DETROIT - As the sun rose Sunday morning in the Motor City, the Vikings were facing a game without their offensive MVP. They were sifting through reports of another arrest, this time from the coaching ranks, and, golly, they didn't even know the identity of their starting quarterback (wink, wink) for their matinee against the Lions.
Las Vegas, which installed Detroit as a 1½-point favorite, was betting against them. At Ford Field, the usual pregame booing seemed softer while beleaguered Lions fans clung to peripheral optimism. And after a week of injuries, player outbursts and awkward secrecy around their quarterback, it was not clear whether the Vikings themselves believed they could extend their winning streak against Detroit to 10 games.
So after securing a 30-20 victory, courtesy of a three-touchdown spurt in the game's first 17 minutes, the Vikings moved slowly to regain their swagger.
Mostly, they thanked their lucky stars that the Lions committed six turnovers, failed to score from the 1-yard line with 5:06 remaining and became the first Vikings opponent this season to fall for a third-down screen pass to Mewelde Moore.
"I think we just need to believe in ourselves and have confidence," safety Darren Sharper said. "Even when things are going upside down, if we keep believing in ourselves, we can do this. We're still the same team that was 2-0 and 4-2 in the beginning of the season that everyone was talking about. We just need to believe that we can win each game. They're all must-wins right now."
Embarrassed and angry, Sharper called for dramatic changes after the Vikings' 23-13 loss last Sunday in Chicago. Coach Brad Childress responded by creating a quarterback controversy of sorts, declining to name his starter publicly even though multiple sources confirmed it would be Brad Johnson.
Johnson turned in what Childress called a "proficient" performance, throwing for 159 yards and only one turnover -- an interception that Lions cornerback Jamar Fletcher returned 88 yards for a touchdown. Childress declined to extend the fun another week, smiling when he announced that Johnson would start Sunday against the Jets.
Childress, in fact, pulled most of the right strings Sunday, even getting Johnson his first rushing touchdown in five years by calling a bootleg from the 3-yard line in the second quarter. Johnson's touchdown gave the Vikings a 20-0 lead with 13:41 remaining in the second quarter, one of three scores -- and 23 points in total -- the Vikings scored after Lions turnovers.
While Johnson did his part, Childress' surprise choice to replace injured Chester Taylor produced a career day. Childress considered Artose Pinner's vertical style to represent the best replacement for Taylor, and Pinner responded by rushing for 125 yards and three short touchdowns against his former team.
Childress sweated out the final moments while the Lions ate into a 30-13 fourth-quarter lead. But he could breathe easier when Detroit coach Rod Marinelli, trailing by 10 points with 3:46 left, eschewed a 19-yard field goal and tried for a touchdown from the 1-yard line. Safety Dwight Smith sacked Kitna, ending the Lions' hopes.
"There have been a lot of games this season that I thought we could have won by four touchdowns, [including today]," Childress said. "That's all in hindsight. But you just need to win by one, and we took care of that."
Childress' defense limited the Lions to minus-3 rushing yards, a 35-year NFL low if it stands after review by the Elias Sports Bureau, and has forced 11 turnovers in its past two games. That trend, defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said, must continue.
"Really and sincerely," Tomlin said, "that's what it's about. We've put ourselves in position where we're on life support in terms of the playoffs. We have to throw style points and everything else out the window."
Yes, Tomlin mentioned the "P-word" that seemed to have all but fallen from the Vikings' vocabulary last week. At 6-7, the Vikings remain in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth. They play two of their final three games at home, and their remaining opponents combine for a 17-21 record.
Perhaps it only took a game in which an opponent self-destructed to a greater degree for the Vikings to realize what they can still accomplish.
"If we don't make as many mistakes," Sharper said, "we can beat anybody."
In front of the adjoining locker, Sharper's fellow safety was making a similar case.
"Hopefully when guys get home tonight and watch 'SportsCenter,' " Smith said, "they'll see that we're still in it. The light will go on in people's heads that we've still got a shot, because we do."