The Minnesota Vikings are alone in first place in the NFC North.* I'll be honest with you--I didn't think that statement would hold true at any point of the 2012 season. But here we are, one-fourth of the way in and the Vikings sit atop of their division with a surprising 3-1 record.
If you didn't catch the game and only glanced at the box score from Sunday's game in Detroit, you'd be surprised that the Vikings pulled off the victory. The Vikings managed a measly 227 yards of total offense against a team that allowed over 40 points in three of their previous five games dating back to last season. Matthew Stafford threw for over 200 yards more than Christian Ponder. Breakout tight end Kyle Rudolph was held to just two receptions for eight yards while his counterpart, Brandon Pettigrew, caught seven balls for 67 yards.
So how the heck did the Vikings manage to end their 11-game divisional losing streak on the road with stats like that? There's an old cliché that says a handful of plays change the outcome of most NFL games and this game was no different. Special teams and defense had a huge impact on Minnesota escaping with a win. Let's walk through the play-by-play provided by Pro Football Reference and choose the five plays that had the most impact:
- First quarter, 15:00 remaining: Jason Hanson kicks off 70 yards, returned by Percy Harvin for 105 yards, touchdown
Well that didn't take long. The first play of the game was definitely a big one--Harvin's kick return sucked the life out of the Ford Field crowd while giving the Vikings a ton of confidence. When your team has lost eleven consecutive division games, getting out to a quick start is vital. That's just what Percy Harvin and the kick return unit were able to do.
- First quarter, 13:10 remaining: Matthew Stafford pass incomplete deep right intended for Tony Scheffler (defended by Josh Robinson)
After the Vikings jumped out to their 7-0 lead, it appeared as though the Lions would strike back on their first drive of the game. A 56-yard defensive pass interference penalty on the Lions' first play from scrimmage moved them deep into Minnesota territory. But the Vikings defense held firm, capped off by a nice defensive play from rookie corner Josh Robinson. The play might seem a little innocuous to include on this list, but it set the tone for what was to come the rest of the day. Minnesota's secondary kept everything in front of them, holding all-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson to a mere 54 yards on 5 catches (none of which were over 19 yards). Safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford were consistently defending passes and jarring the ball loose all day. In fact, running back Joique Bell was Detroit's leading receiver on Sunday. He was often Stafford's only option underneath because Minnesota did an excellent job of shutting down the long ball.
- Second quarter, 1:55 remaining: Matthew Stafford pass incomplete short middle intended for Brandon Pettigrew
You'll notice that this play didn't have a "defended by" statement at the end of it like the previous one did. That's because Pettigrew was wide open in the end zone on this play and simply dropped it. The Lions tight end had a good day overall, but his drop took four points off the board as Detroit settled for a field goal on the next play. This miscue deflated the Lions' momentum heading into halftime and was indicative of the crucial mistakes that ultimately cost Detroit the game.
- Third quarter, 13:30 remaining: Nick Harris punts 41 yards, returned by Marcus Sherels for 77 yards, touchdown
Another no-brainer to include when you're listing impact plays. Sherels' remarkable return highlighted how Mike Priefer has improved his team's return units--the convoy of blockers that escorted Sherels into the end zone was an impressive display of teamwork. On the other side of the ball, it showed that Detroit's special teams are a glaring weakness. Allowing four kick returns for touchdowns in two games is simply unacceptable and the Lions have paid the price for it. While Sherels must be commended for keeping his feet as he pinballed down field, the Lions had a few opportunities to make relatively easy tackles.
- Fourth quarter, 9:51 remaining: Matthew Stafford sacked by Everson Griffen for -10 yards
After Blair Walsh missed the first field goal of his NFL career and a chance to make it a three-score game, Detroit quickly marched the ball down to the red zone and threatened to cut the 14-point lead in half. With nearly ten minutes left, there was plenty of time for a Detroit comeback especially with how Minnesota's offense was sputtering. But once again, the Vikings' defense didn't break in the red zone. An unblocked Everson Griffen bowled over Stafford before he had a chance to throw which forced a turnover on downs. Once again, this play was a microcosm of the Vikings defense coming up big while Detroit failed to properly adjust.
While the Vikings' victory wasn't as impressive or comprehensive as their win over the 49ers the previous week, it still counts just the same. Minnesota has already equaled their 2011 win total because they're making the big plays when they need to be made in all three phases of the game.