The Vikings made things interesting late, but the Lions put the clamps on when it mattered most. Detroit jumped up to 11-4 on the season, pulling away from any remaining threats in the NFC North and securing themselves a playoff berth.
Let’s examine some takeaways.
THE KING IN THE NORTH
At long last, the Detroit Lions are winners of the NFC North. It certainly got nervous at times during the season and this game, but they closed it out to secure the division crown. Not only does this secure them a playoff appearance, but a home playoff appearance. Ford Field will be rocking.
Little else needs to be said. Let us bask in this feeling while we can, for the playoffs are fast approaching.
Death by a thousand cuts
It was a rare game where the Lions offense was not explosive, but that mattered little. The offense was methodical, picking apart the talented Vikings defense:
Long sustained drives against one of the best defenses in football. https://t.co/1e3PhqVXh7— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) December 24, 2023
The Lions had a long play of just 25 yards (courtesy of Amon-Ra St. Brown), but they were getting multiple 10-plus yard plays from their entire offense, such as Jahmyr Gibbs, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Kalif Raymond, Josh Reynolds, and Jameson Williams. Surprisingly, it was Sam LaPorta who was largely left out of the offensive outing. The rookie tight end managed just three catches for 18 yards, as the Vikings' defense looked to eliminate the young phenom from the game plan.
It was good to see the Lions' offense succeed without the big splash plays. Come playoffs, grinding out yardage and points will be the name of the game.
The Lions might need an overhauled cornerback room next season. The secondary was carved up by Nick Mullens, despite his best efforts to sabotage the Vikings' offense early on.
Cam Sutton was not cutting it in coverage on Justin Jefferson, allowing the star receiver to break free on multiple plays. Sutton has been the Lions’ CB1 this season, but he has not been the lockdown cornerback that they need. Sutton might be best served as a CB2, but that leaves the Lions in a tough spot for the future.
Khalil Dorsey got burnt on back-to-back plays to K.J. Osborn, allowing a 47-yard bomb on a busted coverage and an easy touchdown after biting on play action. Even Brian Branch had some bad moments, including a dropped interception and a defensive holding penalty in the red zone—his interception was also a mistake, given that it came on fourth down and an incompletion would have made a 20-yard difference.
Surprisingly, Kindle Vildor was the Lions’ best cornerback on the day. He made some crucial open field tackles, although he was also called for an illegal contact that negated a sack. With Dorsey struggling, I would expect Vildor to receive extended looks. Aside from Will Harris and Steven Gilmore, the Lions do not have many alternatives—Harris has been largely phased out of the defense, while Gilmore is an undrafted rookie who has rarely been active, let alone play defense.
Huddle needs to hurry
I’m not sure what led to this, since the Lions had played in loud environments before this season, but the offensive huddles were a disaster against the Vikings. The Lions were flagged for three delay of game penalties and came very close to more. The Lions were consistently exiting the huddle with 10 seconds or fewer left on the play clock. It gave them little time to get a player in motion, let alone get the snap off.
Nick Mullens both carved up the Lions' secondary and gifted them a victory.
He finished with 411 passing yards and two touchdowns, but it was the interceptions that sunk the Vikings. Brian Branch notched himself the aforementioned fourth down interception, though you could argue its overall impact. Kerby Joseph recorded two interceptions on deep lofting passes along the sideline. You could argue that they were just arm punts, but that is still two turnovers for the defense—we’ll take those.
You could argue about the first three picks, but the last one had perhaps the biggest impact of any play this season. With the defense reeling against the Vikings with under two minutes remaining, Ifeatu Melifonwu—the first draft pick acquired from the Matthew Stafford trade—came up clutch. The pass for Justin Jefferson was jumped by Melifonwu and sealed the game and the division crown for the Lions:
The Lions were getting a lot of success blitzing Mullens, forcing him into making poor decisions and poor throws. Melifonwu in particular had another stellar outing. Along with his interception, he recorded two sacks, two passes defended, and two tackles for loss. He was making things miserable for Mullens.
You have to wonder about what would have happened with Josh Dobbs under center instead (he was inactive as the emergency third quarterback), since his mobility could have altered the game plan.
A good game to watch on mute
I understand it is not easy to be a professional NFL commentator, but the FOX duo of Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma were quite dreadful today. The commentary in general was poor, and there was rarely anything insightful offered. Worse yet, Albert mentioned on multiple occasions that the Lions would receive the second half kickoff... after receiving the opening kickoff. Making the mistake once is fine, but the fact that it was repeated highlighted some incompetence from Albert and the crew around him.
John’s Turning Point: Jared Goff’s overturned fumble touchdown
The turning point of this game was almost John Cominsky failing to jump on the Nick Mullens fumble on the final Vikings drive, but thankfully the defense came up clutch with an interception. Instead, we can focus on a happier turning point.
With 5:11 left in the second quarter, Jared Goff was sacked and fumbled on third-and-6. The Vikings’ Camryn Bynum pounced on the ball and took it the distance for six. This would make the game 13-7 for the Vikings with the extra point pending.
Except it didn’t. Upon review, the officials determined that Goff’s arm was coming forward enough to constitute a pass, and the play was called back and ruled incomplete. This kept the Lions' drive alive, and it ended in a field goal to put them up 10-7.
Given the track record of the NFL and how close the play was, there was a decent chance that the ruling on the field could have stood as called. This would have been a monumental swing in the game, a swing that would have been the difference in a 30-24 outcome. I believe the officials made the correct call, but how often have we seen calls like these not go our way?