MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Vikings GM Rick Spielman walked down the Metrodome stairs to the locker room after Minnesota's victory over the Detroit Lions with a look of relief more than excitement washed over his face.
"We needed that one," Spielman said quietly.
After dropping to 0-3 in the NFC North, the Detroit Lions find themselves in just as desperate a situation.
Adrian Peterson rushed for 171 yards and a touchdown and Christian Ponder rebounded with his first solid performance in five games to lead the Vikings to a 34-24 victory over the Lions on Sunday.
Ponder threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns, the Vikings defense forced two key turnovers and Blair Walsh kicked four more field goals to deliver a much-needed victory after two straight losses had cast some doubt around the team's surprising 5-2 start.
"We weren't at a must-win situation, but it was dang close," defensive end Jared Allen said. "It was more like a 'better-win' situation. We had to come home and bounce back."
Ponder needed it as much as anyone. Twice in the past three weeks Ponder managed fewer than 65 yards passing, and impatient Vikings fans were starting to call for his benching. But he completed 24 of 32 passes on Sunday, with a 1-yard touchdown to rookie Jarius Wright and a 20-yarder to Kyle Rudolph in the fourth quarter that helped Minnesota hold off the Lions.
With star receiver Percy Harvin out with a sprained left ankle, Wright was activated for the first time this season and responded with three catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. His 54-yard reception on the Vikings' fifth play of the game helped set the tone and loosen Ponder up.
The Vikings (6-4) have a bye this week, followed by a brutal stretch of division games — at Chicago, at Green Bay and home against the Bears coming up, making this a crucial victory.
"If you want to be a good football team, these are the games you have to be able to win," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We think we have a chance to be a really, really good football team and for our guys to find a way to get it done and to focus on just this game and not look back, that says a lot about the character of our players."
Calvin Johnson had 12 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown in another gritty effort on a balky left knee. But his fumble in Detroit territory midway through a wild fourth quarter ended the Lions' offensive momentum.
Matthew Stafford completed 28 of 42 passes for 329 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, but the Lions offense didn't really get rolling until it was too late.
The Lions (4-5) expected to be one of the better teams in the league when the season began, but they've already been swept in the season series by Minnesota and have a loss to the Bears as well.
Suddenly it's getting awfully late in the season for them to turn things around and make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since they made it three times in a row from 1993-95.
Detroit's remaining opponents took a combined 44-16 record into Sunday, with Green Bay and Houston next.
"It hurts bad. We need to win all division games," Lions defensive back Chris Houston said. "Our thoughts of the playoffs are still kind of slim but if we come back and win these three home games, we still have a shot."
Once again, a sluggish first half had the Lions playing catch-up all game. They managed just 115 yards and went 0 for 6 on third downs in the first half, falling behind 13-3 at halftime on a TD pass from Ponder to Wright and two field goals by Walsh.
Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew for a touchdown in the third quarter to make it 16-10, and the Lions were still very much in the game after Titus Young's 1-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter made it 24-17.
Peterson responded by dashing off right tackle for a 61-yard score, the latest breathtaking sign that he is all the way back from a major left knee injury a little more than 10 months ago.
Last week he got caught on a long run in Seattle, and he wasn't about to let that happen again this time.
"Trust me, I took a lot of heat for that," Peterson said. "From teammates and from buddies back home, family, but I'm one of the biggest critics on myself. I told those guys, 'Hey, if I break loose again, then that definitely won't happen."
Then Johnson fumbled a reception to give the Vikings the ball at the Detroit 45. One more field goal from Walsh made it 34-17 and put the game out of reach.
"That was tough, especially in that situation of the game," Johnson said of the fumble. "It hurt, especially because I hate turning the ball over."
Defensive end Cliff Avril left the game with a concussion and Houston suffered an ankle injury. Houston said he would be fine, but it's harder to say if that is the same case for the Lions as a whole. They have three straight home games coming up, and it's now or never.
"It is what it is. We're 4-5," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "That's what our record is. We've got three games at home. We start this week against Green Bay. It doesn't matter what's happened in the past. We have stuff in front of us, but we have to play better than this."
NOTES: Vikings LB Chad Greenway had the other turnover with an interception in the first half. ... Lions RB Mikel Leshoure managed just 43 yards on 13 carries. ... Stafford's three TD passes give him 71 for his career in 38 games. He is the third quarterback in league history to reach that milestone in fewer than 40 games, joining Dan Marino and Kurt Warner. ... Stafford's TD pass to Johnson in the fourth quarter was just the first scoring pass for the prolific duo this season. Johnson's other TD came from Shaun Hill.