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Vikings at Lions preview: Giving thanks

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Can the Vikings avoid looking like turkeys in Detroit and turn Thanksgiving into a first place feast?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
We’re thankful that despite all of the Vikings’ struggles, this game is for sole possession of first place in the division.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Ahh, Thanksgiving. That special time of year where families and friends come from far and wide to gather, eat and drink way too much, thrust their political beliefs upon one another, and watch football after quickly realizing that there’s a reason Uncle Vito only visits once a year. And this Thanksgiving we get a special treat—our team is playing! Vikings fans across the country now have a built-in excuse to avoid meal prep, conversation, and other pesky family-related tasks that come with the holiday.

And since we’re on a short week just like the players are, it gives me a built-in excuse to avoid coming up with anything creative and do a gimmicky Thanksgiving-themed article that has been done a thousand times over! So without further ado, here are my Thanksgiving side rankings:

Just kidding. I won’t go there, especially since Ted and Di did such a thorough job of it on Roughing The Podcast this week.* Instead I’ll use an even more played-out holiday trope: listing what I’m thankful for.

*=For the record, my must-have Thanksgiving side dishes in no particular order: mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes/yams (especially with brown sugar involved), corn (creamed/kernel/cob all acceptable), any casserole topped with fried onions, buttered dinner rolls and/or cornbread, all covered in a healthy dose of gravy. The omission of anything to do with cranberries from this list was very intentional. Especially that canned goop. Yuck.

First, I’m thankful that the Vikings’ four-game skid has mercifully come to an end. All it took to end the losing streak was a return to the basics: a relentless pass rush and over-reliance on return touchdowns. Totally sustainable for the stretch run!

Well, at least the pass rush should be more sustainable. After a month of being uncharacteristically quiet, the Vikings pass rush got their swagger back last week against an admittedly poor Cardinals offensive line. But the resurgence of pressure shouldn’t be explained away simply because Arizona’s line isn’t very good. The Vikings seemed to add some interesting wrinkles to their pass rush on Sunday. On this sack from Brian Robison, Tom Johnson shifts to seemingly overload one side before the snap. Instead both he and Danielle Hunter stunt, which takes the center out of the way and gets right guard Earl Watson off balance. Robison bull rushes right between Watson and right tackle D.J. Humphries for the sack.

At the beginning of the season, we raved about how the Vikings were confusing opponents with eight men on the line of scrimmage and blitzing from different angles. Teams seemed to figure that one out by using lots of quick slants and crossing routes over the middle. But if the Vikings can create similar confusion and pressure with only four defenders instead of eight, all three levels of the defense will benefit from it. The Vikings will definitely need to find a way to pressure Matthew Stafford more than they did two and a half weeks ago.

I’m thankful that regardless of the defensive game plan, one part of the defense has been great all season: Xavier Rhodes. How great? I’ll let Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson explain:

That’s right—spiking the ball on every play gives you a better quarterback rating than throwing at Rhodes. Carson Palmer had a 0.0 rating passing his direction on Sunday. Even when the pass wasn’t to his man, Rhodes was making big plays. This quick recognition and tackle of Larry Fitzgerald stopped an important fourth quarter drive.

Antoine Winfield Jr. Rhodes is going to make a whole bunch of money on an extension after that fifth-year option next season. He has definitely earned it. Who needs all those different defensive looks when you have #RhodesClosed?

Speaking of different looks, I’m thankful that Pat Shurmur realizes his offense's many limitations and keeps coming up with gimmicks that work. With barely any offensive line or running game to speak of, you have to appreciate how Shurmur is trying new things each week. The Wildcat has actually been pretty effective this year, although it’s probably something that’s more effective in small doses. It’s not like the Vikings can surprise opposing defenses with the McKinnon/Patterson/Bradford/Thielen combo once a quarter.

With the rushing attack still dead last in the league in both yards and yards per attempt, it will take even more creative play design to move the ball consistently on Thursday. Finishing off drives will be of utmost importance as well. The Vikings actually moved the ball pretty well against the Lions earlier in the month, but could only garner 16 points off of six drives inside Detroit’s 30. This offense isn’t nearly good enough to keep leaving points on the table.

Thankfully the Lions’ offense hasn’t been that good lately either. They haven’t topped 100 rushing yards in a game since Week 2. Detroit is 28th in rushing yards, 29th in rushing DVOA, and 30th in yards per attempt. They haven’t had more than 300 passing yards since Week 3. Matthew Stafford is still having a great season but all that MVP dark horse talk has dissipated.

That said, Detroit ran for 97 yards and Stafford led his team to the game’s final 9 points in Week 9. The Vikings must tackle better and avoid the drive-extending penalties that plagued them the last time around. (And if it comes down to it, better clock and timeout management from Mike Zimmer wouldn’t hurt either.)

The Thanksgiving games are a great tradition that shouldn’t be messed with, but I’m especially thankful that the Vikings’ next Thursday night game (next week against the Cowboys) will come on a full week’s rest for both teams. Trotting out Thursday night games every week while claiming to put an emphasis on player safety remains one of the most ludicrous things that the NFL does. Because the Vikings and Lions have only three days between game days, the availability of important players for both teams is jeopardized. As of this posting, the status of Terence Newman, Marcus Sherels, and Stefon Diggs remains very much in question. Thursday games are notoriously messy because players need a full week for their bodies to recover. Just like our bodies after Thanksgiving dinner. Even the players themselves have acknowledged how the quality of play takes a noticeable dip in Thursday games.

If Diggs can’t go on Thursday, it would be a huge blow since he caught 13 passes against the Lions in their previous matchup. Which makes me even more thankful that Adam Thielen is quietly having a pretty incredible season. He is averaging over 50 yards receiving per game, good for second on the team. The body control he showed on his touchdown last week was so good that even the referees couldn’t believe he made the catch. What impresses me most about Thielen is his route running. This is his first season as a full-time wideout but he looks like a perennial Pro Bowler with some of the cuts he can make. The huge third down catch he made in the fourth quarter against the Lions was an absolute clinic.

When Diggs was out in Week 5 against the Texans, Thielen stepped up with 7 catches for 127 yards and a score. I’m thankful that a local kid and good guy by all accounts is making such an important contribution to the team he grew up watching. I’m also thankful that other people are noticing Thielen’s excellence: Cian Fahey has an excellent breakdown of how Thielen is succeeding this season.

I’m thankful that despite all the struggles over the past month, the Vikings could be alone atop the NFC North by the time we’re loosening our belts after our third helping of stuffing. I’m thankful that the Lions have been trailing in the fourth quarter of all ten games this season and their streak of pulling wins out of their asses has to end eventually. I’m thankful that the Vikings know they’re more than capable of beating Detroit. I’m thankful that the kicker won’t make me nauseous every time he trots out onto the field this time around. (Until Kai Forbath misses a gimme of his own, of course.)

I’m thankful that I’ll be watching the game surrounded by family, especially my amazing wife and two beautiful daughters. I’m thankful that for over eight years you have read my ramblings in this space and allowed me to discuss my favorite team with my favorite online community. I’m thankful for all the feedback (some of it positive even!) that has helped me become a better writer and football fan.

Finally, I’m thankful that last week gave me enough hope to pick the Vikings to win on the road in front of a national audience. And if I’m wrong, I’m thankful that it’s going to be really hard to top the heartbreak of the last loss to Detroit.

Prediction

Vikings 20, Lions 17


And now for the rest of my Week 12 picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

COWBOYS over Redskins

I’m thankful that this matchup turned out to be much better than anyone could have anticipated when the schedule came out. And even if it is a clunker, I’m thankful for the tryptophan that should be coursing through my veins by then.

Steelers over COLTS

I’m not thankful that Andrew Luck will likely miss this game with a concussion since he’s the quarterback of both my fantasy teams. I am thankful that it makes picking this game much easier.

FALCONS over Cardinals

I’m thankful that the Vikings’ first place schedule opponents (Carolina and Arizona) turned out to be much easier than the Packers’ second place schedule opponents (Seattle and Atlanta).

BILLS over Jaguars

I’m very, very, very, very, very, very, very thankful that the Jags drafted Blake Bortles instead of Teddy Bridgewater. Even if Teddy’s knee is still mush next season, it’s a hell of a lot better than watching Bortles set his franchise back week after week.

Titans over BEARS

I’m thankful that the Vikings’ last game of the season is at home against Chicago. Between all the injuries and PED suspensions, the Bears just keep digging trying to find rock bottom. (And if there is anything on the line Week 17 and the Vikings somehow manage to get swept by the Meek of the Midway, then we will definitively know that the Vikings don’t deserve to go to the postseason anyway.)

RAVENS over Bengals

I’m thankful for hamstrings and knees healthier than those of A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. Poor Cincy.

Giants over BROWNS

I’m thankful that I’m not a Browns fan. That’s just not a Thanksgiving thing—that’s an every day, every week, every year thing.

SAINTS over Rams

I’m thankful that Jeff Fisher was just as conservative and cautious with Jared Goff as we thought he was going to be, which is why this is my Survivor Pool pick of the week (now 9-2 on the season after the Lions beat the Jags). New Orleans usually scores at least 20 points no matter what and L.A.’s offense can barely score 20 points every eight quarters.

DOLPHINS over 49ers

I’m thankful that I’m starting Jay Ajayi this week.

Chargers over TEXANS

I’m thankful that the Vikings aren’t in the AFC West this year. I’m sure the Texans are as well.

Seahawks over BUCCANEERS

I’m thankful that the Bucs are the first team behind the Vikings in the “In The Hunt” playoff list and have to face the Seattle buzz saw.

Panthers over RAIDERS

I’m thankful that nobody actually bets money based on my NFL picks, because I can’t explain this one outside of saying it’s just a hunch with the Raiders coming off a short week from their Mexico trip.

Patriots over JETS

I’m thankful for all the Butt Fumble references we’ve been getting this week. Happy fourth anniversary of the one play that will always define your career no matter what you do, Mark Sanchez!

Chiefs over BRONCOS

I’m thankful that the Vikings aren’t the only playoff hopeful with an offense that’s really hard to watch at times. Both of these teams are in that club.

Packers over EAGLES

I’m thankful that even if I get this pick right, Green Bay will still be two full games out of first place. Packers schadenfreude is always the greatest gift of the holiday season.

Last week: 10-4
Season so far: 93-65-2