Looking Ahead To The Critical Thursday Night Football Clash Between The Lions and The Vikings
How important is this game for the future of the NFC North? The teams tied at the top with 6-4 records clash in a nationally televised struggle for survival in the NFC playoff race. This is a must-win game for both teams for numerous reasons. If the Vikings win, they sit one game ahead of the Lions, with the head to head tie breaker even, meaning that they control the fate of the division title outright and must only equal the Lions record from here on out to be King in the North. A win would also erase from recent memory the four game losing streak that ended against the Cardinals on Sunday. A win would put the team on a two-game winning streak after a bad stretch, moving forward from a bad offensive coordinator that had been bringing the team down.
The narrative in Minnesota would be incredibly positive, despite some serious shortcomings. The Vikings have defeated the Giants head to head, putting them in an advantageous spot to claim a wildcard should it come to that, but are one game back from having that tie breaker matter. The future would be bright in Minnesota should the Vikings come away with a Thanksgiving victory, but a loss would have the Vikings losers of five of their last six, and in a tailspin that is unlikely to end the following week against the Cowboys.
In Detroit, a win likely means the division. The Lions would be at least two games up on the struggling Packers, even if the Packers win their week 12 game. The Packers have dropped four straight and face five of six games to close the year against playoff-contending teams. That would all but eliminate the Packers from the division title picture. We have seen them rally late in the year before though, and a winning streak would alter the NFC playoff picture significantly. The Lions would be one game up on the Vikings, and also hold the first tiebreaker against them. Effectively that puts the Lions up two games on the Vikings in the race for the division crown.
In the NFC playoff picture it is very important for the Lions to take the division title, as they have games against only one serious contender after this week, and currently sit outside the wildcard picture behind the Giants and Washington. Washington’s tie game earlier in the season effectively neutralized the Lions tiebreaker win over them, meaning if the two teams win the same number of games, Washington are in and the Lions are out – and that is where they currently sit. The Giants are one game up on the Lions, with a head to head match up still to come in week fifteen, a much more Lions-friendly scenario. The Lions control their wildcard playoff destiny only if they can keep up to the Giants record until then, and the Giants play the Browns on Sunday.
The Offenses Are Both Struggling
The Detroit Lions have the 25th ranked offense in the NFL in yards per game. They have the 19th most first downs per game, and are 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game. They are 28th in yards per carry, and 29th in rushing touchdowns. That is despite being tied for a solid 14th in terms of 20+ yard running plays; the rest of the time the Lions simply cannot get the job done on the ground. The Lions have the second fewest fumbles in the NFL, which really is the only saving grace for the running game; at least they are not costing the team games by turning the ball over. Their running game nearly cost them a win against Jacksonville; the Lions gained 14 yards on the ground against a Jaguars front seven that is much better than the team’s 2-8 record might indicate, but not that good.
A failure of that magnitude is always three pronged. Coaching, the players on the field, and the front office who put them all out there, all come together and fail as hard as is possible. The Lions ran for -53 yards against the Chicago Cardinals on Oct 17, 1943, so this is not even close to a team record in futility. The Lions’ performance running the ball cannot be repeated against the Vikings for the team to have any chance of winning. The Vikings’ defense is far too good for the Lions to be that one dimensional and come away with a victory.
The good news is that the Vikings’ offense is even worse than the Lions’. They rank 32nd in yards per game, rushing yards per game and yards per carry. Unlike the Lions, the Vikings have no saving grace taking snaps at the pivot. They are sitting below the line in passing production that divides teams that have a good passing game and those who do not. The Vikings are 24th in the league in passing yards per game, behind such vaunted air attacks – that’s sarcasm kiddos – as the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, and Chicago Bears. There is nothing good happening in Minnesota offensively. The Vikings’ offense managed a mere 11 first downs, 217 yards, and two touchdowns in their 30 point performance against the Cardinals. They managed that futility without Blair Walsh or Norv Turner’s help. The Vikings’ only chance to win games is to have their defense and special teams pull out spectacular performances.
Stafford vs. Bradford
I recall some Lions media saying before Stafford was drafted that the team would be better off taking Aaron Curry to solidify the middle of the defense, and tanking a year to draft Sam Bradford in the following draft. Let that sink in next time someone on talk radio in Detroit is ripping the Lions QB incessantly. That’s the kind of idiot that you’re listening to. Sam Bradford is not a good quarterback, and has been living off his potential for his entire career. If only he could stay healthy, if only he had weapons around him; if only he wasn’t just a bad quarterback. He cost the Vikings their first round pick next season, and if things continue the way they have been for this offense with Bradford at the helm, that’s going to be a top fifteen pick.
Adam O and I were remarking yesterday that Leonard Fournette would have looked really good in a Vikings jersey; we can all be glad that is not something we will have to deal with for the next decade. The Vikings gambled that their 31-year-old running back (I also gambled on AP in the DLP fantasy league and have just been eliminated from playoff contention, as the Vikings are about to be) was going to be able to cheat father time and carry the offense far enough that the defense could drag them, kicking and screaming, to glory. Matthew Stafford will likely dink and dunk his way down the field, driving Lions’ fans insane with a barrage of screen passes, check downs, and short drops; or audibling to ineffective three-or-fewer yard runs between the tackles. He will do this because that is how you beat a great defense. You take the high percentage plays that they give you, and rely on your special teams and their terrible offense to hand you the game.
The Vikings Offensive Line
The old adage is that it could always be worse, and if you are a Lions fan looking for an example you do not have to look very far to find it. The Vikings have lost the players they brought in to solidify their starting line, the players they brought in to provide depth, and the players that made up their terrible line in the first place. If the Vikings cannot find a way – any way – to move the ball, the offensive line is the reason. Their running backs are bad, but they are not this bad. Minnesota’s quarterback is bad, but he is not as bad as he has looked this year. Their receivers are not bad at all, but you would never know it because they’re not getting the ball. I have been saying it since the preseason that the Achilles heel of this entire team was likely to be the sub-par blocking they had up front even when they were healthy. To frame the situation in terms Lions’ fans would grasp, the Vikings are where the Lions would be if their starting offensive line this week were, from left to right: Cornelius Lucas, Joe Dahl, Graham Glasgow, Geoff Schwartz, Corey Robinson. That is the level of decimation that the Vikings’ line has seen this year, and the Lions should be able to take advantage of it.
The Lions brought in Johnson Bademosi, drafted Miles Killebrew, and retained Don Carey, as well as Brandon Copeland to deal with Minnesota’s big play returner. He showed last week that he is a huge part of what has kept this team winning games while the offense slowly swirled down the drain. Patterson also led the Vikings in receiving yardage as the only big play threat the team has on that side of the ball. Two thirds of the Lions game plan should be steered toward stopping Patterson who is utilized by the team as a two trick pony, catching bubble screens and deep routes only. Teams have been limiting Patterson’s deep game effectively for years, which has forced the Vikings to use him similarly to the way the Lions have been using Golden Tate.
If I were the Lions, this would not be the week I brought Levy back. The Vikings’ offense is not good enough that they need him, so unless he is legitimately at 100% health there is not going to be a great reason to insert him into the line-up. The counter argument is that he is one of the few Lions players that didn’t play on Sunday, and would likely be the freshest body on the field. However with this week’s margin for error being zero, this is not the week that I start breaking Levy in for the playoff run. The Lions face the Saints and the Bears in the next two weeks. While one of those teams has already beaten the Lions this year, and the other has a very dangerous quarterback, their overall quality is not on par with the Vikings, making them infinitely better choices for Levy’s first game.
Lions 13, Vikings 12
This is a division game between two one-dimensional squads. The Vikings have shown that an opposing offense is one mistake from digging their own grave, but the Lions offense, for all its faults, has not been prone to mistakes. Nobody should be expecting the Lions to look pretty, or to put up 30 points on the Vikings defense. What they should be expecting is the most boring football game to watch since……the last game between the Vikings and the Lions. Nothing has changed in three weeks but the relative position of the two teams in the division race. My call this week is that the Lions drive the Viking invaders back to their boats, howling in shame and failure. Happy Thanksgiving from your Canadian brother in arms. I booked the day off, and will be joining my southern brethren in a day filled with turkey and football.