The NFC Central race won't be decided until the last game of the season, but the 9-6 Detroit Lions did a lot Saturday to convince the 9-6 Minnesota Vikings and everybody else who is best.
From a spectacular 98-yard kickoff return by Mel Gray to 18-yard and 64-yard touchdown runs by Barry Sanders on rare consecutive plays, the Lions ripped the Vikings 41-19 and sent quarterback Warren Moon to the sidelines with a wrenched knee that could keep him out next week.Soon, Moon was joined by frustrated John Randle, the Vikings' star defensive tackle, who was ejected for brushing umpire Dennis Riggs when Detroit quarterback David Krieg threw a touchdown pass to ex-Viking Anthony Carter for the final score.
The Vikings still can clinch the division if they beat the San Francisco 49ers in Minneapolis on Monday night, Dec. 26. The Lions play the Dolphins in Miami on Christmas night and would win the title only if they won and the Vikings lose, because the Vikings have a better division record than the Lions.
If the Lions and Vikings lose next week, the 8-6 Bears would be division champions with victories over the Los Angeles Rams Sunday and the New England Patriots Dec. 24, both in Soldier Field.
If the Lions, Vikings, and Bears lose one more game, the 7-7 Green Bay Packers would be division champions by beating the Atlanta Falcons Sunday in Milwaukee and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa Dec. 24.
Both the Vikings and Lions can secure playoff berths Sunday if two of the following four teams lose: Cardinals, Eagles, Bears, Packers.
With the 36-year-old Krieg continuing his torrid pace, the Lions were overwhelming in driving for their third division title in four years. They have won five of Krieg's six starts since Scott Mitchell was hurt, and he has thrown 13 TD passes and only one interception.
"When you come into a situation and you have to be the guy to do things, the best way to prove things to your teammates is to do it, not just talk about it. Fortunately, I have been able to do that," Krieg said.
"It's hard to attach how valuable he has been to us," Sanders said.
Gray's brilliant record-tying kickoff return ignited 73,881 Silverdome fans, and Sanders' 64-yard burst with 1:12 left in the third quarter doused any hope the Vikings had of coming back.
"It was a lead draw and there was daylight backside. All I really had to do was beat the safety," Sanders said.
Sanders had scored on an 18-yard run with 3:21 left in the quarter to make it 27-13, but the Vikings managed two field goals behind sub quarterback Brad Johnson sandwiched around a fumbled kickoff return by Gray. At 27-19, the Vikings were still in it, and Moon was throwing and testing his leg on the sidelines until Sanders' 64-yarder.
"He just popped through, hit it clean, split the linebackers, hit it full-speed and was never slowed down," Green said.
It was his longest run ever against the Vikings, the No. 1 defense against the rush.
"We didn't play our gaps right, and when he hits the hole like that, he can make a lot of things happen," said safety Vencie Glenn.
Sanders finished with 110 yards on 17 carries and now has 1,831 yards, needing 169 against the Dolphins to reach 2,000.
Moon will need an unusually fast recovery to be ready for the 49ers. He suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee when linebacker Pat Swilling was blocked into him by tight end Andrew Jordan. Moon will undergo an MRI examination Monday to determine his status. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman suffered a similar injury and missed two games.
"He couldn't have played. He couldn't push off at all," Green said.
Gray's return was his ninth career kickoff and punt return for a touchdown, tying the NFL record held by Ollie Matson. It was his sixth kickoff return for a TD, tying the record held by Matson, the Packers' Travis Williams and the Bears' Gale Sayers.