EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.-Four short weeks ago, the NFC North appeared to be a two-team race between the surging Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
If there were an easy stretch on the Vikings' schedule, surely it would be back-to-back weeks against the lowly Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, each 1-3 in Week 4.
Instead, Sunday's game between the Vikings and Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium will play a major role in the NFC North race as Minnesota (5-2) tries to avoid its third straight loss. A win would solidify the Vikings' spot as the division leader; a victory by the Lions (4-4) would be Detroit's fourth in five games.
"It's a very big game, especially (with) where the Vikings sit right now, on top of the division," said Lions running back Zach Zenner of Eagan. "It's going to be big for us to go out and get the win and start making progress towards the top of the division."
The NFL is a league of clichés, among them the proclamation that no game is bigger than any other. But the Vikings are aware of the importance of division games following their 20-10 loss at Chicago on Monday night.
"In this division, they're all good teams," Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. "As you saw last week, a 1-6 team beat us. That shows how good this division really is. Chicago is a good team, and Detroit is a great team."
Detroit's resurgence has been sparked by an offense that continues to thrive even without Calvin Johnson, the 6-foot-5 wide receiver who spent all nine years of his career with the Lions before retiring in the offseason.
"Kind of got used to seeing him over there," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "But they've got plenty of guys that can make plays all across the offense, not just at receiver."
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ranks eighth in the NFL with 2,154 passing yards, fourth in passer rating (103.4) and has thrown 16 touchdown passes against just four interceptions.
"He seems to be moving more in the pocket," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's been very efficient."
While the Vikings and Lions battle Sunday, the Packers host the 3-5 Indianapolis Colts. But it's Detroit's resurgence that makes Sunday all the more important for Minnesota.
If the Vikings can't halt their two-game losing streak, they'll be headed in the wrong direction, while the Lions continue to surge.
"Coming off last week, losing a division game, you can't make it two in a row," running back Jerick McKinnon said.