The Detroit Lions are entering uncharted territories this week as they face the Minnesota Vikings in a crucial Week 16 matchup. The Lions’ task is simple: win one more game and they’ve clinched the division for the first time in over 30 years.
Can they avoid the drama of the final three weeks of the season and get it done in their first opportunity to do so? The Vikings won’t be a pushover, as they’re a decent team that is desperate for a win to keep their playoff dreams alive.
So how do the two teams match up against each other? Let’s take a closer look at our Lions vs. Vikings On Paper preview and prediction.
Lions pass offense (8th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (7th)
The Lions passing offense got back on track last week with a dominant performance over a surging Broncos pass defense. In fact, an overview of this entire chart really shows that only the Bears and Ravens have truly had Detroit’s number this year. Otherwise, the Lions passing offense has been largely effective.
The advanced stats support this, as Detroit ranks 10th in dropback EPA, sixth in success rate, and t-fifth in passing PFF grade. In more traditional stats, they rank fifth in yards per attempt (7.5), fourth in passer rating (98.2), and t-sixth in fewest sacks allowed (28).
With the starting offensive line all back and healthy—and the surging efficiency of weapons like tight end Sam LaPorta, Jahmyr Gibbs, and even Jameson Williams, the Lions passing offense is still mid-stride, despite taking a step back in November/early December.
This will be the matchup of the game, as the Vikings pass defense has been highly disruptive all season. Much has been made of defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ highly unpredictable pass rush, which leads the league in six-man rushes and also eight-man dropbacks. Just wrapping your head around that is difficult enough:
DID YOU KNOW?— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 16, 2023
The @Vikings defense leads the NFL in blitzing 6+ pass rushers this season (28.0%) while also dropping 8+ coverage defenders at the highest rate (22.3%).
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That strategy has resulted in high disruption numbers, despite the fact that Minnesota’s pressure rate is actually not that special. They rank t-10th in pressure rate, 17th in pass rush win rate, and 32nd (!!!) in PFF pass rushing grade. Yet the confusion they create with this scheme has forced 41 sacks (t-eighth).
Overall, the Vikings pass defense ranks seventh in dropback EPA and fifth in success rate. Their more traditional stats, however, reveal a defense that is beatable. They rank 15th in yards per attempt (6.8), 23rd in passer rating allowed (90.7), and interestingly, they rank dead last in completion percentage allowed (69.6). Their defensive backs do not get their hands on a lot of passes, as the Vikings rank 19th in passes defended (60) and t-15th in interceptions (11).
Essentially, they give up a lot of short-to-intermediate passes, with quarterbacks opting to get the ball out quick. Their average depth of target against is 7.3 yards, which ranks ninth-lowest in the NFL.
Player to watch: Danielle Hunter. Hunter leads the team with 15.5 sacks (second most in the NFL), including 5.5 in the last five games. He moves around a lot but mostly lines up opposite the right tackle. So him vs. Penei Sewell will be fun TV to watch.
Advantage: Lions +1. While I am certainly a bit concerned about Jared Goff making a mistake or two under pressure (or perceived pressure), the Lions have the exact kind of weapons that could do well vs. this defense. If the Vikings continue to give up short, underneath space, the Lions will eat that up with Sam LaPorta, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Gibbs. The Vikings don’t give up a ton of deep, over-the-top yardage, but that’s not the Lions’ game anyways.
Lions run offense (4th) vs. Vikings run defense (9th)
The Lions’ domination on the ground continues. Gibbs appears to be hitting his stride, while the health of the offensive line has certainly helped.
To give you a sense of just how well-rounded this rushing attack is, the Lions rank both ninth in yards before contact per rush (2.8) and second in yards after contact (2.0). That’s on both the offensive line and the running backs doing their respective jobs.
To further drive the point home, the Lions’ offensive line also ranks first in adjusted line yards, and second in PFF’s run blocking grade. Overall, Detroit’s rushing attack is fifth in EPA and seventh in success rate. They’ve also been rapidly improving in short-yardage situations, currently ranking ninth in FTN’s power success rate.
Perhaps most promising about the Lions’ rushing attack is that they were successful against the Bears defense twice, which currently ranks third in run defense DVOA. That’s an important data point because the Vikings run defense...
... is pretty dang good. The Lions rushing attack has averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in eight consecutive games, but Minnesota hasn’t allowed that high of YPC since Week 6.
For the season, the Vikings are allowing just 3.7 yards per carry (fourth) and they rank 10th in EPA, but they’re also just 18th in success rate and 15th in adjusted line yards.
Perhaps the most impressive stat from the Vikings run defense is that they have only allowed a single rush of over 20+ yards. Every other NFL team has allowed at least three. The Lions rushing attack ranks fourth in the NFL in rushes of 20+ yards (14)—an average of one per game.
Player to watch: Penei Sewell. Sewell has a ridiculous 93.4 run blocking grade, which is well ahead of the next-best offensive tackle (Braden Smith, 86.9). Paired with Graham Glasgow’s 80.7 run blocking grade (sixth among guards), and it’s no surprise the Lions do a ton of good work on the right side of that line.
Advantage: Lions +1. My confidence in the Lions rushing attack is sky-high right now, even against a formidable defense like Minnesota’s. I think the Vikings run defense is a little worse than their DVOA ranking suggests, but it’s hard to refute the raw numbers in that chart. I expect the Lions to still cross over 100 yards but maybe fall short of that 4.5 YPC mark.
Vikings pass offense (18th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
You can see the exact moment where the Josh Dobbs experiment went wrong.
This is a tough matchup to break down here because we only have a single start from the quarterback who will start on Sunday: Nick Mullens. In relief for Dobbs against the Raiders, and as a starter for the Bengals, Mullens was able to move the offense down the field with regularity. For the season, he is 35-of-46 for 386 yards and 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Those are impressive efficiency numbers, but the problem is the occasional mental lapses. He has two really bad interceptions, and his lack of mobility led to three sacks last week.
In short: Mullens can efficiently run this offense, but if Detroit can capitalize on his eventual mistakes, it may not matter.
To the Vikings’ credit, they have Mullens in a near-perfect situation. He has three absolutely dynamic weapons in Justin Jefferson, rookie Jordan Addison, and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Additionally, the Vikings offensive line is highly underrated: they rank first in PFF’s pass blocking grade (78.5) and third in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
The Lions pass defense still isn’t good, but you can see they’re getting a little better as of late. They’ve held three straight opponents below a 95 passer rating. Of course, we’re not exactly talking about dynamic passing offenses in the Saints, Bears, and Broncos, but... baby steps. At the very least, Lions fans can be optimistic about the play of the revamped secondary, which included five different players tallying pass breakups vs. the Broncos.
Overall, Detroit ranks 23rd in yards per attempt allowed (7.3), 24th in passer rating (91.9), 23rd in EPA, and 26th in success rate. That feels a little closer to the actual performance of the pass defense compared to their 16th DVOA ranking.
The Lions are also still searching for pass rushing options outside of Aidan Hutchinson. The Michigan product still ranks third in the NFL in pressures created (81), but Alim McNeill is second on the team with just 33—and he’s currently on IR.
Player to watch: Jordan Addison. The Lions would be wise to give Justin Jefferson some extra attention, but that means the Lions will have to win their one-on-ones elsewhere. I can’t say I have a ton of faith in a combination of Kindle Vildor and Khalil Dorsey against Addison, who has 824 yards and nine touchdowns already this season.
Advantage: Vikings +2. I know some will disagree with the tilt here because of Mullens at quarterback, and it’s a fair criticism. But Mullens has a perfect supporting cast around him, and he showed against the Bengals that he can consistently move the ball down the field under this offense. Meanwhile, the Lions pass defense hasn’t really shown much reason to be optimistic outside of their sole performance last week. I’m not ready to believe yet.
Vikings run offense (28th) vs. Lions run defense (4th)
The Vikings run offense has been pretty bad all season, but as you can see in the bottom half of the graph, they’ve crossed over 120 rushing yards in five of their last six games, and averaged over 4.2 YPC in five of those contests, as well. Part of that was the Josh Dobbs bump (30 rushes, 163 yards over five games), and part is playing some really bad run defenses. But the Vikings may have also found something in Ty Chandler. In his first career start last week, Chandler rushed for 132 yards, 5.7 yards per carry and a touchdown.
Is that a one-off performance or the start of a turnaround? It’s hard to say, but it does appear that Alexander Mattison is at least partially responsible for Minnesota’s early struggles. The Vikings rank 10th in run blocking, 10th in adjusted line yards, and 22nd in run block win rate, so they’re capable of creating lanes.
Still, the Vikings rank just 22nd in yards per carry (4.0), 27th in rush EPA, and ninth in success rate.
The Lions run defense has been outstanding all year. And while they’ve allowed over 100 yards in four of their last five games, they’ve held half of those opponents under their yards per carry average. They’ve only allowed over 4.5 yards per carry in three games this season, and two of those were aided by a mobile quarterback. Thankfully, that’s not an issue this week.
Detroit ranks sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.8), fourth in EPA, and 11th in success rate.
Player to watch: David Quessenberry. Starting Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill is trending towards missing his second straight game. He currently holds the Vikings second-best PFF run blocking grade among their OL (73.3). Quessenberry, on the other hand, struggles mightily (53.9 grade). Look out for Hutchinson.
Advantage: Lions +2. I’m not much worried about this matchup at all, to be honest. It’s possible the Vikes rush for over 100 yards, but I don’t expect them to do it at an efficient rate. More importantly, if the Lions can slow the Vikings’ rushing attack, it could force them into third-and-longs, and the Lions could then put pressure on Mullens to make a mistake. That said, the Vikings have one of the highest early-down pass rates (seventh), so they may not get that opportunity,
Last week’s prediction
On Paper logged another win last week, moving the preview’s record to 10-4 overall and an impressive 11-2-1 against the spread. Though I was on the right side of the spread, my 27-20 prediction was nowhere near the 42-17 slaughtering we saw. My intuition was right about the Lions seeing success against Denver’s pass defense, but they outperformed my expectations there. Additionally, the Lions run defense was more impressive than I thought they’d be against a decent Broncos rushing attack. It makes sense that both units got a significant bump in DVOA this week.
In the comment section, I’m going to have to double-check to see if Sandbagger9 is a precog. Their wildly impressive 43-16 Lions prediction was the closest to the real score.
The award for worst comment of the week goes to Broncos fan SnakeNBeans. I won’t embarrass them here, but you can see their prediction here, worthy of an OldTakesExposing.
Anyway, here is your gift, Sandbagger9. Please do not open until Christmas Eve... around 4:15 p.m. ET.
(No, I don’t care about any of your superstitions, jinxing, etc.)
This week’s prediction:
The Lions come out with a +2 advantage. I really only see two paths to a Lions loss this week, though both are admittedly entirely possible. If Goff can’t handle the Vikings’ blitz/coverage disguises, it could result in some of the turnover-happy play we saw last month. That’s all the Vikings would likely need to win this game.
The other way Detroit loses this game is if they let Mullens go off. Again, this could very realistically happen given Mullens’ comfort in the scheme and his array of weapons. Let’s hope that the Lions’ recent (modest) improvements on the defensive side of the ball lead them to be opportunistic when the eventual Mullens mistake comes.
That all said, the Lions have the slight edges in the trenches when it comes to the running game, which means Detroit has a very good chance at playing the game they want: favorable third downs on offense, affording them the ability to hit on play action plus decent pass rushing opportunities on defense to make Mullens uncomfortable.
This’ll be a close one: Lions 27, Vikings 24.