What a Sunday this could be for the Detroit Lions. The NFC North is up for grabs and could be claimed this week as the Lions take on the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are three games back on the Lions, and with three games left in the season, two of the three being against Detroit, the Vikings need to win out and hope the Lions lose next week to win the division.
That is a tall ask for a team that has taken a step back late in the season. Minnesota started the year 1-4 before getting hot and going on a five-game winning streak. Since the streak ended, the Vikings’ division and playoff hopes have shrunk. Minnesota has lost three of their last four and are in desperation mode now. The team has a chance to play spoiler and force the Lions to wait another week to claim their first NFC North crown since 1993.
Take a look at the Week 16 scouting report for the Detroit Lions as they play the Minnesota Vikings in a possible NFC North title game.
2023 Minnesota Vikings
2023 season thus far (7-7)
Week 1: Loss against Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-17
Week 2: Loss against Philadelphia Eagles 34-28
Week 3: Loss against Los Angeles Chargers 28-24
Week 4: Win against Carolina Panthers 21-13
Week 5: Loss against Kansas City Chiefs 27-20
Week 6: Win against Chicago Bears 19-13
Week 7: Win against San Francisco 49ers 22-17
Week 8: Win against Green Bay Packers 24-10
Week 9: Win against Atlanta Falcons 31-28
Week 10: Win against New Orleans Saints 27-19
Week 11: Loss against Denver Broncos 21-20
Week 12: Loss against Chicago Bears 12-10
Week 13: BYE
Week 14: Win against Las Vegas Raiders 3-0
Week 15: Loss against Cincinnati Bengals 27-24
- 21st in points scored, 7th in points allowed
- 15th in DVOA
- 21st in offensive DVOA (18th in pass DVOA, 28th in run DVOA)
- 5th in defensive DVOA (7th pass DVOA, 8th in run DVOA)
- 29th in special teams
The defending NFC North champion Vikings have had an up-and-down season. They have had some significant roster changes from last year, losing multiple starters like running back Dalvin Cook, linebacker Za’Darius Smith, linebacker Eric Kendricks, wide receiver Adam Thielen, and cornerback Patrick Peterson. Those roster changes seemed to have impacted the team’s start at 1-4, but after the team found its groove, everything evened out until injuries struck the team hard.
In October, the Vikings lost starting quarterback Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles, ending his season. The Vikings didn’t give up and traded for quarterback Joshua Dobbs. He provided a spark in the team and helped extend their winning streak to five games. The spark didn’t last long, though. He played in five games, starting four, and went 3-2 before getting benched for Nick Mullens.
That wasn’t just it on the injury front; wide receiver Justin Jefferson messed seven games this season with a hamstring injury. The Vikings also traded for running back Cam Akers to help give their running game some life, and six games into his Vikings tenure, he also tore his Achilles, ending his season. The offense wasn’t the only side of the ball getting banged up, as linebacker Jordan Hicks joined the IR with a leg injury. Why am I discussing injuries this early? Injuries have impacted this team immensely; if the Vikings were healthier, they would be in a better spot than they are now.
But it’s the NFL, and teams have to adjust to injuries and learn to overcome them. Now at 7-7, the Vikings still threaten the Lions in the NFC North race. While the Vikings need a lot to win the division, they could still make the playoffs as a Wild Card. This team has an abundance of weapons and an impressive offensive line that can give any quarterback they have under center a good chance at winning games. The tools are there for this team to be competent; they must execute better on offense.
Luckily for the offense, the defense has been impressive this season. Outside linebacker Danielle Hunter is having his best season yet. He’s second place in the NFL in sacks (15.5), tied for a career-high with 21 tackles for loss, and is tied for first on the team with four forced fumbles. Safety Josh Metellus has stepped up considerably this season for the defense and has four forced fumbles of his own. Metellus has taken a while to step up for the Vikings as he’s been in the league since 2020 as a backup, but as a starter this season, he has been everywhere for this defense, ranking second on the team in tackles with 93.
Josh Metellus can literally do it all pic.twitter.com/7X7I0mFYs1— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) December 10, 2023
The Viking’s defense has also been doing a great job stopping the run game this year. They are the fifth best in rushing yards allowed (1,288) and yards per carry allowed (3.7). They also aren’t allowing many teams to score on the ground against them, tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns allowed with eight. The Lions are known for their run game, so this will be a tough matchup.
The Vikings are in desperation mode, though, at this point in the season. There are three games left, and all are against a divisional opponent. This team won’t care how they make it to the postseason; anything can happen as long as they can get there.
- Traded away guard Erza Cleveland to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- Acquired running back Cam Akers from the Los Angeles Rams.
- Acquired quarterback Joshua Dobbs from the Arizona Cardinals.
Key players ruled out: QB Kirk Cousins (IR), RB Cam Akers (IR), DE Marcus Davenport (IR), LB Jordan Hicks (IR), DL Dean Lowry (IR),
Key players to monitor: RB Alexander Mattison (ankle), WR Jalen Nailor (concussion), RT Brian O’Neill (ankle)
Mattison missed the game last week, but the Vikings had a good performance by his backup, Ty Chandler, so if they think Mattison needs another week off, they might let him take it. O’Neill missing the game would be a hit to an offensive line that has impressed this season. A matchup with Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson would be Neill’s job, and without him, the Vikings would need to look at their backups for help.
Nailor being out last week didn’t seem to slow down the passing game, as the Vikings have plenty of depth at the spot. If he misses the game, it won’t hurt the team greatly, but if he returns, it gives them another weapon for their quarterback.
Biggest strength: Receiving game
Speaking of the passing game, the Vikings have a solid trio of options for their quarterbacks. You have superstar wide receiver Jefferson, who started the season strong with three straight 100-yard games before barely getting over 100 yards combined in the next two games. Since returning from his injury, Jefferson has still been the number one option for the team and a threat nobody should overlook.
While Jefferson was hurt, rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison took over in the passing game as the top wide receiver and has come up big for the Vikings this year. He has 62 catches for 824 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns. He has grown as the season progressed and become a problem for opposing defenses.
Lastly, you can’t talk about the Vikings passing attack and not mention their top receiver, tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson did well in Minnesota after the trade from Detroit, but this season, he is 13 yards away from having a career-best season, topping last year’s impressive year. Hockenson has 91 catches for 902 yards and five touchdowns. He has become the tight end the Lions wanted out of him during his tenure in Detroit, but the Lions have Sam LaPorta now, who is looking to be pretty good, so we can call this a draw.
Biggest weakness: Quarterback
When you lose your starting quarterback, the season’s expectations suddenly shift. Cousins was playing well for Minnesota, but once he went down, things got rocky. Rookie quarterback Jaren Hall got his chance and got injured in his first start. Dobbs came in and wowed people away with his skills, and he looked like he would be a serviceable backup for this team until he wasn’t.
Enter Nick Mullens.
Mullens started his first game as a Viking last week, and he had some glimpses of being capable of being the guy; he also had some horrible throws that made you question what he was doing out there. With a career record of 5-13 as a starting quarterback, replacing a quarterback whose career record is 3-11 as a starter is an upgrade, but just by how much?
B.J. Hill with an incredible, hilarious BIG MAN interception on a Nick Mullens "pass". pic.twitter.com/icCr4IOJJI— The Comeback (@thecomeback) December 16, 2023
Key matchup: Lions coverage vs. Vikings passing attack
No matter who is under center for the Vikings, they have been able to complete passes to the plethora of receivers they have and win some games, and at the very least, make it a close game. The Lions had a tough matchup last week with the Broncos receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, and they combined for 145 yards and eight catches but never saw the end zone.
The Lions might be able to double one of the three primary weapons for the Vikings, but that means someone else will have to do their job well. The question is, who do you try to double? Jefferson is the clear and obvious choice, but Hockenson is the main threat in the passing game this year, and Detroit knows his weaknesses.
Detroit will have their hands full regarding the coverage game this week. If the Lions defensive line can pressure Mullens, he could throw an awful pass that can lead to a turnover. If Mullens has all day to throw, the Lions’ coverage will falter, and they cannot keep up with all the receivers. The Lions will need to ensure things are tight when the Vikings air out the football, or else they could push their NFC North title celebration back a week.
Vegas line for Sunday: Lions by 3