When Chuck Foreman came to Minnesota as an NFL rookie in 1973, there was one thing it didn’t take him long to learn: The Vikings were supposed to beat the Lions.
The Vikings were in the midst of a 13-game winning streak over Detroit at the time, one that would end in 1974. The Vikings ended up going 11-3 against the Lions with Foreman playing as a running back for them from 1973-79.
“The Lions were always one of those teams in my time that you just put a check mark up against, a winning check mark,” Foreman said. “I never felt like we couldn’t beat them. We had to beat ourselves to lose to them. … You’d look at the schedule, and that was a team you could chalk up a win against.”
Flash forward five decades and not much has changed. Minnesota (1-3) heads into Sunday’s noon game against the Lions (0-4) at U.S. Bank Stadium with a seven-game winning streak in a series that began in 1961. A win would give the Vikings their third-longest victory streak against Detroit, following the 13 consecutive victories from 1968-74 and a 10-game run from 2002-06.
Among the 16 teams the Vikings have played 18 or more times in franchise history, they have dominated the Lions like no other. Minnesota holds a 78-39-2 series lead, having doubled them up in wins with a 37-35 win at Detroit in the 2020 season finale.
A look at the record book reveals a multitude of impressive Vikings performances against the Lions, a rival in the West Division from 1961-66, the Central Division from 1967-2001 and in the NFC North since 2002.
In recent years, the Vikings set a team sack record with 10 against the Lions in 2018, and last year Dalvin Cook had a career-high 206 yards rushing against them. Going farther back, Sammy White set the team record with 210 yards receiving against the Lions in 1976, Foreman had the second-best rushing outing in his career with 156 yards against them in 1977, and in a 23-0 win at Detroit in 1988, Minnesota allowed just 60 yards of total offense, which remains tied for a team record.
“After a period of time, it just dawned on the team that it’s just the way life is in this division,” White, who played for the Vikings from 1976-85, said of their domination of the Lions. “Three teams have dominated the division (Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago) and they’re the ones at the bottom of the pole, so automatically I feel like it’s a victory we should count ahead of time.”
With that in mind, White believes this is an ideal time for the Vikings, who are 1-3 and in desperate need of a win, to face the Lions, who are 0-4. Minnesota is a 10-point favorite.
“It’s a perfect time since we’ve dominated them for so long and we definitely need a victory because we can’t afford to go down any farther, especially in the division,” White said of the Vikings, who trail the Packers (3-1) and Bears (2-2) in the NFC North.
The Vikings aren’t looking at it quite that way. They point to the fact that the Lions have lost several close games this season and easily could have a better record.
“We’re going to be on our Ps and Qs,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
After Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, the Vikings actually had their worst seven-game stretch against Detroit since the early 1990s. They went 2-5 against the Lions until starting a seven-game winning streak in 2017.
“I’m not sure it’s anything particular,” linebacker Anthony Barr, a rookie in 2014, said about turning things around. “I think we kind of approach it the same type of way in terms of we have to get this win, and for whatever reason we’ve had success (against Detroit), so hopefully that continues.”
There was a time when the Lions actually were the dominant team in the series. When Minnesota entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1961, Detroit won the first five meetings.
The Vikings finally broke through against the Lions on Nov. 24, 1963, a game played in a somber environment at Metropolitan Stadium, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
For the next several years, the series was mostly even. Then in 1968, behind the Vikings’ the Purple People Eaters defensive line, Minnesota started its 13-game win streak.
“During the 1960s, we had been second behind the Green Bay dynasty and we thought the baton would get passed to us but it was passed to Minnesota,” said Hall of Fame defensive back Dick LeBeau, who played for the Lions from 1969-72. “They built a team up there and had (defensive linemen) Jim Marshall, Alan Page and Carl Eller, and Bud Grant was a great coach.”
Grant, Minnesota’s coach from 1967-83 and in 1985, had an amazing 26-8-1 record against the Lions.
“In those years, we had a great team and Detroit was down,” said Jeff Diamond, who was in Minnesota’s front office from 1976-98, including 1991-98 as general manager. “It turned around a little bit when Barry Sanders arrived.”
When Sanders starred at running back for the Lions from 1989-98, they went 9-11 against the Vikings. That included 1991, the last season the Lions won a playoff game and also a season in which they swept Minnesota.
One of Diamond’s most memorable games against Detroit during his tenure was on Sept. 26, 1976, when the Vikings played at the Pontiac Silverdome, which opened the year before. Grant had a practice of wanting his team to get to a stadium on the road exactly one hour before a game because he believed players would lose energy if they sat around the locker room too long.
But the trip to the game did not go as planned. The team buses, without a police escort in those days, unexpectedly got caught in traffic and the Vikings arrived for their scheduled 1 p.m. game at about 12:45 p.m.
“As we arrived at the stadium, the game officials were waiting for us,” Diamond said. “They said, ‘Coach Grant, you’re going to get penalized 15 yards on the kickoff and get fined $10,000 by the NFL, and the league office wants to talk to you after the game.’ ”
The Vikings were given a short period to warm up and the game started a half hour late. But naturally, the Vikings still won, with a blocked extra point by Nate Allen late in the game securing a 10-9 triumph.
Later that season, there was another memorable game between the teams. The Vikings won Nov. 7 at Metropolitan Stadium when White, then a rookie, caught seven passes for his team-record 210 yards and scored two touchdowns.
“Once you got your confidence of knowing this is a team you’re going to beat, you can put in your head, ‘This is a stat game,’ ” White said. “I’m trying to build up my stats. … They were pretty much blitzing all the time, trying to get the ball out of (quarterback Fran Tarkenton’s) hands as soon as possible, but I could make a little move and be wide open.”
There was one move White wasn’t happy about. He would have had three touchdowns had he not, after hauling in a long pass, held the ball up in celebration five yards shy of the end zone. Lions cornerback Lem Barney dove at his legs from behind, and White lost the ball, which rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.
“I had a big boo-boo,” White said. “That was a national TV game, so I was very embarrassed. I got back to the sideline and Bud said in a calm voice, ‘That’s what I mean by no showboating.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And I never did that again.”
The Vikings still won, 34-21.
The following year, the Vikings concluded the regular season with a nationally televised game against the Lions on a Saturday night. Foreman had the second-best rushing outing of his career, and Minnesota won 30-21 at the Silverdome.
“I always had great games against (the Lions),” Foreman said. “They had some great players come through as individuals. but they never really had any great teams. … They were a tough team, for sure, but they were mistake-prone.”
Flash forward a decade, and the Vikings had what Diamond called “one of the greatest defensive performances” he’s ever seen against the Lions, allowing just 60 yards in the shutout on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 at the Silverdome.
“(Defensive linemen) Keith Millard, Chris Doleman and Henry Thomas just dominated the game, and (the Lions) couldn’t do anything,” Diamond said.
Thomas, a defensive tackle who played for the Vikings from 1987-94, was in his second season then. The first six times he faced Detroit, the Vikings won, although the Lions were able to win six of the next 10 thanks to Sanders.
Then Thomas left as a free agent to sign with Detroit, and he found himself mostly on the losing side. The Lions were 1-3 against Minnesota when he was with them from 1995-96.
“Well, the Lions have struggled as an organization, but they’ve managed to put out some great players,” Thomas said.
So why is it that the Lions, who haven’t won a championship since 1957 and have not been to a Super Bowl since that game began in January 1967, have struggled so mightily?
“If I had those answers, I’d be working for that organization, probably in the front office,” Thomas said.
In a loss to the Vikings in 1995, Thomas watched as Warren Moon uncorked an 85-yard touchdown pass to Quadry Ismail. In 2008, Gus Frerotte threw an 86-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian, meaning two of the six longest pass plays in Minnesota history have come against the Lions.
Speaking of long plays, when Adrian Peterson played for the Vikings from 2007-16, he had two of his five longest runs against Detroit, one for 80 yards and one for 78.
Peterson looked on from the bench in a Sept. 30, 2012, game at Detroit’s Ford Field when, for one of just two times in team history, the Vikings had both a kickoff and punt returned for a touchdown in the same game. Percy Harvin opened the game with a 105-yard kickoff return. Then in the third quarter, Marcus Sherels, on his 25th birthday, had a 77-yard punt return in Minnesota’s 20-13 win.
“To get my first NFL touchdown on my birthday, that was pretty cool,” Sherels said. “I remember Percy getting the kickoff return before that and he said, ‘Now, it’s your turn.’ ”
Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter knows all about big moments against the Lions. He had a career-high 3½ sacks against them in 2018 and a three-sack game against them in 2019. The former was the game at U.S. Bank Stadium in which Minnesota set a team record with 10 sacks.
“It was a big day,” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said of the Vikings overwhelming then-Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Cook had a big day last year against Detroit, running for his career-high 206 yards at U.S. Bank Stadium. Cook, listed as questionable for Sunday’s game due to an ankle injury, wouldn’t mind a repeat performance if he plays.
“If you get 200 yards on a defense in the NFL, it’s a good game,” Cook said. “I had a good game, but it’s a whole different group, different coaching staff (under Dan Campbell), everything is different (this year). … I’m putting that behind me and I’m trying to get more yards, whatever it is, 200, I’m trying to go get it.”
White hopes Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson will have another big game against Detroit. He has a special appreciation for Jefferson since both are Louisiana natives.
The last time Jefferson faced the Lions, in last year’s season finale, he tied a team record for a rookie with nine catches and had 133 yards. Jefferson actually had nine catches three times last season, while White did it twice in 1976.
“I hope it’s another stat game Sunday for my home guy Justin,” White said.