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Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: On Paper preview, prediction

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We break down the Lions’ Week 14 matchup against their division rivals.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings find themselves in a very different situation than the Detroit Lions. At 8-4, the playoffs almost seem like a formality at this point—even with the Chicago Bears pretending to nip at their heels. However, the NFC North battle is still raging with a home playoff game and potential first-round bye on the line. The Vikings cannot afford a slip up, especially of the double-digits-home-favorite variety.

The Lions are eliminated from the playoffs, on their third-string quarterback, and have one of the worst defenses in the league.

But any given Sunday, right? RIGHT?!?

Lions pass offense (8th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (14th)

David Blough stepped in last week with no real practice as the first-team quarterback, off a short week, and played extremely admirably for his first career start on a national stage—and against a really good Bears defense, too. If not for his last desperation heave that was promptly intercepted, he would’ve performed significantly better than the average quarterback against the Bears.

One thing has been clear about Darrell Bevell and the Lions offense since Matthew Stafford went down with a back injury: the deep ball will remain the life force of this offense. Blough was able to complete several downfield passes last week, and Jeff Driskel didn’t shy away from it either. That’s good news for those still rooting for Detroit.

The Vikings pass defense remains very good, even with their recent struggles. Though they rank just 17th in passer rating allowed (91.4) and t-24th in completion percentage allowed (65.2) they’re t-11th in yards per attempt allowed (7.1).

It’s a far cry from where this Vikings defense has been in years past, and a lot of their struggles come on the back end. They do have 11 interceptions this year (t-seventh) and are fifth in passes defended (66), but they tend to give up the big play more often then they should. They’ve allowed 42 passes of 20+ yards (13th most) and seven of 40+ yards (t-12th).

Of course, there’s also that scary front-seven. Though, you may be surprised to learn that the Vikings rank 24th in pass rush win rate, per ESPN.

Player to watch: Marvin Jones Jr. vs. Xavier Rhodes. As pointed out by our own Justin Simon, Rhodes is struggling. Like, one-of-the-worst-cornerbacks-in-the-league struggling. Marvin Jones Jr.—aptly known as Rhodes’ father—had four touchdowns in the last matchup.

Advantage: Vikings +1. This is still a pretty scary defense and not exactly one a quarterback on his second career start would love to go against. If this was Stafford, I’d give Detroit the advantage, but I’m still skeptical about Blough despite a promising first start.

Lions run offense (28th) vs. Vikings run defense (9th)

File this under “Too little, too late,” but the Lions run game appears to have resurrected from the dead. It’s not exactly on fire, but it’s so much better than it was earlier in the year. Take a look:

First 7 games: 96.8 rushing yards per game, 3.61 YPC
Last 5 games: 117.8 rushing yards per game, 4.43 YPC

While part of that has to do with Jeff Driskel’s three-game run in which he brought an added dimension to the running game, Bo Scarbrough has also injected some life into an otherwise disastrous running game.

The Vikings run defense has run very hot and cold over the past month. At times, they look like their typical stout run defense, but other times they’re giving up 200 yards and over 5.0 yards per carry. It, again, points to a defense that is still very good but clearly a step back from their reputation.

Overall, they’re allowing 4.2 yards per carry (t-13th), but are only allowing first downs on 18.5 percent of rushes (third). They’ve only allowed five rushing touchdowns on the year (t-first). That means when it comes down to obvious rushing downs, this is a lock-down defense. In fact, when it comes to power rushing, the Vikings defense has the fifth-best success rate.

Player to watch: Linval Joseph. The Vikings’ nose tackle has been fighting off a knee injury for the past few weeks and it has limited his effectiveness as the Vikings’ primary run stuffer. In his return for injury last week, it was clear he wasn’t the same person, and the Seahawks took advantage. But at his best Joseph is a game-changer.

Advantage: Vikings +0.5. All the current trends are in the Lions’ favor. They’re clearly better at running the ball, and the Vikings have just been playing average run defense for the past month. Still, if we’re going to look at overall body of work and not draw too many conclusions from a small sample size, the Vikings still have the better unit here.

Vikings pass offense (6th) vs. Lions pass defense (26th)

We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Kirk Cousins, but it hasn’t happened yet. Even in the big games in which Cousins was expected to crumble, he hasn’t. He clearly wasn’t the problem in last week’s loss to the Seahawks and his only true bad game came all the way back in Week 2.

Overall, Cousins in second in passer rating and fifth PFF grades. Like it or not, Cousins is having a career year and there’s no sign of stopping.

Miraculously, he’s been able to do it without a fully healthy receiving corps, too. Adam Thielen has missed four of his last five games and Josh Doctson was put on IR just a week into the season (though he has since returned).

Overall, Minnesota ranks first in passer rating (111.9), first in yards per attempt (8.5) and third in completion percentage. Any way you slice it, this is an elite passing attack.

Uh oh.

Yep, the Lions pass defense is still bad. We’ve beleaguered this point enough over the past month, so let’s just move on.

Player to watch: Adam Thielen. Thielen is no guarantee to play, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said he’s got a “good opportunity” this week. Lions cornerback Justin Coleman has struggled against receivers like Thielen, so if he can go, he’s a good candidate to pop off this week.

Advantage: Vikings +3.5. The Lions’ potentially healthy defensive line makes for an intriguing matchup against a Vikings offensive line that will almost certainly be missing left tackle Riley Reiff. However, the rest of this matchup is a disaster, and I don’t know how the Lions survive it.

Vikings run offense (12th) vs. Lions run defense (20th)

After a red-hot start to the season, the Vikings rushing attack has been a bit more pedestrian lately. Let’s give them the same splits as the Lions.

First 7 games: 160.0 rushing yards per game, 4.98 YPC
Last 5 games: 105.5 rushing yards per game, 3.95 YPC

They may be headed in the wrong direction—and part of that may have to do with Dalvin Cook’s nagging injury—but they’re still a pretty solid rushing attack. They’re averaging 4.6 yards per carry (t-seventh), and earn first downs on 24.3 percent of rushes (10th).

They’re also very capable of big plays on the ground. They’re fourth in rushing touchdowns (15) and have 13 rushes of 20+ yards (t-second).

The Lions haven’t allowed over 90 rushing yards or 4.0 yards per carry in four straight games. Of course, they’ve been helped by facing the Bears poor rushing attack twice in those four games, but they were also much better against the Cowboys’ solid rushing attack three weeks ago. You know what? Let’s just do another split for fun.

First 6 games: 139.2 Y/G allowed, 4.94 YPC
Last 6 games: 96.8 Y/G allowed, 3.75 YPC

This is beginning to look a lot like last year’s late-season improvement. The only difference is there is no clear reason for the improvement, unlike last year when Damon Harrison Sr.’s addition seemed to be the catalyst.

Player to watch: Dalvin Cook. The Lions’ tackling hasn’t been very good this year, and Cook is exactly the kind of running back that could exploit that. Cook currently ranks 10th among running backs in broken tackles.

Advantage: Draw. The trends are so significant for both units here that I can’t ignore them. The Lions have been a lot better against the run lately, while the Vikings have been average, at best. I could see this one go either way.

Last week’s prediction:

For Thanksgiving, I decided to defy the charts and I paid for it. On Paper told me the Bears would win in a squeaker, and I decided to predict with my heart. I abandoned the entire premise of this article to be objective, and I paid for it with my life my lead in our pick’em pool.

In the comment section, two Pride of Detroit staffers won the On Paper challenge with their 23-20 predictions—writer/editor/social media..er John Whiticar and moderator Levi Blue. Unfortunately, I procrastinated and forgot to tell them. So they couldn’t provide me with a photoshop request. But since John is Canadian and primarily focused on the CFL these days, here’s your prize:

(Yes, that is poutine in the Grey Cup, and I assume Canadians spell champion with a U.)

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with a +5 advantage, but I don’t think this game will be as big of a blowout as some are suggesting. The way things are currently trending with both teams—Vikings defense struggling, Lions run offense and defense seriously improving—I think this matchup is actually much more favorable than it was in Week 7, even with David Blough.

Unfortunately, the Lions’ pass defense has been so atrocious that I can’t see them overcoming their performance elsewhere on the field. The final score may still get ugly, simply because Cousins is on fire (good) and the Lions secondary is also on fire (in a bad way). Vikings 31, Lions 20.