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A three-game losing streak has knocked the Detroit Lions back into a crowded NFC wild-card race.
The Minnesota Vikings are part of that cluster, and now they are about to get back the league’s leading rusher after winning their last two games without him.
Though they did well against Adrian Peterson the first time they faced him, the Lions probably won’t be happy to see the star rookie back on the field Sunday as they try to win in the Metrodome for the first time in a decade.
It appears Peterson will return after missing two games with a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. He is listed as probable for Sunday’s game despite having some soreness.
“It’s not going to slow me down,” Peterson said. “I’m going to be out there going full speed. It’s just a matter of feeling what it’s like when I get hit.”
Still leading the NFL with 1,081 yards rushing, Peterson will be playing his first game at the Metrodome since rushing for an NFL-record 296 yards and scoring three touchdowns in a 35-17 win over San Diego on Nov. 4.
“I would say we would ease him back in, yeah. You’re not going to go back there and turn over the whole load to him,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said earlier in the week. “There are conditioning factors involved, there are fatiguing factors involved when you get involved in playing a 65 or 70-play game. We’ll have a pulse on how he practices and who gets what.”
Childress said Peterson would likely split carries with veteran Chester Taylor, whose solid production the last two weeks have helped Minnesota to wins over the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants. Taylor ran for 241 yards and four touchdowns in those games.
Detroit (6-5) did a good job spoiling Peterson’s first NFL start on Sept. 16, holding him to 66 yards on 20 carries in a 20-17 overtime victory.
That win was part of a surprising 6-2 start for the Lions, seeking to end an eight-year playoff drought. They were one game behind Green Bay for the NFC North lead halfway through the season, but things have quickly unraveled.
Detroit dropped its third straight game with a 37-26 loss to the Packers on Thanksgiving, falling four games back of first-place Green Bay.
“We’ve hit three bumps in the road and after all the smoke cleared, we’re still in the playoff race and in a good position,” Detroit center Dominic Raiola said.
The Lions are in sole possession of the NFC’s final wild-card spot, but six teams are one game back, and three of them - Washington, Philadelphia and Arizona - all own tiebreakers over Detroit.
To make matters worse for the Lions, their final five opponents are 35-20 - the toughest remaining schedule among the 12 NFC teams that are at least 5-6.
“There’s no panic in my life,” Detroit coach Rod Marinelli said. “This is a tough challenge, but I believe in these players.”
The Lions have won just five of 21 games in December since 2002, and they open the calendar’s final month in the Metrodome, where they have lost nine straight games since a 14-13 victory on Dec. 14, 1997.
That win was part of Detroit’s last season sweep of the Vikings, who had won 10 consecutive games in this series before this year.
Minnesota is one of those teams that is a game back of Detroit, but will lose the tiebreaker with the Lions - and devastate its playoff hopes - if it can’t win Sunday.
“We were a footnote at 4-6,” Minnesota coach Brad Childress said after last Sunday’s 41-17 victory over the Giants. “It’s significant because now you have a chance to be in the mix.”
Last Sunday, Minnesota intercepted New York’s Eli Manning four times, and set a team single-game record by returning three of them for touchdowns. The Vikings had three interceptions in the loss to Detroit in September.
Lions quarterback Jon Kitna threw one of those interceptions, and when he left after being hit hard, backup J.T. O’Sullivan threw the other two. In three career games against the Vikings, Kitna has thrown three touchdowns to seven interceptions.
Kitna has thrown for 897 yards during the three-game skid, but has four TD passes compared to six interceptions and has been sacked 11 times.
Kevin Jones rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries last week after running for just 21 yards and a TD on 15 attempts in his previous two games combined. He did not play against the Vikings in Week 2 because of a foot injury, and was held to five yards on 19 carries in two games against them last season.
Minnesota leads the league in rushing defense (74.8 yards per game), and is allowing an average of 53.8 rushing yards in its last four games at the Metrodome.