When we last previewed Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings—just a mere two weeks ago—I predicted a very close game between two evenly-matched teams. That’s precisely what we got, as the Lions eked out a victory in Minneapolis that clinched the NFC North for them.
Certainly, we should expect more of the same this week, seeing as each team has only played one other game since their Week 16 matchup, right?
Ehhhh.... you’d be surprised. Let’s take a closer look at this week’s matchup in our Week 18 On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (9th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (10th)
Last matchup: Lions pass offense (8th), Vikings pass defense (7th)
The Lions passing attack has gone through some inconsistencies as of late—turnovers will do that—but for the most part, they remain one of the strongest units on the team and in the league. Detroit still ranks sixth in yards per attempt (7.5), sixth in passer rating (96.6), ninth in dropback EPA, and fifth in success rate. This is without a doubt a top-10 passing attack, and it’s knocking on the door of a top-five unit.
The unit is bolstered by a top-five offensive line featuring two Pro Bowlers—Frank Ragnow and Penei Sewell—who also happen to be the two highest-graded offensive linemen in football, per PFF. As a team, the Lions have allowed just 30 sacks (fourth fewest) and rank seventh in PFF pass blocking grade (71.5).
Detroit will likely be without their deep threat in Jameson Williams, which is tough because he’s been becoming a bigger and bigger threat. He’s surpassed 40 receiving yards in five of his last seven games.
This passing defense suddenly looks a lot different than it did two weeks ago. As you can see above, the Vikings pass defense DVOA has dropped three spots in just two weeks, and the chart looks miserable over the past six weeks.
Two weeks ago, this defense ranked seventh in dropback EPA and fifth in success rate. Now they rank 13th and eighth in those metrics, respectively.
What’s been the biggest reason for the downfall? It could be simple regression to the mean. It’s probably fair to say they were overperforming from their overall talent level, but they’ve also been hit by the injury bug as of late. They lost their best pass rusher not named Danielle Hunter in D.J. Wonnum, and they’ve been without starting corner Byron Murphy.
So while this is still capable of being a disruptive and confusing defense, they are clearly not playing their best football right now. They’ve only had one sack and two takeaways in the past two games.
Player to watch: Danielle Hunter. Hunter hasn’t had a sack in three of the past four games, but he still has 15.5 on the season, and in those four games, he still produced 23 pressures. He’ll have an impact on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +2. The Lions offensive line held up very well against the Vikings last time around, and Minnesota’s defense looks surprisingly lifeless over the past month. Detroit should be able to move the ball, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Minnesota’s pass rush forces a turnover (remember that fumble return TD that never was last time?).
Lions run offense (4th) vs. Vikings run defense (12th)
Last matchup: Lions run offense (4th), Vikings run defense (9th)
Detroit has not been held significantly below the defense’s rushing yards average or YPC average since Week 7. Though they’ve been a bit closer to average as of late, they’re still consistently reaching the century mark and have reached at least 4.5 yards per carry in eight of their last 10 games. They’re explosive, consistent, and one of the best in the league.
Last game against the Vikings, while David Montgomery struggled to get things going, Jahmyr Gibbs was outstanding—rushing for 80 yards on just 15 carries (5.3 YPC). He didn’t even have an explosive rush in the game to inflate those yards per carry, with his longest being an 18-yard run.
Overall, Detroit ranks fifth in yards per carry (4.7), fourth in rush EPA, seventh in success rate, and second in adjusted line yards.
The Vikings run defense has taken a recent hit, too, particularly last week when Aaron Jones just destroyed them (20 rushes, 120 yards). But unlike their passing defense, this seems to be more of an abnormality than a trend at this point. We’ll see.
As a team, the Vikings still rank sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.8), but oddly 18th in EPA and 23rd in success rate. Perhaps they are not quite as good as their chart suggests and a bit closer to an average unit—particularly after allowing 320 rushing yards over the past two weeks.
Player to watch: Gibbs. With Gibbs 85 rushing yards away from 1,000 and him putting up 80 in the previous matchup, I expect the Lions to feed him early and often.
Advantage: Lions +2. Detroit had enough success last matchup to declare it a win in their favor, and given what happened to Minnesota last week, it’s hard for me to see Detroit doing any worse in this week’s matchup.
Vikings pass offense (21st) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
Last matchup: Vikings pass offense (18th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
The Vikings’ search for a capable backup this season was a miserable failure. Though Joshua Dobbs gave them a nice little early bump, it’s been an absolute disaster over the past two months.
Nick Mullens is clearly the most capable quarterback of moving the offense consistently, but his turnover problem is absolutely massive. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts, his 7.4% turnover-worthy plays mark is only behind P.J. Walker (8.1%).
That said, Mullens was so much better than rookie Jaren Hall last week:
Hall: 5-of-10, 67 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Mullens: 13-of-22, 113 yards, 1 TD
And as we saw last matchup, Mullens is capable of throwing downfield and letting his players make plays. Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison remain one of the top duos in the league, though it’s also clear this team is missing T.J. Hockenson—who suffered a season-ending injury in the previous matchup with the Lions.
Minnesota has a strong offensive line, but they could be missing right tackle Brian O’Neill, who has missed the first two practices this week. O’Neill did not play in the previous matchup either.
The Lions passing attack remains their biggest weakness, as they’ve been hemorrhaging passing yards since the Ravens game.
That said, they’ve enjoyed a nice little streak here of disruptive plays. In the past five weeks, they’ve produced 14 sacks and five interceptions. The emergence of Ifeatu Melifonwu has certainly helped, and it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of C.J. Gardner-Johnson (presumably) this week helps. Detroit is also expected to get Alim McNeill back, who could provide some interior pass rush.
That said, this is still a pretty significant weakness for Detroit. There’s no other way around it. They rank 24th in dropback EPA, 27th in success rate, 29th in yards per attempt (7.7), and 21st in passer rating allowed (91.4).
Player to watch: Justin Jefferson. The Lions have a real problem against No. 1 receivers, as both their outside cornerbacks have been struggling as of late.
Advantage: Vikings +1. It feels like the Lions are going to have to produce a couple of turnovers in this matchup to win it, which is certainly possible—if not probable. Still, on a down-to-down basis, I expect Mullens—who had 411 passing yards last matchup—to move the ball consistently.
Vikings run offense (27th) vs. Lions run defense (3rd)
Last matchup: Vikings run offense (28th) vs. Lions run defense (4th)
The Vikings rushing attack is the only unit that has improved in DVOA since the previous matchup, with a move from 28th to 27th. But looking at the past two games, it’s clear that may have more to do with how other teams have performed. This is still a pretty bad rushing attack, and the brief optimism surrounding Ty Chandler has swiftly been snuffed out. Chandler has just 57 rushing yards on 18 carries (3.2 YPC) over the past two weeks.
For the season, the Vikings rank 25th in yards per carry (3.9), 27th in rush EPA, and 14th in success rate.
Nothing new here. The Lions continue to shut down rushing attacks on a weekly basis. Though they had a little bit of a struggle in November, they’re back to normal over the past three weeks, making opposing offenses completely one-dimensional.
Detroit ranks third in yards per carry allowed (3.7), fifth in rush EPA allowed, and 11th in success rate.
Player to watch: Gardner-Johnson. While CJGJ will certainly help the Lions’ pass defense, don’t sleep on his impact in the running game. Through the first two games of the season, Gardner-Johnson had 13 tackles, which was tied for the most on the team at the time.
Advantage: Lions +2. This matchup heavily favors Detroit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota approaches this game with a similar mindset to the previous matchup: Let’s just throw the ball. The Vikings rushed the ball just 11 times against Detroit two weeks ago and dropped back to pass 40 times. So while the Lions are in good shape here, I’m only giving it a +2 advantage, because it probably won’t have a huge impact on the game.
Last week’s prediction
I took the Lions in a close shootout against the Cowboys, and was wrong in many ways. On Paper is now 11-5 straight up, but remains an impressive 12-2-2 against the spread. I was a little overly confident in the Lions rushing game, which uncharacteristically struggled against a fast defense. But I don’t feel particularly bad about my analysis otherwise. The Lions pass defense deserves some additional credit for stopping everyone not named CeeDee Lamb.
In the comment section, Bobbylayneblame had the closest prediction with 24-20 Dallas. But a shoutout needs to be given to lionsfan2081. Take a look at their prediction:
Lions score a TD with 20 seconds left and instead of kicking the extra point Campbell goes for the win by going for 2 and converts.
As if you needed a reminder, but the Lions scored a TD with 23 seconds left, and instead of kicking the point, Campbell went for the win by going for 2 and they converted (initially).
Here is your prize, Bobbylayneblame—and I’m so, so sorry, lionsfan2081.
This week’s prediction
Despite only getting a +2 advantage last matchup in Minnesota, the Lions are all the way up to a +5 advantage this week. The Vikings simply look out of juice at this point. Last week was their real chance to make the playoffs, and the Packers absolutely embarrassed them. While there’s still an unlikely path to the playoff for Minnesota, I think they’ve exhausted their best effort at this point. This could get ugly. Lions 34, Vikings 17.