The Detroit Lions have made many a Minnesotan smile over the course of a 99-game series that stretches back to the Vikings' prairie stadium days of Nov. 19, 1961.
For two games in the abyss that was 1984, the Lions made even Les Steckel a .500 coach. For eight games from 2002 to 2005, they made Mike Tice the perfect coach. In 35 meetings, they went 8-26-1 as the fly that Bud Grant routinely swatted en route to Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But something's amiss, fellow Minnesotans.
The Lions have gone Popeye. They've found their spinach -- a three-year partnership between General Manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz -- and, well, as Popeye would say, they "Can't stands no more!"
The 100th meeting is Sunday at Mall of America Field. The Lions are 2-0 and coming off a 45-point margin of victory that ties the franchise record set in the 1957 NFL Championship Game, which, by the way, was the last time the Lions won a title. The Vikings, meanwhile, are 0-2 and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first team in NFL history to blow double digit halftime leads in their first two games.
Put it all together and, according to ESPN, you have the Lions favored to win (3 1/2 points) in Minnesota for the first time since 1981, the last year of Met Stadium. The Vikings own the series, 66-31-2, and haven't lost to the Lions at the Metrodome since Dec. 14, 1997.
"Yeah, there are some really awful stats out there on us," said Lions kicker Jason Hanson, who has spent all of his 20 NFL seasons in Detroit. "We're trying to win and get rid of some of these stats that you look at and just go, 'Really? Are you kidding me?'"
The Lions come to Minnesota with three years of coaching stability, a high-powered passing attack, a defensive front seven that's been upgraded at linebacker to match a stellar front four, and Matthew Stafford, a star-in-the-making franchise quarterback who has kept his health in consecutive games for the first time since November of 2009.
The Lions haven't had a quarterback make the Pro Bowl since 1972 (Greg Landry). Naturally, that's the worst such stat in the NFL. The Bears are next, having not sent one to the Pro Bowl since 1985.
Stafford is on his way to changing that eventually. After missing 19 games because of knee and shoulder injuries his first two seasons, Stafford heads into Week 3 with a 112.0 passer rating, a 65.3 completion percentage and no sacks. Oh yeah, he's also the first Lions quarterback to throw for seven touchdowns through Week 2 since Milt Plum in 1962.
"I think people in these first two games are seeing a snapshot of Matthew that we saw a long, long time ago," Schwartz said of the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. "Part of Matt's development is improving the team around him."
Confidence has been a problem for the Lions over the years. Decades, actually. But that, too, is changing. They've won six consecutive games and can dominate with a freakishly big and fast receiver in Calvin Johnson and one of the league's more intimidating defenders in tackle Ndamukong Suh, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
"One of the good things about this team is we have a lot of young, talented guys who weren't here for all those years of losing," Hanson said. "They couldn't care less about what happened in 1997 or whatever."
If this is indeed a new-look Lions team, last week's 48-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Ford Field is a snapshot to file away. With the game out of hand late, the Lions emptied their bench, ran the ball on 11 of 12 plays and still scored a touchdown with all their backups on the field.
Now, they look to stop that 13-year losing streak at the Metrodome. The last time the Lions won at the Metrodome -- on Herman Moore's 1-yard touchdown reception with 1 second left -- Barry Sanders was still a year from retirement, Randy Moss was still at Marshall and the national high price for a gallon of gas was $1.10, according to Answers.com.
"Wow, 1997, huh?" said Vikings safety Husain Abdullah. " I was 12 years old, somewhere in Pomona, Calif., not even thinking about playing safety for the Minnesota Vikings. I was a running back and my favorite player was Barry Sanders. Loved Barry Sanders. I probably shouldn't say that."
Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell was a rookie with the Packers at the time. That was 319 field goals ago.
"I remember that Lions team," said Longwell, referring to that 9-7 team. "The Packers were heading back to the Super Bowl that year. We went down to the Silverdome and Barry Sanders ran all over us and we lost (26-15). They had some pieces to the puzzle back then. But they got a bunch more pieces now."
The Lions haven't had a winning season since 2000 (9-7). They haven't made the playoffs since 1999. And now here they come to Minnesota as the favorite for the first time in 30 trips to the Metrodome.
"I was 7 years old in 1981," Longwell said. "Growing up in Washington state. I hadn't even kicked a football in my life. Those were the old youth soccer days. Man, that's been a long time."
Longwell then pointed to the locker next to him. It belongs to Vikings rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph.
"Ask him where he was in 1981," Longwell said.
"Where was I in 1981?" Rudolph said with an understandably confused look on his face. "Nowhere. I was born in 1989."
For the record, the Lions lost that Metrodome game in 1981, 26-24.
At the end of his first home game as the Vikings' full-fledged head coach, Leslie Frazier heard boos. Last Sunday, after the Vikings collapsed in the second half for the second consecutive week, they were jeered by the Metrodome crowd as they left the field. Two games into Frazier's tenure in his dream job, he has heard questions about his hand-picked offensive coordinator and veteran quarterback, his clock management and the use of receiver Percy Harvin. With so many problems arising so early in the season, Frazier must feel like he's playing whack-a-mole with a mole that runs a 4.3 40. He must remember his stint as an interim coach, during which the Metrodome roof collapsed and he played "home'' games in Detroit and at TCF Bank
Stadium, as "the good times.'' "That was a tough loss, now,'' Frazier said of the collapse against Tampa Bay. "I understand the fans... "I know how passionate they are and how much they want to win and we have a strong desire to deliver that championship for Minnesota.'' This week, Frazier is facing the his first crisis. At 0-2, the Vikings today will play a franchise, the Detroit Lions, that once was the wind beneath their wings and now is threatening to become the anvil around their ankles, dragging Minnesota deeper into last place. Frazier's quarterback, Donovan McNabb, looks uncomfortable in the pocket and unable to throw the ball downfield. His offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, seems to be playing drunken checkers while the rest of the league plays speed chess. Harvin, the Vikings' best big-play threat, spends more time on the sideline than Joe Mauer
. Bernard Berrian, the Vikings' lone deep threat and a Frazier pet project, is giving new meaning to the term "fade route.'' Frazier's trademark calm hasn't prevented his team from two second-half collapses. A loss today, at home to a team the Vikings have dominated, would create the possibility of a second consecutive lost season for a franchise intent on winning public support for a new stadium. For those considering the Vikings a playoff contender, this week represents a severe test of Frazier's abilities. For those with a more realistic view of this team, these losses could have been predicted. Even coaching legends lose early in their tenures. Bill Belichick went 6-10 his first year, didn't post a winning record until his fourth season, and didn't win a Super Bowl title until his seventh year as a head coach, and then only after Tom Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe. Tom Landry went 0-11-1 his first season and didn't post a winning record until his seventh season. Chuck Noll went 1-13 his first season and didn't post a winning record until his fourth season. Bill Walsh went 2-14 his first season, Jimmy Johnson 1-15. Vikings history, too, suggests that becoming a head coach requires a learning curve. Norm Van Brocklin went 3-11 his first year. Bud Grant was 3-8-3. Les Steckel went 3-13, then Grant returned to go 7-9. Mike Tice lost his first five games; Brad Childress went 6-10 his first season. Only Jerry Burns and Denny Green made immediate inroads. Burns went 9-7 in 1986 and didn't suffer a losing record until 1990. Green assembled one of the best coaching staffs in recent NFL history -- including Monte Kiffin, Tom Moore, Willie Shaw, Tyrone Willingham, John Michels, John Teerlinck and Tony Dungy -- and went 11-5 after replacing Burns. For all of his inspirational talk about contending immediately and winning a championship eventually, Frazier, a rookie head coach with a new offensive coordinator and quarterback and no offseason in which to introduce the newcomers, was set up to fail this season. Whatever happens Sunday and for the rest of the year, Frazier should ultimately be judged by how much he improves on the job in his second season, and how quickly he finds and establishes a franchise quarterback. All those NFL coaching legends have two things in common: They lost early, and they looked much smarter after a young, future Hall of Famer started taking snaps.