Vikings Face Tough Task in Rebounding against Confident but Flawed Lions
When the NFL scheduled the Vikings and Lions to meet twice in the final three weeks, the league office’s hope was last year’s two top teams in the NFC North would be close in the standings, so these two matchups would be critical, and the division title would come down to the regular season finale in Detroit on January 7.
Vikings Face Tough Task in Rebounding against Confident but Flawed Lions
The Lions have done their part despite going through a rough stretch recently with QB Jared Goff’s turnover issues fueling divisional losses to the Packers and Bears. Detroit comes to Minnesota with a 10-4 record, only one game behind the 49ers for the NFC’s top seed. A win over the Vikings on Sunday will clinch the Lions’ first division title since 1993.
The Vikings were headed in the right direction at 6-4. Then key injuries (Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and Marcus Davenport, to name a few), quarterback mistakes by Cousins’ replacements (Josh Dobbs and Nick Mullens), some suspect play-calls on QB sneaks last week, and the inability of the improved defense to close out games have led to three close losses to knock the Vikings back at 7-7. They can still win the division by sweeping Detroit and beating Green Bay at home next week if the Lions fall to the Cowboys in Dallas.
The Rams and Seahawks also are 7-7 and have more favorable schedules than the Vikings. The Rams hosted 7-7 New Orleans on Thursday night and then are at the 5-9 Giants and at San Francisco, who may have the top NFC seed wrapped up before that game and would then not start key players or pull them early. Seattle’s upset win in Philadelphia last Monday reignited their playoff hopes and they finish at 5-9 Tennessee, home vs. 7-7 Pittsburgh and at 3-11 Arizona.
So this Sunday’s game is a must-win for the Vikings to have a chance to defend their NFC North title from last season, and it could wind up being must-win in the wild card race.
A Vikings victory this week would please the NFL office as there’s a good chance the NFC North title would be up for grabs in Week 18, as the league office hoped (as long as the Vikings beat the Packers and Dallas beats Detroit next week).
The Lions come in confident off a 42-17 whipping of a hot Denver team, with Goff throwing five TD passes and not turning it over (he had eight turnovers in the previous four games). The Vikings will be trying to rebound from a frustrating overtime defeat in Cincinnati when they had a good chance to win before Kevin O’Connell’s ill-fated QB sneak calls.
Here are my keys to a critical Vikings win over the Lions:
1. Nick Mullens must play well and avoid costly turnovers: Mullens’ two bad second-quarter interceptions inside the Bengals’ 25 cost the Vikings at least six points, which probably would have won the game in regulation. He has to protect the ball and make good decisions against a defense that is average at best and ranks 25th in sacks with 30. He also must be more accurate in his passing, as the Vikings receivers had to make too many difficult catches due to inaccurate throws.
It’s also on the offensive line, tight ends and backs to do a good job in pass protection. And the receiving corps led by Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, and Jordan Addison must get open and not have any drops (they did a great job in this area last game with no drops after struggling against the Raiders and the threesome combined for 19 catches, 258 yards, 2 TDs by Addison in Cincinnati).
2. Get off to a good start and avoid first-half turnovers: the Vikings are the league leaders in the negative category of first-half giveaways with 18. The Vikings have won this season when they’ve been ahead or even in turnover ratio and lost when they’ve had a negative ratio, so it’s pretty clear they must win the turnover battle.
3. Run it well with Ty Chandler: this was the big positive out of the Bengals game with Chandler rushing for a career-high 132 yards and one TD and adding four catches for 25 yards. A strong running game will take some pressure off Mullens and the passing game, along with eating up time of possession, to keep the potent Lions’ offense (third-ranked) off the field. Even if Alexander Mattison is back from his ankle injury (which would help if he runs as well as he did in Las Vegas), Chandler is the better back and needs to have the most touches.
The Lions are better against the run (8th) than against the pass (18th), but running the ball well is important to set up the Vikings’ play-action passing game.
4. If Brian O’Neill is out (and even if he plays on a gimpy ankle), double-team Aidan Hutchinson: last year’s first-rounder (second overall pick), leads the Lions with 6.5 sacks, and he has 42 tackles. Fine blocking tight end Josh Oliver must help O’Neill or, especially, David Quessenberry if he gets the start.
5. Closely study and copy the Ravens’ game plan against the Lions on both sides of the ball: Baltimore crushed Detroit 38-6 in Week 7. Lamar Jackson had receivers running wide open as the Ravens scored touchdowns on their first four possessions to jump ahead 28-0. Jackson wound up with 357 passing yards, three TD passes, 36 rushing yards, and one TD on the ground (unfortunately for the Vikings, Mullens is no Lamar Jackson).
The Baltimore defense dominated Goff and the Lions’ offense, sacking him five times and holding the Lions’ running backs to 68 yards rushing. Detroit did not have a first down until midway through the second quarter, and the Ravens outgained them 355-97 in the first half.
The offensive coaches also will be checking out what the Chargers did against the Lions D in Week 10 when they scored TDs on their last five drives but lost 41-38. Justin Herbert threw four TD passes in the game, and Keenan Allen caught 11 passes for 175 yards and 2 TDs (a good omen for Jefferson this week?).
In the Green Bay win on Thanksgiving in Detroit, Jordan Love threw a lot on first down with good success.
There also should be close study and copying of what the Packers and Bears did on defense in their recent wins over the Lions, which included plenty of blitzing, which leads me to:
6. Stop a strong run game and blitz Jared Goff to force turnovers: the Lions’ running game ranks second with a strong O-line opening holes for two good backs in David Montgomery (855 yards) and rookie first-rounder Jahmyr Gibbs (792 yards, 5.7-yard average). The Vikings’ run defense has been outstanding (fifth in the league), so this is a crucial matchup.
Containing the Lions’ rushing attack sets up Vikings DC Brian Flores to do what he loves, which is to go after the QB with a lot of blitzes (the Vikings have a league-high 48% blitz rate). Flores blitzed Jake Browning too much last week (since he came into the game with a record of success vs. the blitz), but Goff and the Lions have struggled against the blitz, which was evident in the Packers and Bears approach. Chicago didn’t blitz often, but they were successful in stopping Goff when they did (including getting a sack and interception).
In the Packers’ upset win at Detroit on Thanksgiving, Goff lost three fumbles, was sacked three times, and pressured 17 times (on 43% of his dropbacks).
Danielle Hunter (15.5 sacks, second in the league) and D.J. Wonnum (who has tied his career-high with eight sacks) must make a big impact in this game with pressure on Goff along with Harrison Phillips, and the blitzers (Josh Metellus, Ivan Pace Jr., Harrison Smith, and Jordan Hicks if he makes it back from his shin injury).
Goff has thrown for 3,727 yards (third most this season) and ranks seventh league-wide with a 98.2 passer rating (26 TDs, 10 interceptions). If he has time to sit in the pocket and throw to a fine receiving corps, the Vikings will be in serious trouble.
The potentially good news: in two previous games for Goff against Flores-led defenses (in New England and Miami), he hasn’t fared well with three interceptions, two fumbles lost, a 54.5% completion rate, only one TD, and 292 yards per game).
7. Hold a late lead: the offense must not go ultra-conservative and must keep possession in the final four minutes while adding points, and the defense can’t give up deep in-cuts by receivers against zone coverage as occurred with D.J. Moore’s 36-yard reception to set up the Bears’ winning field goal and on Ja’Marr Chase’s 24-yard catch on 3rd-and-21 on the fourth quarter drive last week that tied the game 17-17.
Flores needs to give safety help to his young corners Akayleb Evans and Mekhi Blackmon in late-game situations as they’ve been outjumped in single coverage on game-changing TD receptions by Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins and Denver’s Courtland Sutton in recent losses.
Special attention must be given in pass coverage to Amon-Ra St. Brown (94 receptions, 1,175 yards, which ranks fifth in the league and 7 TDs…he should be double-covered at crunch time) and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta (71 catches, 758 yards, 9 TDs to tie with Addison for the lead among rookies; LaPorta had three TD grabs last week from Goff against the Broncos).
Gibbs is also a factor out of the backfield (47 catches, 296 yards, 1 TD), and the Vikings need to watch out for deep shots to Jameson Williams, whose only catch last season was a 41-yard TD on a deep ball from Goff against the Vikings in Detroit (he has 17 receptions for 242 yards, 2 TDs this season).
8. Make a game-changing special teams play: whether in the return game or with a game-winning field goal by Greg Joseph who made all his kicks in Cincy. The Lions also have a good kicker in Riley Patterson (15 of 17 field goals, 35 of 37 PATs).
Despite the passion and noise that Vikings fans bring, home field has not been as kind to the Vikings this season as it usually is (2-4 at home), but the noise should help the Vikings pass rushers get a good jump. Both teams will be highly motivated to either win the division in Detroit’s case or stay in the division race and improve wild card hopes for the Vikings.
I’m just not trusting Mullens, who, like Dobbs, makes too many careless plays, and his accuracy is inconsistent. I also don’t trust the Vikings’ young corners to come through in a pressure-filled game.
Detroit also is the healthier team as the Vikings’ injury list was long this week, including their Pro Bowl right tackle in O’Neill, Phillips (back), Hunter (illness), top corner Bryan Murphy (knee), and Mattison who all missed practice Wednesday (the good news was Hicks is back at practice and hopes to return on Sunday which should help the Vikings defense in late game situations and Hunter was back at practice on a limited basis so he should be ok by Sunday).
This is the kind of game in which the Vikings need their best players—Jefferson and Hunter—to have superior performances to give the Vikings a chance to win, and Minnesota must win the turnover battle with Flores discombobulating Goff.
It feels like the Vikings have dropped too many winnable games to make the playoffs this season, but the opportunity certainly is still there for them. Hope I’m wrong, but I’m picking Detroit in a 28-27 heartbreaker which would leave the Vikings alive but in tough straits in the wild card race and especially in seeking the important sixth seed (to avoid the 49ers, Eagles, or Cowboys in the wild card round as a seventh seed) if the Rams and Seahawks both win this week.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Speaking of barely alive in the playoff race, that’s the Packers after their home loss to the Bucs last week. Carolina got their second win of the season in upsetting Atlanta, and it would help the Vikings cause before they face the Packers next week if the Panthers knock off the Pack in Charlotte on Sunday to remove any playoff hopes. It’s possible with Carolina’s underrated third-ranked defense, but I’ll pick Green Bay.
2. In a game with major playoff implications, 8-6 Jacksonville travels to 7-7 Tampa Bay. Both teams lead their divisions on tie-breakers, but the Bucs and Baker Mayfield look like the better team at this juncture.
3. I like Miami to beat Dallas after the Cowboys’ dismal performance at Buffalo last week and Miami is 6-1 at home while Dallas is 3-4 on the road. It appears Tyreek Hill’s ankle injury has improved enough for him to return this week, which obviously is big for the Dolphins’ top-ranked offense.
4. The game of the week is on Christmas night when the top teams in each conference—the 49ers and Ravens–meet in San Fran. I think the 49ers are the best team in the league when they have all their stars on the field, which is now the case, so I pick them to win.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl