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NFL Preview - Minnesota (2-1) at Detroit (1-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Intrigue over Matthew Stafford will greet an improving Minnesota team on the verge of matching its win total from all of last season as the Detroit Lions host the Vikings at Ford Field.
The Lions lost Stafford to a strained hip on Sunday and they are hoping the former No. 1 overall pick will be healthy enough to start Sunday at Ford Field.
Stafford went down late in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 44-41 overtime loss at Tennessee, trying to chase down the Titans' Alterraun Verner, who had stripped the ball out of the hands of Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew before taking it 72 yards for a touchdown.
"He had a muscle pull, or a leg pull, a hamstring pull," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "It started bothering him during the game and it got to the point where we had to go with Shaun (Hill)."
Stafford was unable to practice Wednesday but returned a day later and appears on track to start this week barring any setbacks.
Hill actually guided the Lions on two touchdown drives to tie the game against the Titans before Detroit eventually fell in the extra frame.
Stafford has thrown for 863 yards and three touchdowns along with four interceptions on the season and is considered one of the NFL's top up and coming young signal callers while Hill, although he performed admirably under difficult circumstances last week, is limited physically.
After watching a 14-point lead evaporate in the final minute of play, including a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation that tied the game for the Lions, the Titans started overtime with the ball and were able to get a 26-yard field goal from Rob Bironas with 10:36 left.
Hill, who started his NFL career with the Vikings, responded and a 26-yard catch by Calvin Johnson got the ball into Tennessee territory.
Facing a 4th-and-inches at the Tennessee 7, Detroit wanted to try to draw the Titans offsides but center Dominic Raiola didn't get the memo and snapped the ball. Hill attempted to push forward but the rest of the line didn't fire off and he was stymied.
"The sneak was just miscommunication," said Schwartz. "We wanted to draw them offsides, but the crowd was loud. It was my fault, I should have called a timeout there."
Stafford finished the game 33-for-42 with 278 yards and a TD, while Hill was 10-for-13 with two scores and 172 yards in his limited time.
Johnson had just one catch for six yards in the first half, but finished the game with 10 grabs for 164 yards and a score, while Mikel Leshoure, making his season debut after missing all of last season with an Achilles' injury, totaled 100 yards and a score on 26 carries and had four catches for 34 yards in his NFL debut for the Lions (1-2), who have dropped two straight after winning their season-opener against St. Louis.
"I've been around a lot of crazy games, but I don't know if I've ever been in one like this," said Schwartz. "We were lucky to even be in the game at the end."
The lightly-regarded Vikings, meanwhile, stunned the football world by dominating the mighty 49ers last week.
Christian Ponder threw a pair of touchdown passes to Kyle Rudolph and also ran for a score on Sunday as the Minnesota Vikings outplayed San Francisco en route to a 24-13 victory.
Ponder went 21-of-35 for 198 yards while Rudolph finished with 36 yards on five catches for the Vikings (2-1), who were coming off a last-second loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2.
"We know with him back there, he's accurate, we're going to pick up first downs, we're never going to be out of a football game," Vikings center John Sullivan said of Ponder. "It (quarterback position) had kind of been in flux the last couple years."
Percy Harvin had nine receptions for 89 yards in Sunday's win while Adrian Peterson rushed for 86 yards on 25 carries.
"The Vikings did a better job than we did all the way around," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh admitted.
Minnesota, which finished 3-13 last season, has dominated the Lions for most of this series, compiling a gaudy 66-33-2 mark against them but Detroit has turned things around recently winning three straight.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
After looking lost down the stretch of his rookie season Ponder has upped his game significantly early is his sophomore campaign. Ponder is one of just two starting quarterbacks who hasn't thrown an interception so far this season although to be fair, three potential picks have been dropped by the opposition. That said, Ponder has made good decisions by and large and completed over 70 percent of his passes although he rarely throws down the field since the Vikings one proven commodity at receiver, Percy Harvin, is most comfortable in the slot.
That could change this week with the addition of the speedy, athletic Jerome Simpson, who was suspended by the NFL for the first three games after being convicted in a felony drug wrap during the offseason.
"The more plays I get, the more film I watch, it slows down and I just feel so much more comfortable in what I'm doing," said Ponder. "And it helps when the players around you are playing so well."
Simpson, who had a breakout season in Cincinnati a year ago, was allowed to attend team meetings and work out on his own at the Vikings' facility but hasn't been on the field with his teammates since the Aug. 30 preseason finale at Houston.
"We want to utilize his talents as soon as possible," Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's champing at the bit to get out there and help us but we want to get him integrated right away."
Simpson's presence should make things easier for an emerging Vikings offense since his deep speed must be accounted for and respected. Harvin, one of the game's most versatile playmakers, remains the team's top threat at least until Peterson returns to 100 percent while Rudolph looks like an emerging star at tight end.
Running back Toby Gerhart, who may have lost some confidence after fumbling three times last week, and TE John Carlson, who has been limited with a sprained knee, will also be featured at some point this season.
Minnesota's offensive line is a work in progress but is much improved thanks to first year starters at left tackle (Matt Kalil) and right guard (Brandon Fusco). Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft is a natural pass blocker and looks like a future Pro Bowler if he can improve in the run game. Center John Sullivan is the Vikings best o-lineman but has been struggling with a balky ankle.
Detroit has a great front four with Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril leading the way although defensive tackle Corey Williams, who generally plays well against Minnesota, underwent knee surgery and will not play this week.
The Lions also got cornerbacks Chris Houston and Bill Bentley back from injury last week but impact safety Louis Delmas is still sidelined after knee surgery last month.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
The Lions possess one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the league led by Megatron himself. Pettigrew is also a tough matchup at tight end and Johnson's compliments at receiver, Nate Burleson and Titus Young, are also known for making big plays.
If Leshoure can develop some consistency at running back, Detroit figures to have one of the best offenses in pro football.
The Vikings could be without two starters on defense, weakside linebacker Erin Henderson and strong safety Mistral Raymond. Henderson is dealing with a concussion and hadn't been cleared as of midweek while Raymond is out with a partially dislocated ankle. Jamarca Sanford, who has plenty of starting experience, will start in place of Raymond wile veteran Marvin Mitchell will get his second straight start if Henderson can't go.
Chris Cook, a tall, talented corner who has never lived up to his physical gifts, will likely shadow Johnson while Minnesota would like to see a breakout game from ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison in the pass rush.
This should come down to whether Stafford can get on the field or not. If available the former No. 1 overall pick, who started all 16 games in 2011 following two injury-plagued years, will put too much stress on a shaky Minnesota secondary.
"We'll see how (Stafford) progresses through this week," Schwartz said Monday. "Friday we'll make a determination what that availability is."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 30, Vikings 21
09/27 17:26:27 ET