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Vikings at Lions Preview: Thanksgiving Seconds

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The Vikings head to Detroit for the second consecutive Thanksgiving. Will the holiday be happier for Minnesota this time around?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford and the Lions are going for their second straight season sweep of the Vikings on Thursday.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings ruined the holidays last year.

It all started on Halloween of 2016, when the Vikings went to Chicago on Monday Night Football and looked scarier than Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees put together. Then they made us want to toss up our turkey and stuffing with a late collapse in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Finally, the Vikings delivered a big lump of coal in our stockings on Christmas Eve by getting embarrassed by the Packers in Lambeau. By the time New Year’s Day rolled around, a meaningless win in the season finale over the Bears wasn’t enough to cure our 2016 hangover.

In 2017, the Vikings have a chance to make the holidays a lot happier in Minnesota. They kind of already made up for last year’s Halloween massacre. Once again the Vikings went to Chicago on a Monday night in October, but this time they emerged victorious. (Although watching that first half with the ghost of Sam Bradford’s knee wasn’t particularly enjoyable.) And thanks to some curiously similar scheduling, the 2017 Holiday Redemption Tour can roll on. The Vikings play the exact same games on Thanksgiving, Christmas weekend, and New Year’s—at Detroit, at Green Bay, and home against Chicago.

We used to be thankful that the Lions were in our division because it usually meant a Vikings victory. There was a stretch from 1998 to 2010 where the Vikings won 22 of 25 games against the Lions. But this decade has been a different story. Detroit has won nine of the past 14 games in the series, including the past three. Mike Zimmer is 2-5 against Detroit as Head Coach. So what do the Vikings need to do differently in order to prevent us from flipping over the kiddie table in anger this year?

For starters, we can be thankful that the hot start from the Lions defense has cooled significantly since the teams met in Week 4. The Lions were forcing a ton of turnovers and playing much better than most expected to start the season. But as we head into Week 12, the Lions rank 17th in defensive DVOA and 23rd in yards allowed. Unsurprisingly, the turnovers have regressed to the mean, much like we saw the the 2016 Vikings. After forcing three turnovers at US Bank Stadium, the Lions were +9 in turnover differential. In the six games since, they’re -2.

Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon should be thankful for the recent game tape they have watched on the Lions defense. The Vikings are fresh off their best rushing performance of the season thanks to solid performances from Tay Train and Jet. Detroit has allowed 423 yards rushing over the past two weeks to the juggernaut offenses of...the Browns and Bears.

To be fair, 110 of those yards were from the quarterbacks. While Case Keenum is plenty mobile, he doesn’t pose the same threat to scramble for yardage as DeShone Kizer and Mitchell Trubisky. That still doesn’t explain away how the Lions have been consistently pushed around at the point of attack against the run.

The Vikings averaged only 3.1 yards per carry in Week 4, even with Dalvin Cook playing what would sadly become the last half of his rookie season. But that was before the offense started hitting the groove they’re currently enjoying. Murray wasn’t completely healthy yet, Keenum was still getting his bearings as the starting quarterback, and Pat Shurmur was still experimenting with the play calling to see what worked.

And to see what didn’t work.

Thankfully, Shurmur seems to have it figured out lately. The Vikings have scored a touchdown in their last nine trips to the red zone. Despite having plenty of woes inside the 20 to start the season, Minnesota now ranks 8th in the league in points per red zone trip. On defense, they’re the third best at fewest points per trip allowed. That’s quite literally a winning combination.

Meanwhile, the Lions seem to be getting worse in the red zone. Against the Steelers a few weeks ago, Detroit had roughly 347 snaps deep in Pittsburgh territory and never found the end zone. They are 23rd on both offense and defense when it comes to average red zone points. The Lions have had to settle for the reliable leg of Matt Prater more often than they would have liked to.

None of this newfound offensive efficiency for the Vikings would be possible without the stellar play of the revamped offensive line. Before the season, we were begging for mere mediocrity from the line because it would have signified a vast improvement. We got much more than that. As Ted wrote about Tuesday, we should be extremely thankful for the new-look unit up front. Without the great line play, there is no way the Vikings would be 8-2 right now.

The run blocking has been so-so—which is still a big step up—but the pass blocking has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings were 30th in the NFL with their adjusted sack rate of 8.4% in 2016. This season, that number is down to 2.3%, which is best in the league by over a full percent. The acquisitions of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers along with the surprise release of Alex Boone were widely panned before the season. Fans wanted some of the bigger names that were out there in free agency. It turns out that those decisions seem to be working out pretty well for the Vikings so far. When it comes to the offensive line, Rick Spielman is making the naysayers eat their words like he was spoon-feeding them Alpha-Bits.

Even better, we can be thankful that the line even has competent backups! While the injuries aren’t nearly as serious or numerous as the 2016 nightmare, Nick Easton and Remmers have both missed time this year. It still isn’t looking good for Remmers to return from his concussion this week; that could be a fairly big concern going forward. It would be an even bigger concern if the Vikings didn’t have someone like Rashod Hill filling in for Remmers as well as he has.

But even the most surprising offensive line needs a good quarterback behind it to succeed. That’s why I’m thankful for Case Keenum’s balls. (Hey, Zimmer said it, not me.) He just keeps rolling along and doing enough to keep the offense scoring. I’m still a bit wary of how far Keenum can lead this team in the postseason. But when you’re making “NO-NO-NO-YES!” plays like this...

...you’re the quarterback until further notice.

While Vikings fans have plenty to be thankful for, Lions fans have some appetizing Thanksgiving dishes as well. Rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay didn’t play in the Week 4 game, and he gives Matthew Stafford a deep threat that can flip the field in an instant.

Golladay should be able to open up things underneath for Golden Tate, who might be the best run-after-catch wide receiver in the game today. Marvin Jones Jr. has been seeing plenty of targets and the end zone as well; Stafford will have plenty of options at his disposal on Thursday.

Lions fans should also be thankful that Stafford is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career. Despite already being sacked 33 times this season and not getting much help at all from his ground game, he leads the league’s sixth-ranked passing attack. Stafford currently has the best quarterback rating and lowest interception percentage of his career. (Like Keenum, Stafford’s interception percentage could easily be higher—remember those dropped picks the Vikings had the first time around?) He is very close to having the highest adjusted net yards per attempt of his career. Pocket presence and decision making are underrated traits of the nine-year vet’s game.

Detroit can also be thankful they have some solid defenders to throw at Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, and the red-hot Adam Thielen. Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs, and Glover Quin will once again make the Vikings pass catchers work for everything they get. The fact that it’s a home game on a short week provides a nice built-in advantage as well. The Lions will be a tough out on Thursday.

I’m thankful the Vikings have a two-game division cushion to start what looks like the most difficult three-game stretch of the season. The next three games, which are all on the road, are against the current top three teams in the NFC Wild Card standings.

That means the Vikings could easily slide back to the pack by the time they return home to face Cincinnati. But it also means they have a chance to put some real distance between themselves and the other playoff hopefuls. If they go 2-1 or better during this stretch, it’s time to start talking about that first-round bye. I’m thankful that we’re going to learn a lot about how far this team can go over the next few weeks.

But you can’t put a string of impressive road games together without looking impressive in the first one. I’m thankful that I don’t see Ameer Abdullah having a repeat performance on a Vikings defense that just shut down the highest-scoring team in the league. I’m thankful for Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who should make Stafford extremely uncomfortable several times on Thursday. I’m thankful for the continued improvement of Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes. I’m thankful for Anthony Barr returning to form. (And his amazing Twitter responses to Packers fans.)

I’m thankful that this Vikings team feels a lot different than the one that took the field in Week 4. I’m thankful that they haven’t been tripped up since that home loss to the Lions, and they don’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon. I’m thankful that we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop—we’re Vikings fans, after all—and this team keeps proving us wrong.

(Finally, I’m incredibly thankful as always for you reading. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, even if I happen to get this pick wrong!)

Prediction

Vikings 20, Lions 16


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

Chargers over COWBOYS

The line for this game is around a pick’em in Vegas, which is basically begging people to pick the Cowboys. Somehow, the hapless Chargers are suddenly serious contenders for both an AFC Wild Card spot and an AFC West title. I’m probably going to feel really dumb about this pick after the game, but I’ll be too full to care that much.

REDSKINS over Giants

That meltdown the Skins had last week was something the 2013 Vikings would have been proud of. I think they’ll bounce back this week, even though they have likely been bounced out of the playoff picture already.

FALCONS over Buccaneers

Perfect. Atlanta will dominate this game and be way too confident when the Vikings come to town next week.

CHIEFS over Bills

Kudos to Tyrod Taylor for not getting caught by the TV cameras laughing hysterically during that Nathan Peterman performance last week. Lord knows I couldn’t have kept a straight face.

EAGLES over Bears

Mitchell Trubisky vs. the guy that the Bears front office really, really hopes Mitchell Trubisky will become one day.

BENGALS over Browns

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 7-4 on the season after I finally decided to say “eff it, just give me whoever’s playing the Browns” for the past couple weeks. Genius strategy huh?

Titans over COLTS

Indianapolis has absolutely owned Tennessee over the years. But if these Titans can’t sweep these Colts, they never will.

PATRIOTS over Dolphins

Five of New England’s last six games are against the AFC East, the division they have dominated since roughly the Mesozoic Era. Just hand ‘em that first round bye now.

Panthers over JETS

I had never heard of Robby Anderson until about six weeks ago. He is now the best wide receiver on the Jets and arguably the best receiver on my auction league fantasy team.

And that’s all you really need to know about the current state of the Jets offense and my fantasy team.

Seahawks over 49ERS

I could totally see the Niners pulling the upset here and putting the beat-up Seahawks on the brink of missing the playoffs. But I don’t think they want to screw up the trade value of that 2018 first round draft pick.

RAIDERS over Broncos

This game is the NFL’s version of waking up after a one-night stand. We thought they were a lot better looking and everyone has lots of regrets.

Saints over RAMS

I think the Vikings’ defense exposed the Rams offense last week, who is now without Robert Woods for a while. And Drew Brees proved he can still sling it in that comeback win over Washington. Kinda feels like we’re barreling toward a 2009 NFC Championship Revenge Game in about seven weeks, doesn’t it?

Jaguars over CARDINALS

It looks like we might be headed for Blake Bortles hosting a playoff game against whatever dreck washes ashore as the sixth seed in the AFC. And I’ll want to find a way to bet on both teams to lose.

STEELERS over Packers

With the Aaron Jones story breaking this week, I’m starting to think Green Bay needs to slow all this bad news down. It’s like a schadenfreude fire hose. I can barely enjoy some of it!

RAVENS over Texans

The Ravens have three shutouts this season. The Texans have Tom Savage. Need I say more?

Last week: 12-2
Season so far: 98-62