For the second straight year, the Lions and Vikings face off on Thanksgiving as the first and second place teams in the NFC North. Last year, the Lions bested Minnesota in a wild game that ended with a Darius Slay interception which set up the game-winning field goal. Though the Lions ended up squandering their division lead, the victory still helped lead Detroit to the postseason.
If the Vikings are to win on Thursday, it’s hard to imagine them blowing their lead in the division considering it would move them to 9-2. However, if the Lions can pull off the upset, we’re in for a wild NFC North race in the final five games of the year.
So who’s got the advantage on Thanksgiving Day? Let’s look to the charts.
Lions pass offense (12th) vs. Vikings pass defense (9th)
Like a green bean casserole fresh out of the oven, the Lions pass offense has been hot, hot, hot out of the bye week. Matthew Stafford is having himself a damn impressive November. Here’s a look at his stats out of the bye week:
91-135 (67.4% completion), 1,332 yards, 7 touchdowns, 1 interception, 113.6 passer rating
Stafford has now had a 100+ passer rating in six of 10 games this season. As an entire pass offense, the Lions are really on the move upwards. After the bye week, they ranked just 23rd in DVOA. Now, they’re 12th.
The Lions rank seventh in passer rating (98.4), 10th in completion percentage (63.1) and t-seventh in yards per attempt (7.7). The DVOA rankings may not have caught up to it yet, but this Lions pass offense is finally the top-10 unit it should be.
The Vikings pass defense is no slouch either. The Los Angeles Rams came strolling into Minnesota with a top five passing attack (fourth in DVOA) and the Vikings absolutely stifled them. Only three teams have managed to outgain their passer rating average against the Vikings, but only one team all year has managed a passer rating above 90.
Overall, the Vikings rank ninth in passer rating allowed (80.7), t-fifth in yards per attempt (6.5) and 15th in completion percentage (62.0). They’re pretty good, y’all.
In their Week 4 matchup, the Vikings held the Lions to just 154 passing yards, Detroit’s second-lowest total this year. Most concerning for the Lions, however, is the Vikings’ 27 sacks on the season, good for 12th-most in the league.
Player to watch: Everson Griffen. Griffen has 10.0 sacks on the year and has at least one sack in every single game this year (outside of last week). Detroit’s pass protection is better now that Taylor Decker is back, but Griffen can make any offensive tackle in the league look foolish. He had four QB hits in the last matchup.
Advantage: Draw. Recently the Lions have beaten up on some of the best pass defenses in the league (Steelers, Bears), while the Vikings have completely shut down some of the best pass defenses in the league (Rams, Washington). It’s anyone’s best guess who wins this matchup on Thursday.
Lions run offense (29th) vs. Vikings run defense (6th)
That one week where the Lions running game was actually kind of good against literally the best run defense in the league was kind of nice, huh? Well, don’t get used to it.
There’s no point in going into it again, the Lions run offense is really bad. Detroit ranks 29th in yards per carry (3.4) and is only earning first downs on 17.0 percent of carries (28th).
We’ve made plenty about the Lions not having a 100-yard rusher since 2013, but as a team the Lions only have 100+ rushing yards in two of 10 games this year. Did I mention it’s bad?
Oh boy. The Vikings run defense is one of the best in the league. They’ve only allowed one team to outgain their season averages (those pesky Browns!). In fact, only the Browns were able to average over 4.0 yards per carry against the Vikings this year. This is not a team you want to face if you’re struggling to establish the running game.
Minnesota is only allowing 3.3 YPC (t-second) and ceding first downs on just 16.4 percent of carries (second).
Hoping the Lions get lucky with a long run from Ameer Abdullah? Don’t hold your breath. The Vikings have only allowed two rushes of 20+ yards all year (second-fewest). Although, to be fair, Abdullah had one of those two rushes.
Player to watch: Travis Swanson. Now that the Lions are full strength on the offensive line, Swanson is out of excuses for his poor play. If Detroit is ever going to turn around their running game, he’ll need to improve. I mean, watch this:
Advantage: Vikings +2. This would be a great week for the Lions to have a running game to help neutralize Minnesota’s impressive pass rush, but I literally see no way in which Detroit wins this matchup on Thursday. This is about as lopsided as a matchup as you’ll see in the NFL.
Vikings pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (11th)
The Vikings pass offense is good, but I’m having a hard time agreeing with Football Outsiders’ No. 2 ranking here. Case Keenum has been mostly average as Minnesota’s quarterback this year, although he has admittedly been hot in the past two weeks. Overall, the Vikings have only surpassed the defense’s passer rating average four times this year.
With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs having career years, this is undoubtedly a good pass defense, but I don’t see it as a great one. They rank eighth in passer rating (97.2), t-ninth in yards per attempt (7.5) and seventh in completion percentage (66.6).
This also won’t be the week the Lions’ pass rush suddenly turns itself around. The Vikings have allowed a league low 10 sacks all year.
The Lions pass defense is starting to slip, partially for reasons we’ll get into in the next section. Detroit’s pass defense hasn’t been bad over the past month, but they also haven’t really been tested much. The Packers, Browns and Bears have some of the worst passing offenses in the league, and the Lions didn’t completely shut them down.
The Lions rank 12th in passer rating allowed (83.2), t-19th in yards per attempt (7.3) and 17th in completion percentage (62.8). They’re still seventh in interceptions (11) and have only allowed 12 passing touchdowns (t-seventh).
Player to watch: Kyle Rudolph. While Darius Slay did a good job shutting down Thielen in the previous matchup, the Lions are starting to get exploited over the middle with tight ends. Jarrad Davis and Tahir Whitehead haven’t looked very good in coverage in the month of November, so Rudolph has a pretty good opportunity to pop off a pretty good game on Thursday.
Advantage: Vikings +0.5. The Lions pass defense is starting to show some cracks, while the Vikings pass offense is on a pretty good streak right now. That being said, I don’t think Case Keenum is as good as the Vikings are making him look, and Detroit did a pretty darn good job holding him in check in Week 4. Considering the Lions’ recent defensive woes, I’m giving the Vikings a small advantage here, but this could go either way.
Vikings run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (22nd)
The Vikings running game has been all over the place this year. While they’ve rushed for 100+ yards in seven of 10 games this year, they’ve only outgained the defense’s YPC average in four of 10 weeks.
Regardless of their success, the Vikings love to run the ball and run it a lot. They have the third-most rushing attempts in the league, but are only averaging 4.0 yards per carry (t-18th). That number is a bit misleading, too, because Dalvin Cook averaged 4.8 yards per carry before his season ending injury. In his place, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are averaging just a combined 3.84 YPC.
Yikes. The Lions run defense has not only been awful over the past two weeks, but since Haloti Ngata was injured against the Panthers, the Lions have only held one of five teams below their yards per carry average.
For the season, the Lions’ run defense is starting to plummet fast. They rank 23rd in yards per carry allowed (4.4) and 27th in percentage of rushes ceded that earn first downs (25.4).
The Lions could be getting Ezekiel Ansah back this week, which would help prevent them from allowing 200+ rushing yards for a third straight week, but it’s hard to imagine that will fix all of Detroit’s current struggles.
Player to watch: Jarrad Davis. The Lions rookie linebacker and defensive playcaller is currently ranked 83 out of 85 qualifying linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. Detroit cannot afford another poor performance from Davis on Thursday or the Lions are doomed.
Advantage: Vikings +2. The Lions haven’t been able to stop the run in the past month, and you can see it’s starting to bleed into their performance defending the pass. Obviously when a defense needs to sell out to try and stop the run, it makes them more vulnerable to play-action. If the Lions continue to lose this matchup, they’re going to start slipping in the pass defense, too. Hopefully Ansah is the key to stop the bleeding, but I’m just not buying it right now.
Last week’s prediction:
The Lions game against the Chicago Bears played out pretty much as everyone predicted. The Bears kept it close, but the Lions squeezed out a road division win. While the game was a bit more high scoring than I believed, my 24-19 prediction was pretty solid and moved On Paper to 6-4 on the year.
This week’s On Paper winner didn’t come from the comment section, but, rather, one of our own. Noted prediction mocker, Chris Perfett, almost nailed the score exactly. Chris has been known this year for his wacky predictions, but his 26-25 pick was unbelievably close to the final 27-24 score.
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This week’s prediction:
The Vikings come out with a pretty significant +4.5 advantage. Minnesota even has the advantage in three of four matchups. The only clear advantage the Lions have in this game is on special teams, and Detroit may be without their best kick and punt returner Jamal Agnew, who missed practice on Tuesday with a knee injury.
For the Lions to have a real shot in this game, their defense is going to have to show up. They aren’t going to win a shootout with the Vikings, not with their defense. In their past eight games against Minnesota, the Lions are averaging under 17 points per game.
So Detroit is going to have to figure out a way to stop the run, and it’s hard to have any confidence in their ability to do so after the past two games. I have a really bad feeling about this game, and things could get ugly out there on Thanksgiving. Vikings 27, Lions 13.