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Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings Week 17 preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown of the Lions’ Week 17 matchup.

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Happy New Year, everybody. We’re all hoping 2021 brings us better fortune both on the field for our Detroit Lions and in our own personal lives.

Unfortunately, we still have to deal with the 2020 team for one more game, and it will come with nothing on the line other than draft position. I get the sense that most Lions fans will be pulling for a loss this week, as a win and loss could mean the difference between a top five pick or falling out of the top 10 completely.

Week 17s are always hard to predict, especially when both teams have little to play for, but let’s do our best in the On Paper finale.

Lions pass offense (19th in DOVA) vs. Vikings pass defense (13th)

If you needed another reminder of just how much a difference Matthew Stafford makes, last week was a not-so-pleasant reminder. Chase Daniel’s biggest value is with a clipboard in his hand, and the Buccaneers made that very clear on Saturday.

Fortunately (unfortunately?), it appears Matthew Stafford will try to give it a go this week, despite dealing with three separate injuries. Sure, there’s absolutely no reason for him to actually play this week, but selfishly, I’m happy we’ll get to see him at least one more time.

Stafford’s play has been noticeably better with Darrell Bevell as the interim head coach, but it’s hard to know if that’s really anything significant or simply a result of a small sample size. Still, with Stafford at the helm, this feels like an average-to-above-average passing attack.

The Vikings defense has been bad this year, and they’re dealing with almost no pass rush and an extremely young secondary. Yet... they’ve actually managed to keep it together when it comes to stopping the pass.

They’ve been opportunistic with 14 interceptions this year (t-seventh), but are still giving up 7.8 yards per pass attempt (27th) and a passer rating average of 96.0 (23rd). Their biggest problem seems to be giving up big plays. They’ve allowed 56 passing plays of 20+ yards this season (t-third most) and 11 of 40+ yards (t-second most).

Player to watch: Harrison Smith. The one veteran in the Vikings secondary is still playing his tail off. His nine passes defended and four interceptions both lead the team.

Advantage: Even. Both of these units hang around average. And while Stafford is trending up under Bevell, at some point the injuries have to take their toll.

Lions run offense (23rd) vs. Vikings run defense (27th)

D’Andre Swift has had 10+ carries in five different games this year: Against the Jaguars, Vikings, Football Team, Titans and Buccaneers. Now look at the team yards per carry in those five games: 4.6, 4.8, 5.0, 4.6, 4.9. All of those cells are either yellow or green. As for the other 10 cells, eight are red.

That’s no coincidence. D’Andre Swift is good, and he’s expected to start this week.

The Vikings run defense started out okay, but it has quickly just fallen off a cliff. They’ve allowed at least 100 rushing yards in six straight games, and have allowed 4.7 yards per carry or more in four of their past six games.

It’s rare to see a Vikings defense this poor against the run, but that’s what happens when you suffer so many injuries on the front seven.

As a unit, they’re allowed 4.5 yards per carry (t-20th) and are allowing first downs on 28.2 percent of runs (27th).

Player to watch: Frank Ragnow. The Lions Pro Bowl center is trending towards playing this week after suffering a fractured throat a few weeks ago. If he can play, the Lions may be able to dominate the middle of the line on Sunday.

Advantage: Lions +2.5. This is the first matchup significantly in the Lions favor in some time. Swift bring a new dimension to the Lions’ offense, and the Vikings are exactly the kind of team that Detroit is suited to take advantage of.

Vikings pass offense (11th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

Now come the bad part. The Vikings pass offense isn’t as good as the past three teams the Lions have faced—Packers, Titans, Bucs—but they aren’t far behind. Kirk Cousins continues to be underrated, while he’s got quite the duo of receivers to throw to. Both Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen rank in PFF’s top 10 in wide receiver grades.

Put it all together, and the Vikings rank eighth in passer rating (103.1), t-second in yards per attempt (8.1) and seventh in completion percentage (67.4).

That being said, they are a bit vulnerable to big-play mistakes. They’ve allowed the 13th-most sack yardage and thrown the eighth-most interceptions in the league.

The Lions pass defense is still very, very, very bad. Each week, injuries have forced them to try a new cornerback on defense. Against the Titans it was Alex Myres. Last week, it was Tramaine Brock. This week, it could b e Brock again or maybe even Josh Hawkins.

Regardless of who it is, there’s no reason to expect any success on this side of the ball. The best thing you could say about this unit is that Everson Griffen’s recent return this week could help bolster an extremely anemic pass rush (30th in pass rush win rate).

Player to watch: Justin Jefferson. Jefferson only had 64 yards against the Lions last time the two teams faced off, but he’s tallied over 70 yards in six of the last seven games.

Advantage: Vikings +4. This is going to get ugly, per usual.

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

The Vikings rushing attack went through a weird dry spell in November, but otherwise, it’s been fantastic.

Of course, the big story this week is that Dalvin Cook is out after the sudden death of his father. That leaves Alexander Mattison to take over, assuming that he can clear concussion protocol by Sunday. If not, it will be Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone in the backfield.

Mattison has done well in spots for Cook, averaging a solid 4.5 yards per carry this year. However, Abdullah and Boone have combined for just 14 carries this season. Their ability to thrive in this running game remains unknown.

This chart looks a lot better than it should. The Lions run defense hasn’t been very good this year, but they have had their moments. The present is not one of those moments. They’ve allowed at least 100 yards in four straight games.

So why is the chart so green? My educated guess is that the Lions fall behind so quickly and teams just predictably run the ball late in the games, not caring that they’re only picking up 3-4 yards at time, because they’re only looking to run clock. Take, for example, the Thanksgiving Day game against the Texans.

In the first half, Houston’s rushing stats looked like this:

13 rushes, 56 yards, 4.3 YPC

By the time it was already a two score game, here’s how the Texans finished that game in the third and fourth quarter:

10 rushes, 21 yards, 2.1 YPC

The more games you look at, the more common this phenomenon is for the Lions, so I take this chart with a grain of salt.

Player to watch: Danny Shelton. Shelton is currently on IR, but he recently returned to practice. The Lions have an open roster spot after letting Jayron Kearse go, so there’s a chance Shelton—the team’s best interior run defender—returns for the finale.

Advantage: Vikings +1. Even with Cook out, this is a capable running team. In his one game with 20+ carries this season, Mattison tallied 112 rushing yards. If he plays, I still think they win this matchup. If he doesn’t play, who knows?

Last week’s prediction:

I predicted a 38-27 Buccaneers victory, which ended up being nowhere close to the final score. Do I think a healthy Matthew Stafford would have made a 47-7 game a bit closer to my prediction? Absolutely. The offense would’ve put up more than zero points, and it’s reasonable to believe they would’ve taken more time off the clock, preventing Tom Brady from hanging 40 on ‘em. Still, I was probably too nice to Detroit’s defense, which seems impossible at this point.

In the comment section, Faleroz World came away with the closest prediction, going with 47-17 Bucs. I’ve always been curious what their screen name was about, and after finally googling it, it appears to be a World of Warcraft thing. I don’t know anything about World of Warcraft, but I imagine it’s a video game about taking a break from war to do some crafts. So here’s my rendition:

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with just a modest +2.5 advantage. It wouldn’t completely shock me to see the Lions compete or even win this game. The game plan will likely revolve around D’Andre Swift for two reasons. First, because that’s where the Vikings are most vulnerable. Second, because it’ll keep Detroit’s horrible defense off the field.

But in the end, the Vikings have far too many playmakers for the Lions to handle, and they’ll win the shootout. Vikings 34, Lions 24