Is a Victory in Regular Season Finale at DET Good or Bad for Vikings?

Top Storylines for 2nd
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As the Vikings head to Motown for a rematch of the 30-24 loss two weeks ago against the Lions, Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings certainly want to win the game for a season split and in the remote chance of earning a wildcard playoff spot if the Packers, Seahawks and either the Saints or Bucs lose.

Is a Victory in Regular Season Finale at DET Good or Bad for Vikings?

But it must be said that if the other results don’t go the Vikings’ way and they’re out of the playoff race, any improvement in the team’s draft position would be beneficial in the long run as it would give GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah a higher pick in each round, perhaps by as many as three or four spots. That could be critical if the team is looking to select a quarterback in the first round next April from the highly-rated 2024 QB draft class.

The 7-9 Vikings currently sit at No. 12 in the first round, and with a loss, they could rise as high as No. 9, whereas a win on Sunday could drop them as far as No. 15 or further down in the unlikely event that they sneak into the playoffs.

a Victory
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Coaches and players are wired to try to win every game, and the Vikings were close to knocking off the Lions before Nick Mullens’ bad pass behind Justin Jefferson was intercepted to give the Lions a 30-24 win on Christmas Eve. O’Connell says the team wants to play well in Detroit to get the bad taste out after last week’s down game against the Packers. And if it is the final game this season, Vikings players will want to put a good last performance on tape.

The Lions should beat the Vikings, who are missing too many key starters that have landed on injured reserve, including Kirk Cousins and T.J. Hockenson on offense and D.J. Wonnum and Marcus Davenport on defense (along with the likely absence of top corner Byron Murphy Jr., who has missed the last two games).

Detroit Coach Dan Campbell says his starters will play even though the Lions are almost certainly locked into the NFC’s No. 3 seed (they can only get to No. 2 with a win and losses by Dallas and Philadelphia, who face the lowly Commanders and Giants, respectively). The Lions felt they were ripped off by the officials when a penalty was called for tackle Taylor Decker not reporting as an eligible receiver on the two-point play that would’ve beaten the Cowboys last week. That probably cost Detroit the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

Here are my keys to a Vikings upset win in Detroit on Sunday:

1. Nick Mullens not turning it over: O’Connell named Mullens this week’s starter after he passed for 411 yards and two TDs against the Lions in the last meeting (and relieved Jaren Hall last week), but his four interceptions killed the Vikings’ chance for a win vs. Detroit that would’ve kept them in the NFC North race.

2. Run it better than two weeks ago: the Vikings averaged 4.2 yards per rush against Green Bay last week but only had 16 rushing attempts since they fell far behind early. The Lions are ranked fifth in run defense and stuffed the Vikings run game (11 carries for 17 yards) when Ty Chandler was coming off a 132-yard day at Cincinnati. The Vikings must get more production from the run game this week to take some pressure off Mullens and set up the play-action passing game.

The O-line and tight ends need a better physical game and more play time for C.J. Ham as the blocking fullback would help (he had only four snaps last week and can also help in pass protection).

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3. Justin Jefferson must have a big game: I think Detroit’s shaky pass defense (25th-ranked) will be their undoing in the playoffs. The past two weeks, they have allowed big days to Jefferson (10 catches, 141 yards, 1 TD) and CeeDee Lamb (13 receptions, 227 yards, 1 TD). Jefferson is motivated to reach 1,000-plus receiving yards for the fourth straight season and needs 118 yards to hit that mark. Jordan Addison is 146 yards shy of reaching a goal of his at 1,000 yards in his rookie season.

Also, K.J. Osborn needs to be much more involved than last week when he had no targets. Osborn caught five passes for 95 yards and one TD last time against the Lions.

There’s a much better chance of the wideouts succeeding with Mullens than Hall (who didn’t see the field well and couldn’t hit his open wide receivers on their crossing routes). But Mullens needs good pass protection. That has been a problem the past two weeks, with four sacks and lots of pressures by both the Lions and Packers.

4. Get back to playing solid run defense: the Vikings ranked fifth against the rush going into the first Detroit game and have dropped to ninth with successive poor performances in run D as the Lions rushed for 143 yards (with speedy Jahmyr Gibbs gaining 80 yards with a 5.3-yard average and two TDs) followed by Aaron Jones picking up 120 yards on the ground for the Packers last week. This is a big test for linebackers Jordan Hicks and Ivan Pace Jr., along with the rest of the Vikings D.   

5. Danielle Hunter must have a monster game to put pressure on Jared Goff, and the Vikings’ secondary needs to play much better than in recent weeks: Goff handled the Vikings’ blitz better than expected last time. DC Brian Flores still must send extra rushers, but perhaps not as often. Hunter has been sackless the past two weeks with only one QB hit, and he must be the difference-maker in the pass rush.

He is on the cusp of a big free-agent contract, so this is a good time to make a better showing than the past two games. Flores should line him up most of the time against left tackle Decker instead of Pro Bowl right tackle Penei Sewell.

The Vikings’ secondary has played poorly for the past three games, with too many receivers running wide-open. Having Murphy out the past two games is a big part of the problem, but Akayleb Evans and Mekhi Blackmon are just not making enough plays and are far too soft in coverage.

The corners are getting beat, and the safeties are late in helping out, as was the case on Jordan Love’s three TD passes last week and Goff’s success in completing 12 passes for 106 yards and one TD to Amon-Ra St. Brown in Week 16. It’s probably too much to ask for the secondary to be much better in Week 18, but it is clearly needed.

6. Make a big kick or big return: the special teams have played fine lately and could help with a few big plays this week.

Jeff’s Prediction:

It should be another high-scoring game between these two teams. As has been the case in the last two damaging losses, the QB matchup heavily favors the opposition. Goff ranks eighth in passer rating (96.4 with 28 TDs and 12 interceptions), and he’s thrown for the third most yards (4,255). He’s been sacked 30 times, fifth fewest in the league. Mullens ranks 30th with a passer rating of 86.6 (5 TDs, 6 picks in four games played this season).

Mullens threw four picks two weeks ago against Detroit, and it’s expected to be another feast-or-famine performance by him as he seems incapable of avoiding a handful of reckless or off-target throws that cost his team the game.

Lions at Vikings: A Tale of Two Different Teams
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The Vikings’ defense is coming off a game in which they gave up 470 yards and 33 points to a Packers offense that is less potent than the Lions’ third-ranked unit.

The Lions don’t want to enter the playoffs with two straight losses after falling to Dallas, and they are angry at how that game ended. The Vikings are missing too many top players to win this game. Detroit wins 34-24.  

Around the NFL Observations:

1. With the top seeds in each conference locked up by Baltimore and San Francisco, the focus shifts to the four division titles still up for grabs in Week 18.

AFC East: The game of the week is Sunday night, when the AFC East title and No. 2 seed will be decided between the Bills and Dolphins in Miami. Buffalo has won four straight, including impressive victories over Kansas City and Dallas. They also whipped the Dolphins 48-20 at home in Week 4.

A loss puts the Bills in a position of needing help to make the playoffs, while the Dolphins have already clinched a playoff spot and want to play a lot better than they did in getting clobbered 56-19 in Baltimore last week. I see a Buffalo victory with a big game from Josh Allen against a Miami defense that is missing their two best pass rushers—Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips.

NFC East: After the Eagles’ free fall continued (four losses in the last five weeks) with a surprising home loss to the Cardinals, the Cowboys will win the division and the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win at 4-12 Washington. Dallas will get it done, while the Eagles can only win the division with a victory at the Giants and a Cowboys loss.

AFC South: It’s a three-way tie at 9-7, with Jacksonville winning the division if they get a road victory at 5-11 Tennessee. QB Trevor Lawrence is expected back after missing last week’s win over Carolina that stopped a four-game losing streak. The Jaguars should win and claim their second straight division title. Houston is at Indianapolis on Saturday night, with the winner clinching a wild card spot and winning the division with a Jacksonville loss on Sunday.

NFC South: If Tampa Bay wins at 2-14 Carolina, the Bucs will win the division at 9-8, and I expect that to happen. If the Bucs are upset, then the winner of the Falcons at Saints game would claim the division title, and if the Bucs and Saints win, then New Orleans needs help to earn a wild card spot, whereas Atlanta only has a shot at the division and not a wild card.  

2. Congrats to Hunter on his fourth Pro Bowl selection and long snapper Andrew DePaola on his second time being picked. Ham and Hockenson are the first alternates, and safety Josh Metellus is the second alternate. The Vikings surely would’ve had at least two more picks if Jefferson and Hockenson had been healthy all season, and Cousins would’ve had a good shot if he had continued playing as well as he was before his injury.

The 49ers had nine Pro Bowlers to lead all teams, and the Cowboys and Ravens were next with seven players selected.

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The Vikings’ opponent this week — the Lions — had five players picked: Aidan Hutchinson, Sam LaPorta, Chanhassen-native Frank Ragnow, Penei Sewell, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The Bears have two Pro Bowlers—Jaylon Johnson and Montez Sweat and the Packers, somewhat surprisingly, were shut out, but Jordan Love certainly looks like a future Pro Bowler based on his great late-season play.  

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