It’s been a drought-busting season throughout major sports. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Finals, bringing Cleveland its first title since 1964. The Chicago Cubs ended their historic 108-year run without a championship by winning the World Series.
Could the Detroit Lions be next on the list?
A team whose last NFL championship appearance (and win) was in 1957 must first make the playoffs. Sitting at 6-4, the Lions are tied for the NFC North lead with Thursday’s opponent, the Minnesota Vikings and are two games ahead of the Green Bay Packers. In a weak season for the NFC, 6-4 also is a half-game behind Washington, who currently possesses the second wild card spot. However, Detroit’s remaining schedule is difficult. The Lions still have road games against the Cowboys, Giants and Saints as a rematch with the Packers in Week 17 at home.
That makes this game with the Vikings crucial. A win here gives Detroit the tiebreaker and a virtual two-game lead on the division with five games left to play. It also instills confidence in an organization whose flaw for years has been struggling to close games out against elite teams. Turkey Day is a prime opportunity for these Lions to show the nation that this team is “for real.”
Expect a packed, rowdy crowd at Ford Field and a fantastic, competitive start to perhaps the best Thanksgiving Day football schedule we’ve seen in years. (All six teams playing have a winning record.)
Series History: Vikings lead 71-37-2, teams have split last 10.
Minnesota at Detroit
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 24 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Lions -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Matthew Stafford vs The Vikings “D”
Stafford is in the midst of, by all accounts, his most consistent season as Detroit’s quarterback. His 101.2 passer rating ranks fifth in the NFL, as he has 18 touchdown passes and just five interceptions in 10 games. In the last six, his TD-to-INT ratio is a robust 11:1, one of the big reasons why the Lions are 5-1 during that span.
What’s interesting about this surge is that Stafford has just two 300-yard passing games thus far and none since Week 3. Instead of playing for stats, he’s done a great job at taking what the defense gives him and minimizing mistakes. Detroit has just eight giveaways all season, tied for sixth in the NFL and had gone four games without losing a fumble before last Sunday’s matchup against Jacksonville.
Stafford’s been at his best when managing the two-minute drill. The Lions have come from behind in five of their six wins with the go-ahead (or game-tying) score coming with less than two minutes on the clock in four of those. Vikings fans remember one drive all too well, Stafford and the offense setting Matt Prater up for a 58-yard field goal that forced overtime in Minnesota three weeks ago. Detroit then won the game on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Golden Tate to cap the first drive of the extra period.
Stafford’s confidence is sky high, even responding against Washington a few weeks ago when he got the ball with 1:05 remaining after Kirk Cousins put the Redskins in position to win on the road. The Vikings’ defense, which showed signs of revival against the Cardinals last week, knows it will have to play a full game and not let up late unless they want Stafford to add another comeback to his résumé.
2. Which Running Game Can Get Going?
Both teams have had issues with the running game this season. The Lions, whose top rusher ran for just 511 yards last season, have dealt with injuries to their top running backs and just haven’t been able to find productive replacements. Ditto for the Vikings, who have been without All-Pro Adrian Peterson since he injured his knee in Week 2.
Detroit is 30th and Minnesota is last in the NFL in rushing, as both teams average fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground. In last week win’s against Jacksonville, Theo Riddick led the way with a grand total of 13 rushing yards, as the team averaged an anemic 0.7 yards per carry.
In the first meeting against the Vikings, Riddick finished with 70 rushing yards, as the Lions outgained Minnesota on the ground 97-78. There’s a good chance that whichever team comes out ahead in that statistic again in this game will be victorious, but don’t be surprised to see a lot of balls flying in Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.
3. Can the Vikings Make Big Plays?
After starting 5-0, Minnesota lost its next four, averaging just 14 points per game in the process. The Vikings got back into the win column last week with a 30-24 home victory over the Cardinals, but it wasn’t because of an offensive onslaught. Sam Bradford finished with just 169 passing yards and committed his fifth turnover in as many games, while the ground game managed just 72 yards on 24 carries (3.0 ypc).
Instead, as has been the key for Minnesota this season, it was the defense’s and special teams’ big plays that fueled the win. Xavier Rhodes picked off Carson Palmer near the goal line and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, increasing the Vikings’ lead to 10 at that point in the game. And Cordarrelle Patterson opened the second half with a 104-yard kickoff return for a score to put his team back in front by double digits. Kai Forbath, who replaced a struggling Blair Walsh as kicker, also chipped in with a 27-yard field goal, although he did miss one of his four extra point attempts.
In many ways, it was a textbook victory for this Minnesota team. The offense needs to capitalize on the few scoring opportunities it creates, while the defense comes up with a few big plays and special teams provides a spark. If the Vikings can build on this formula (and the offense can pick it up a bit), the schedule is there to make a playoff run. Minnesota still has games left against Chicago and Jacksonville, who are a combined 4-16 entering Week 12. If the Vikings can find a way to beat Detroit on the road, they would be looking at a strong chance of finishing no worse than 9-7.
This game is a coin flip. But since I have to choose, I like Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving slot to serve as an opportunity for Matthew Stafford to showcase his growth as an NFL quarterback. While Sam Bradford has done an admirable job leading Minnesota, playing on the road against the Lions’ newfound confidence in a game rife with playoff implications, may prove too much to overcome.
Prediction: Lions 24, Vikings 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.