The Minnesota Vikings (8-2) can create significant breathing room in the NFC North with a Thanksgiving Day win over the Detroit Lions (6-4). The Vikings come in as winners of their last six games, while the Lions have won three in a row.
Will the Vikings finally solve Detroit’s defense, which has slowed them down over the last three matchups? Will Matthew Stafford be a problem for the Vikings’ top-notch defense? Let’s have a look…
Matthew Stafford has been on fire lately. Over the last three games, he has a 71% completion percentage, seven touchdowns to one interception and a 124.7 quarterback rating. The Lions’ franchise quarterback is sporting the highest rating and yards per attempt marks of his career. Stafford’s recent hot streak coincides with the return of left tackle Taylor Decker, who missed the first eight games of the year. His presence will make things a little harder on the Vikings’ defense than the last time the two teams matched up.
The Vikings are sticking with Case Keenum, who has been at the helm for six straight wins – the last loss coming against Detroit. In that game, he went just 16-for-30 with 219 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. Keenum has been operating the Vikings’ offense efficiently with just five interceptions and five sacks on 305 dropbacks. He’s found a fit with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and had plenty of support from the running game and top-notch receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
The two teams have comparable passing games, ranking seventh and eighth in team quarterback rating, but Stafford is the more proven of the two QBs.
Detroit has two talented duel-threat running backs, but neither is having a great season on the ground thus far. Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah have combined to average just 3.5 yards per rush. Riddick, however, has been dangerous in the passing game with 33 receptions at 8.5 yards per catch. The Vikings did a terrific job of slowing down Riddick in their first matchup as he grabbed just one pass for eight yards.
For the Vikings, Latavius Murray has gained 315 yards on 69 carries over the last four weeks. He appears to have his burst back and has exploded for big gains on a weekly basis, including a 34-yard run last week to put a dagger in the Rams. Jerick McKinnon has been less productive recently, but has 35 receptions and several key explosive runs this year. Murray and McKinnon have provided the Vikings with a good inside and outside running success.
Wide receiver/tight end
Both teams have terrific receiving tandems. In Detroit’s case, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones both have big-play capability. Tate has been targeted often on short throws, but his playmaking skill with the ball makes him a threat on every screen or slant. Tate is catching 78% of throws in his direction and averaging 11.7 yards per catch. Jones goes downfield more often, gaining 16.4 yards per catch. TJ Jones has emerged as the Lions’ No. 3. The 2014 sixth-round pick has taken awhile to develop, but is known for his strong route running. Tight end Eric Ebron has still been underwhelming, but has picked up the pace recently with 11 catches for 181 yards in his last four games.
On the Vikings’ side, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are proving to be unstoppable. Thielen is among the league leaders in yards with 916 on 62 catches and Diggs is averaging 15.4 yards per catch and leading the team in touchdown receptions. They play off each other, especially when opponents bring a safety up to the line of scrimmage and leave either with a one-on-one matchup. The Vikings haven’t found a consistent No. 3 receiver option, so they have often turned to using two tight ends instead. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has also been an efficient weapon for Keenum.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings
The difference between Greg Robinson starting at left tackle and Taylor Decker might as well be Tom Savage vs. Cam Newton. Robinson was completely incapable of holding off top pass rushers, whereas Decker is one of the top players at his position. The Lions also spent a bunch of money to correct the right side of their line and TJ Lang and Rick Wagner have been worth the price thus far (though Wagner had a rough day against the Vikings).
The Vikings’ offensive line has been at the center of the team’s offensive success – even when players have been forced to miss time. Tackle Rashod Hill has been an excellent pass blocker when filling in for Mike Remmers over the last three weeks. The mobility of the line has allowed for a strong screen game and center Pat Elflein has become a consistent force in the middle during his rookie year. Case Keenum has only been sacked five times this season and the Vikings’ running game has made a complete turnaround after being ranked 32nd in the NFL last year.
Advantage: Slight edge to Vikings
After a hot start to the season, the Lions’ pass rush has lost its teeth over the past few weeks. They’ve dropped to 20th in the NFL in sacks. However, defensive end Anthony Zettel has become a force, leading the team in sacks with 6.0 thus far. The Vikings should be able to run the ball against a poor interior defensive line. Opposing teams have gained 423 yards on the ground over the last two weeks against Detroit.
The Vikings’ defensive line is playing at its highest level since Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014. Everson Griffen leads the team with 10.0 sacks and Danielle Hunter, despite a drop in sack production, has still been a force this season. Linval Joseph is having an incredible season as he’s helped to hold opposing rushers to 3.3 yards per carry. And Tom Johnson has done an excellent job taking over the full-time three-technique position.
Detroit’s linebackers play a key role in keeping opposing passing games in check by shutting down running backs out of the backfield and playing underneath zones. Tahir Whitehead is a solid all-around linebacker, who can cover or stop the run. This year’s first-round pick by Detroit Jerrad Davis has had some struggles as a rookie and may be a target of the Vikings’ attack.
Anthony Barr didn’t have much in the way of “splash” plays last week, but overall he’s having an excellent season, ranking 11th among all inside linebackers. Eric Kendricks is one of the elite cover linebackers in the NFL. Both will play huge roles in stopping Riddick and Tate in the short passing game.
This is Detroit’s strongest position group. The Lions’ secondary has picked off 11 passes this year and is holding opposing teams to a 83.2 quarterback rating. Both safety Glover Quin and corner Darius Slay are elite players at their positions while corner Quandre Diggs has become a solid player in his own right. Detroit’s defensive backs have been largely responsible for the Vikings’ difficulty hitting downfield passes vs. the Lions over the last two years.
The Vikings’ secondary has been among the best in the NFL this season, especially with the improvement of Trae Waynes, who has been solid in coverage after struggling the first two weeks. Terence Newman has stepped into the slot corner position without batting an eye and safety Harrison Smith might be the best defensive player in the NFL right now.
Advantage: Slight edge to the Vikings