankle sprain in a 19-7 win over Green Bay on Sept. 21, before aggravating the injury again in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo.
The Lions will play it close to the vest but they probably look at this game and see all the issues plaguing the Vikings and see a logical spot to rest not only Johnson but also running back Reggie Bush, who is also dealing with an ankle injury.
"You want to be smart," Johnson said. "You don't want to put yourself in a position where you can't be there for the team when it comes down to it there at the end, and that's what we're trying to be smart about right now. Anytime you're dealing with an ankle, you got to run, you got to cut and do all those things, so it makes it tough."
Tate has done well as the main receiver in Johnson's stead.
"I don't like to call myself a No. 2 receiver for anyone," Tate said. "Obviously (Johnson's) the No. 1 for sure, but 1B sounds good."
After Henery's disastrous performance last week, Detroit signed former Pro Bowler kicker Matt Prater on Tuesday. Prater, who was released by the Denver Broncos last week after serving a four- game suspension, will be the team's third kicker already this season.
The Lions cut rookie Nate Freese after Week 3 and released Henery on Monday after he missed the three field goal attempts in the loss to Buffalo.
Prater, 30, missed just one of his 26 attempts last season and set an NFL record with a 64-yard field goal against Tennessee in December. He spent the last six-plus seasons with Denver but was suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, reportedly over alcohol-related offenses.
"Sometimes you've got to get knocked down to learn the hard way," Prater said. "I'm thankful that I have a second chance here and learn from all the mistakes I've made in the past."
The Vikings probably couldn't keep up with a healthy Lions club but the injuries will put this game in play.
Even though it's very early in his career, Bridgewater has already shown the ability and leadership skills to ignite an entire organization. Figure on that continuing here.
"We know that it's going to be a challenge for us," Bridgewater said. "We're just going to try our best to execute the game plan and eventually we would like to come out with the win."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Vikings 23, Lions 20
10/12 07:39:29 ET