By DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Pro Football Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions finally had a comeback fall short, by just a few seconds and even fewer inches last weekend against Atlanta.
The Lions have had no time to lament, of course, with a difficult game looming at division rival Minnesota.
If there were sympathies actually being expressed around this unforgiving league, well, the Vikings would be the last team in line after the way they were swept by the Lions in 2016.
“It’s frustrating, but we’ve just got to stay out of that situation,” said wide receiver Golden Tate, who was stopped in front of the goal line in the 30-26 loss to the Falcons . “Control what we can control, and that’s getting that job done earlier.”
Two of the eight late and successful rallies by the Lions last season came at Minnesota’s expense, outcomes that wound up swinging a wild-card berth Detroit’s way and keeping the Vikings out of the playoffs despite a 5-0 start.
The Lions trailed 16-13 with 23 seconds to play on Nov. 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium before hustling to set up Matt Prater’s overtime-forcing 58-yard field goal.
Stafford found Tate for a 28-yard touchdown to end that game after whiffs in the secondary by Vikings standouts Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.
Eighteen days later, an interception by Darius Slay at Ford Field set up the winning kick by Prater as time expired at Ford Field.
So when Tate’s touchdown was overturned last weekend by replay review, triggering by obscure rule a 10-second runoff that sealed a victory for the unbeaten reigning NFC champion Falcons, the Vikings could relate to the feeling.
The Vikings (2-1) will have their opportunity for payback on Sunday when they host the Lions (2-1), the first of three consecutive NFC North foes.
“This is a very important game for us, I know,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Anytime we play the Lions it’s always been a good battle.”
Here are some other key angles to follow during the game:
The Lions let Riley Reiff become a free agent last spring and sign with the Vikings, with full faith in Taylor Decker as their cornerstone left tackle. After a solid rookie season, though, Decker hurt his shoulder during the offseason and needed surgery he’s still recovering from.
That prompted an emergency trade with the Los Angeles Rams for Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in the 2014 draft.
With a new right side after signing guard T.J. Lang and tackle Rick Wagner, Detroit still might have a stronger group despite the absence of Decker. But Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who’s tied for fourth in the NFL with four sacks, has declared Robinson to be the weak link.
“To be quite honest, he’s kind of lazy,” Griffen said, when asked for his scouting report on the player who’ll be trying to block him most often on Sunday. “He gets beat on the inside, and I think the biggest thing is he’s just got to compete more.”
Reiff, who has stabilized a left tackle spot that was Minnesota’s biggest problem position last year, will have his own challenge of blocking Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah. That doesn’t mean the Lions don’t miss him a little.
“He’s a man’s man. He’s one of the finest guys that I think anyone in this business has an opportunity to coach,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
The Lions had only 10 interceptions last season, but they’ve already picked off seven passes in three games, the second-most in the NFL. They’re leading the league with a plus-6 turnover margin, with two interceptions apiece by Slay and Glover Quin.
“They’re stopping teams. They’re getting the ball back for us. Shoot, they’re scoring sometimes, which is a whole lot of fun,” Stafford said.
With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings are second and third in the NFL in individual receiving yards. The Lions secondary ought to be their toughest test to date, with Case Keenum getting his third straight start in place of the injured Sam Bradford.
“They’re making some plays on the ball. They’re reacting, and they’re doing some great things,” Diggs said. “Obviously, they’re getting turnovers. So it’s going to be our job to hold on to the ball.”
NO PRESSURE FOR PRATER
Prater made two field goals from 55-plus yards last week, the ninth and 10th makes of his career from that distance. Only Sebastian Janikowski, with 13 for the Oakland Raiders, made more. Stafford said he’s enjoyed hearing the sound for Prater’s foot solidly hitting the ball at home games when it’s quieter for the offense.
“He’s been doing a heck of a job,” Stafford said.
Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes, the first-round draft pick in 2015 out of Michigan State, had one of three interceptions last week in a win over Tampa Bay. This is his first season as a full-time starter.
“Trae seems to be getting better all the time,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s starting to develop more confidence. There’s still things he needs to work on, but he’s got such great athletic ability that he just needs to continue to use it. Sometimes he overthinks a little bit. Just go out and play.”
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