The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings have been quietly producing instant classics over the past two years. Back in Week 3, the Vikings mounted an unlikely, last-minute comeback after Detroit made some questionable coaching decisions. In the last matchup of 2021, the Lions notched their first win of the season thanks to a walk-off Jared Goff touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown. And earlier in 2021, the Lions were able to score the go-ahead touchdown (and two-point conversion) in the last minute, only to see the Vikings take 37 seconds to drive into field goal range and kick the game-winning, 54-yard field goal.
For the Vikings, this is just the norm with football right now. Of their 12 games, nine have been decided by one score, and Minnesota has somehow won all of them.
Will this be yet another matchup decided in the last minute of the game, and can the Lions be the team that finishes this week?
Let’s take a closer look in our Lions vs. Vikings On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA) vs. Viking pass defense (24th)
The Lions passing offense seems back on track after a rough second quarter of the season—and much of that is due to a healthy set of skill players. Last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars was the first time since Week 1 that D’Andre Swift, Josh Reynolds, and DJ Chark were all off the injury report and what do you know? The Lions passing offense led them to a day in which they scored on every non-kneel down drive.
Of course, Jared Goff deserves more credit than he has been getting, too. Here’s where he ranks for the entire season in key statistical categories:
- Passer rating: 95.7 (11th)
- Yards per attempt: 7.5 (10th)
- Expected points added per play: 0.121 (10th)
- QBR: 60.5 (sixth)
- PFF grade: 64.4 (25th)
That last stat is the sticking point for many who don’t believe Goff can lead this team to future championships. While Goff has been undeniably efficient this season—the Lions are sixth in scoring—it hasn’t always been pretty. His turnover worthy plays percentage of 4.3 percent on the season is fourth highest among quarterbacks—though he’s been much better about it as of late.
But with solid weapons like Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, and now Jameson Williams, the hope is that receiver separation can help cut down on some of the dangerous throws from Goff.
The Vikings pass defense gives up yardage by the barrel, but their efficiency numbers are up and down; this unit is a walking contradiction. They’ve got two of the best pass rushing edges in Za’Darius Smith (9.5 sacks) and Danielle Hunter (7.0), but their overall pressure percentage ranks 24th in the league. They’re allowing the highest yards per pass attempt in the NFL (8.0), but they’ve also produced the most pass breakups in the league and tied for the fourth-most interceptions.
With the Vikings potentially getting Cameron Dantzler back this week, their secondary promises to be better, but that should be a pretty entertaining matchup with Detroit’s fully-healthy squad of receivers. The key matchup may be the surging St. Brown vs. Vikings nickel corner Chandon Sullivan, who has struggled pretty much all season, earning a 54.8 PFF grade for 2022.
Players to watch: Taylor Decker/Penei Sewell vs. Smith/Hunter. Keeping Jared Goff upright should be the Lions’ primary goal each week, and this week they’ll have their hands full. Decker and Sewell are both playing at a high level, but this will be the best edge rushing duo they’ve faced all year. In the previous matchup between the two, though, both Hunter and Smith failed to tally a sack or even a QB hit.
Advantage: Lions +2.5. The Lions are as healthy as they’ve been on offense in a very long time, and Goff is in a nice rhythm right now. They should be able to move the ball fairly consistently against a subpar Vikings pass defense, but the key will be to avoid turnovers—which Minnesota has shown they can produce somewhat consistently.
Lions run offense (10th) vs. Vikings run defense (14th)
With Swift slowly working his way back to full health, the Lions rushing attack has been missing its big-play potential for quite some time and it shows. But while the Lions’ yards per carry average has been slowly nosediving in the second half of the season, the Lions have actually been getting more efficient when it comes to short-yardage runs.
What used to be a pretty big vulnerability of this rushing attack has started to become a strength, as evidenced by the Lions’ 42.8 third down conversion rate (10th) and 73.9 red zone touchdown percentage (first)—oh, and Jamaal Williams’ league-leading 14 rushing touchdowns.
The hope is that with Swift nearing “full” health again, the explosive plays will come back, but for now, Detroit’s running game is still getting by okay despite the lower yards per carry (4.5, 14th).
For the most part, the Vikings run defense has been very good all season. There was a little lull in the middle of the season, but some of that can be directly attributed to the loss of run-stuffing defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson—who returned last week against the Jets.
That said, this defense isn’t exactly impenetrable. They’ve ceded 100 rushing yards in eight of 12 games, and given up over 4.5 yards per carry in five games.
The good news for the Lions is that the Vikings struggle in those short-yard situations, allowing a 75 percent conversion rate in power situations (27th in the NFL). The bad news is that the Vikings also force the seventh highest percentage of runs for zero or negative yards, so there’s a chance Detroit could find themselves in a lot of second or third-and-long situations.
Player to watch: Tomlinson vs. Evan Brown (?) If the Lions can get Evan Brown back this week, it would be huge. The former backup center turned starting right guard has missed the past two weeks with an ankle injury, and it has definitely had an impact on the offense. With third-string Kayode Awosika dealing with his own injury, if Brown—who has been limited in practice all week—can’t play, Detroit would have to rely on either Dan Skipper or Logan Stenberg, two players who have proven to be pretty big liabilities in their spot starts this year.
Advantage: Draw. I don’t expect the Lions to have a huge day on the ground—they haven’t really had a huge game in a month—but in situations where they need a short-yardage pickup, I have a lot more faith in this unit than I have had in week’s past. Throw in the Vikings’ 20th ranked red zone defense, and I think Detroit will do enough to get by on the ground.
Vikings pass offense (19th) vs. Lions pass defense (17th)
The Vikings passing attack has been, in a word, inconsistent. At times, they look capable of being among the NFL’s best, but other times Kirk Cousins and company look nothing but average—or even bad sometimes. Their season-long averages don’t really provide any clarity, either:
- 6.6 yards per attempt (25th)
- 88.6 passer rating (20th)
- 0.042 dropback EPA per play (16th)
- Sacks allowed: 30 (15th)
- Touchdowns: 18 (14th)
- Interceptions: 9 (t-14th)
Just average all around, which seems hard to justify. The Vikings have a decent set of skill position players, and Cousins has proven he can play at a top-10 level (he’s 15th in PFF grade).
The offensive line may be the biggest issue, as they rank 20th in PFF grade, 16th in pass block win rate.
Still, when you have a weapon as dangerous as Justin Jefferson—ranking second in the NFL in receiving yards—they’re always a threat to connect on a deep shot. Only Tyreek Hill has more receptions of 20+ yards. Detroit was able to shut down Jefferson last matchup, but even defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said it would be unrealistic to expect them to do so again.
“It’s hard to try to hold that player to that now,” Glen said. “I mean, he is a player that I really, really respect on a number of different levels. Just my own opinion, I think he’s—if not the best receiver—he’s one of the top two.”
But here’s where things get interesting. The Lions pass defense has shown incredible growth since the Dolphins game. Just how much growth? Look at these ridiculous numbers:
Well, I was gonna save this for my morning Question of the Day, but here you go:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) December 6, 2022
Lions pass defense ranks from Week 9-13:
- 57.4 completion% -- 1st
- 74.9 passer rating -- 2nd
- 7 INTs -- 1st
That’s right: the Lions own the third-best pass defense in the past five week by the DVOA metric. Is that sustainable over a longer period of time? That’s hard to say, but this is looking more and more like a trend rather than an exception to the rule, and I can no longer ignore it.
One part of the Lions defense that continues to lag, though, is pass rush. They rank 20th in pressure percentage and dead last in pass rush win rate. That said, they tend to fare better against pocket quarterbacks. They tallied seven quarterback hits and a sack against Cousins last matchup.
Player to watch: Jefferson. You know the Vikings wideout is going to be hungry to prove he can torch this Lions secondary, especially after being held in check in their last matchup.
Advantage: Draw. I think the Lions pass defense may actually be better than the Vikings passing offense right now, but there’s just not quite enough data for me to confidently say that. They’ve faced a couple of good offensive weapons in the past two weeks (Stefon Diggs and Jacksonville’s cast of characters), and they’ve held up well. It’s reasonable to believe they can do it again, but divisional battles are always different.
Vikings run offense (16th) vs. Lions run defense (25th)
If you look just at Dalvin Cook’s stats, you’d think the Vikings rushing attack is doing just fine. He’s got 927 rushing yards on the season (fifth) at a respectable 4.7 yards per carry (13th).
As a team, however, they’re just kind of middle of the road. They don’t put up a ton of yards because they don’t run the ball all that much. Their 285 rushing attempts is fifth fewest in the league, and their team average of 4.3 yards per carry is 21st. In other words, they’re not bad at running the ball, but it’s not typically a huge focus of their game.
Situationally, the Vikings are just okay. They rank 24th in power situation conversions, but get tackled for loss or zero yards on 23 percent of rushes, which is second-worst in the league.
The Lions run defense has been hard to peg down. They were awful early in the year, but have slowly gotten better as the season has rolled along. That said, they’re still susceptible to big games on the ground, but the biggest culprit has been the threat of a mobile quarterback. That won’t be a problem this week.
Player to watch: Alim McNeill. McNeill had a breakout game against the Giants, but he’s fallen a bit back into the shadows since. With no reason to fear a Cousins keeper, this could be a game in which the second-year defensive tackle shows up big again.
Advantage: Vikings +1. Dalvin Cook is still a dangerous player, and that should be enough to give Lions fans pause in this matchup. That being said, the Lions haven’t been gashed by a traditional run game since the Patriots game, so I wouldn’t expect the Vikings to pop off.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper moved to 7-5 on the year after predicting another Lions victory. I correctly gave the Lions’ passing offense a huge advantage, and that pretty much ended up carrying the entire team. The only reason I wasn’t very close with my final score prediction (34-30 Lions) is because I thought Trevor Lawrence would be able to keep up in a shootout. I underestimated the improvement the Lions have made in their secondary, who effectively shut down most of the Jaguars’ receiving corps last Sunday.
In the comment section, no one quite predicted this big of a blowout, but Canadaler was pretty darn close with their 34-13 prediction. My favorite thing about the prediction was the additional comment of “A nail in the SOL coffin.” So here that is in visual form:
Also, I won’t out who exactly it was, but I had a good laugh at this line in last week’s comment section:
All you homers calling for a 20 + pt Lions victory are delusional.
Not trying to call anyone out. This is the dangerous game we play by making predictions. We’re going to look stupid every now and then.
Speaking of, let’s get into my stupid prediction for this week.
This week’s prediction
The Lions come out with a semi-comfortable +1.5 advantage, but as you can see, each matchup is fairly close. Much like last week, the Lions passing attack may be the thing that carries them against the Vikings this week, though I’m sure they will want to try and stay a little more balanced. Defensively, this is a great opportunity for Detroit to prove their current jaw-dropping trajectory is for real because the Vikings have some big playmakers.
Lions 34, Vikings 28.