Before Monday night’s loss to the Seahawks in Seattle, the Vikings did not have any margin for error if they wanted to win the NFC North Division. Now, in order to do that they need some help—they have to win out and have someone else beat the Green Bay Packers. In addition, the Los Angeles Rams are one game behind them in the Wild Card race, so the Vikings don’t have much margin for error there just to make the playoffs. So, win out and they are in.
That is the plan, and it begins on Sunday at noon when the Vikings host the Detroit Lions at U.S. Banks Stadium. In a quirk of scheduling, the Vikings are the only team that hasn’t had a home division game yet this season, and now they will have three of their last four games at home against NFC North opponents. That means they can kick away everything they have worked for in front of the hometown fans and really get them calling for heads this offseason.
But we don’t think that is how it will play out.
The Packers are 9-3 and leading the division, and the 6-6 Chicago Bears have risen from the dead and have not yet been eliminated from the postseason. But, first things first. The Lions are reeling, lost to the Bears on Thanksgiving Day and likely just want the season to end. But it is a rivalry game so nothing is guaranteed. And this one could be close.
The Lions started out the season with plenty of promise. Second-year head coach Matt Patricia looked to be putting his stamp on the team, but after a tie in the opening week followed by a season of one-score losses (10) and the loss to injury of quarterback Matthew Stafford, the 3-8-1 Lions’ season went off the rails and has not returned. And some of it comes down to finishing games, as the Lions are one of only three teams to have held a lead in every game this season.
Speaking of quarterback, last week they started a third stringer they had just pulled off the practice squad to call signals for them. David Blough, an undrafted rookie who made his NFL debut on Turkey Day, had the Lions within striking distance over the Bears, but a bad sack and a pick ended their chances. He is one of 11 quarterbacks that the Lions have rostered this season, so we don’t yet know who will be behind center when the teams line up on Sunday (perhaps some George Plimpton wannabee).
When you look at the Lions on paper, they are not completely paper lions. The offense, despite the QB woes, clocks in at seventh in total yards (377.3 per game), seventh in passing yards (271.7 per game) 18th in rushing yards (105.6)—culminating in a ranking of 13th in points, scoring 23.3 per game. The name on the back of the quarterback’s jersey may change, but the receivers are still catching passes. Kenny Golladay is T-6 in the league with 950 receiving yards, and he and teammate Marvin Jones, Jr. are both tied atop the league in receiving touchdowns with nine apiece. The Lions’ running game is what holds them back, as their top rushing threat is Kerryon Johnson and he is ranked 49th in the league with 309 yards on the season.
Statistically, it is the defense that has struggled to get the Lions over the finish line in those close ball games. The defense is 29th in total yards allowed (398.1), 30th in passing yards (286.1) and 23rd against the run, giving up 118.0 yards per game. The Lions can score points, but their defense can give them up with equal alacrity, weighing in at 25th with 26.3 points allowed per game.
The problem for Minnesota is that currently, while they are playing well on offense (they are ranked 8th in total yards, 13th in passing, 6th in rushing and 7th in points), their defense has been sliding precipitously all season. And after what we witnessed on Monday night, the Vikings rushing defense might make the Lions running game healthy—although the Purple secondary had better watch out for those Lions wideouts. They need to get healthy back there against a very talented unit, and it would be a confidence builder if they do. It starts with getting pressure on the quarterback, no matter who it is (possibly Kyle Sloter?), and then for the secondary, in particular Xavier Rhodes, who saw a lot of action (not always successful) against the Seahawks, making plays.
The Vikings with Kirk Cousins under center (and hopefully a healthy Dalvin Cook behind him) will score points. Cousins is having a great season, and, suffice it say, is quickly becoming the team MVP for the Purple. He led the team back from what was becoming an embarrassing loss in Seattle to a respectable final score (which doesn’t mean diddlysquat for your playoff hopes) and he may have to do that again, since, if we know anything about the Lions, they could be in it to the end.
But this week, a frustrated Vikings team finally getting a rival at home will come out blazing and look to put the Lions away early. We hope the defense decides the same thing.