Minnesota's Denard Walker, right, picks off a pass by Detroit's Joey Harrington in the end zone in the game's final minute, one of three interceptions for the Vikings.
DETROIT - The last quarterback to lead the Detroit Lions into postseason play became the latest to light them up yesterday at Ford Field.
Gus Frer-otte, pressed into action by an injury to Minnesota starter Daunte Culpepper, threw for 184 yards in a little more than one half and engineered a pair of scoring drives as the Vikings handled the Lions 23-13.
Frerotte was a Lion in 1999 and had an impressive year, starting six times in place of injury-plagued starter Charlie Batch. When Detroit made its most recent playoff appearance at Washington that season, Frerotte threw for 251 yards in a losing cause.
He witnessed another losing cause by the Lions yesterday, but enjoyed it more.
“Luckily, I had a couple big throws today that helped us and the rest of the time I just tried to play smart and not do anything to hurt the team,” Frerotte said.
Culpepper completed seven passes for 105 yards, but did most of his damage on the ground, running for a pair of touchdowns as the Vikings fought out of an early 10-0 hole.
His TD runs of 14 yards on a draw play and of two yards after a nice fake to running back Moe Williams gave the Vikings a 13-10 lead. But the second one came at the expense of a hard hit and a back contusion that ended his day.
Enter Frerotte, who left the ground game to others and burned Detroit through the air.
He hooked up with Randy Moss - being covered lazily by cornerback Andre Goodman - for a 72-yard play that covered about 60 yards in the air and set up a field goal just seconds before halftime for a 16-10 Minnesota lead.
Perhaps figuring one 72-yarder wasn't enough, Frerotte produced a long touchdown pass to Kelly Campbell, who blew past Otis Smith, to make it 23-13 midway through the third quarter.
“With our receivers, as fast as they run, we just have to let it rip,” Frerotte said.
And with Detroit's offense just treading water, a little ripping was all the Vikings (3-0, all against NFC North opponents) needed.
“We gave up too many big plays,” said Lions coach Steve Mariucci. “If we're not scoring more than 13 points, giving up big plays is a problem. They made 'em, we didn't.”
The Vikings had five plays that added up to 256 of their 414 net yards. Detroit, which managed one play of 20-plus yards, finished with 302 yards, more than one-third of which came during the first quarter en route to a 10-0 lead.
Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington, right, is forced to scramble as Minnesota defensive end Kenny Mixon gives chase.
A 15-yard scramble by quarterback Joey Harrington set up a five-yard TD run by Shawn Bryson to cap the game's opening possession. The Lions added a field goal later in the quarter after a 26-yard punt return by Eddie Drummond set Detroit up at the Vikings' 24 yard line.
“I liked the way we started the game,” Mariucci said. “It was 10-0 and I thought we could have extended that if we'd made a few plays. Instead, we were just off by a couple feet on some things.”
After Culpepper's first scoring run made it 10-6, Harrington threw poorly to fullback Cory Schlesinger who was all alone down the left sideline and might have scored. The pass was completed, but Schlesinger had to twist to pull it in and stepped out of bounds.
On two other occasions, Harrington missed Az-Zahir Hakim on a hitch-and-go that would have produced points and overthrew an open Charles Rogers badly. Although he completed 24 of 42 passes for 235 yards, Harrington was intercepted three times, once inside the Minnesota 5 and twice in the end zone.
Since throwing for four touchdowns in a season-opening win against Arizona, Harrington has been held without a TD pass and has been picked off six times in losses to Green Bay and Minnesota.
“Sometimes you're hitting and sometimes you're not,” Harrington said. “I made a couple bad decisions. I forced one in the end zone. I needed to have more zip on another one down the middle.
“We had a couple penalties at bad points in drives and I followed with some bad decisions. Those things add up.”
The Lions had a couple late chances, failing to score after having a first-and-goal at the Vikings 1 with 1:50 to play. Detroit got a late possession, but Harrington was picked off in the end zone on something of a desperation pass with less than 20 seconds remaining.
On the next-to-last possession with his team down 10, Mariucci elected to go for the TD on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal and trying to recover an onside kick.
“We had to score twice and, given the location on the field, I thought it might have been difficult to get that close again,” he said. “If we get the touchdown, then onside kick and recover, we don't have to go very far for the field goal.”
Sound logic, perhaps, by a coach who has seen his team score a total of 19 points in the last two weeks.