DETROIT – Adrian Peterson busted through defenses on his way to one of the best seasons in NFL history for a running back while guiding the Minnesota Vikings to a surprising playoff appearance in 2012.
Calvin Johnson’s record-setting performance didn’t have the same effect on the Detroit Lions, who finished below .500 for the 11th time in 12 years.
Their teams will look for each superstar to take some pressure off their much-maligned quarterbacks as Minnesota visits Detroit in Sunday’s season opener.
Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards – nine shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season record – as Minnesota won its last four games to finish 10-6. His only 100-yard performance through the first six was a 102-yard effort in a 20-13 win at Detroit on Sept. 30, and he ran for 171 and a touchdown against the Lions in a 34-24 victory Nov. 11.
Johnson caught 12 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting, then broke Jerry Rice’s single-season record by finishing with 1,964 yards on a career-best 122 receptions.
That defeat, though, began an eight-game losing streak to end a 4-12 season for Johnson and the Lions. While Peterson had the most team success last season, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier believes they are two of the most dynamic players in the NFL.
“He’s one of those guys, much like with Adrian, you have to have a plan for Calvin Johnson,” Frazier. “Even though you may know he’s going to get the football, you can’t always stop what he does.
“They’re two great players, and they make it hard for any defense.”
Peterson rushed for 99 yards in a 24-10 wild-card loss to Green Bay, but the story was a contusion to Christian Ponder’s throwing arm that kept him from playing in that contest.
It marked another disappointment in an already lackluster career for Ponder, who has only two 300-yard games and has completed just 59.3 percent of his passes in 26 starts.
Minnesota brought in plenty of receiving help, signing Greg Jennings from the Packers and drafting Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round to help make up for the loss of Percy Harvin, who was traded to Seattle.
“I’m just fully confident in what I’m doing,” Ponder said. “With the pieces that we brought in around me this year, it’s going to make my job easier. … I just expect to be overall a better quarterback.”
Not to mention he still has Peterson behind him as the Vikings center the majority of their offense around their star back. Minnesota matched a franchise record with 2,634 rushing yards last season, while Ponder finished 21st in the league in pass attempts.
“We were vanilla in some respects. But the way we’re set up, we’re not going to be very exotic in the passing game,” Frazier said. “We put a heavy emphasis on what we do in the run game.”
That’s not the case in Detroit, especially with a weapon like Johnson. However, a disappointing season has led to questions about quarterback Matthew Stafford after dipping from 10-6 and a playoff appearance in 2011.
Stafford threw for 4,967 yards and 20 touchdowns, less than half of his career-best 41 two years ago. He’s just 1-22 against teams that end the season .500 or better.
“This is a team sport, but at the same time, in this league especially, if your quarterback plays well, you’ve got a chance to win the game. I’m no stranger to that,” said Stafford, who in July received a $53 million, three-year extension through 2017.
“I’ve been through a 10-6 season, been through a 4-12 season. I’m determined to be on the winning end of it.”
Detroit signed Reggie Bush to add some stability to a running game that finished 23rd in the NFL with 100.8 yards per game. The offense as a whole ranked third, averaging 408.8 yards.
Bush also is expected to be a target for Stafford out of the backfield, but he’s certainly aware that Johnson will be the main focus of the offense.
“I didn’t understand what a freak of nature he is until I got here and saw some of the stuff that he does,” Bush said. “That’s why they call him Megatron. It’s going to be fun to play with him this year. For a running back like me, it’s a dream come true. I love having a guy like that on the outside. I definitely feel like we’re going to complement each other.”
Peterson has averaged 105.9 yards rushing and scored nine TDs in 11 games against the Lions, with Minnesota winning eight.
Detroit might have an easier time putting pressure on Ponder and slowing Peterson if defensive end Ziggy Ansah can play. The No. 5 overall pick in the draft suffered a concussion in practice late in the preseason, but he practiced Friday and is probable.
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