Before we get started, let’s get one thing out of the way right now.
THIS IS A NOT TRAP GAME. I REPEAT: THIS IS NOT A TRAP GAME.
A trap game insinuates that a team is looking past a seemingly weaker opponent. The Vikings are 100% aware that if they look past Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions and ahead to their Week 17 matchup with NFC North champion Chicago Bears, said matchup may be rendered meaningless if they slip up. It is most definitely not a trap game.
Now, does Sunday’s meeting in the Motor City have all the trappings of a dangerous game? Absolutely. If the Minnesota Vikings have taught us anything, it’s that we should take absolutely nothing for granted, especially this season. They have zigged when we were certain that they’d zag far too many times for us to be shocked by anything. Mike Zimmer doesn’t expect the Lions to simply lay down; divisional wins on the road are never layups. Detroit’s postseason hopes have sailed, but Matt Patricia needs to show some signs of life down the stretch if he wants to maintain his upright standing (pun intended) with the team. The first year Head Coach has already irked fans and media alike with his team backsliding. A loss on Sunday would ensure Patricia a worse record than his predecessor, Jim Caldwell, had in any of his four years at the helm. No part of Patricia’s debut is earning him the First Impression Rose thus far.
The Vikings made a solid first impression in their meeting with the Lions seven weeks ago. More accurately, they probably left some depressions in the U.S. Bank Stadium turf when they racked up ten sacks of Matthew Stafford en route to a 24-9 victory. While the defense carried that day in early November, the first impression Minnesota’s new Offensive Coordinator made is the big story leading into the rematch.
It’s hard to imagine a better start to a play calling career than the one Kevin Stefanski had against the Dolphins last week. The first three drives resulted in over 200 yards and a 21-point first quarter lead. Stefanski’s debut was better than Illmatic, Weezer (the blue album), Ready To Die, Appetite For Destruction, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Ten all rolled into one. (If you don’t get those references, sorry about your taste in music.)
Nick Olson had an excellent recap of how Stefanski turned the offense around so quickly. Going with more play action, using bigger sets to commit to the run, and mixing up the tempo were all key components to awakening an offense that had been dormant for large stretches of the season. Arif came to similar conclusions with his weekly film break down. He went into particular detail on how Stefanski simplified the passing attack to ensure better execution. My favorite part of all these changes: in theory, they should be sustainable going forward. However, I’d warn that the sample size with Stefanski is still very small. One game doesn’t make a trend. While the play action percentage jumped nearly 14% from the season average last week, it was still used all of eight times because Kirk Cousins only had 25 dropbacks. While Stefanski did a masterful job of authoring an idyllic start, it’s unrealistic to expect things to go so flawlessly every week. We’ll see how much success he has against a better defense.
We might not be getting a better defense this weekend though. The Lions are ranked 31st in defensive DVOA, down a spot from the last time these two teams met. Their pass defense has been the main culprit. Despite raw numbers that land roughly in the middle of the league, Detroit is ranked last in pass defense DVOA and ranked 29th in coverage by Pro Football Focus. A big reason why opponents aren’t putting up gaudy numbers through the air—the Lions have allowed only 208.5 net passing yards per game over their last four contests—is because they simply haven’t had to pass that much. Detroit has been in the lead on just 29% of their snaps this season, which has led to them facing the second fewest pass attempts of any team in the league. The Lions defense still allows 6.9 net yards per attempt, which is 28th in the NFL. And that’s after facing Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Jared Goff (at the start of his current horrible three-game slide), and Mitchell Trubisky over the past four weeks. Not exactly a murderer’s row of the game’s best passers.
Week 9 against the Vikings was another example of how Detroit’s defensive numbers looked better than their actual performance. The Vikings had only 283 total yards but still averaged 6.2 yards per play. Minnesota had over 20 yards on six of their nine drives; two of them happened to be stopped by very avoidable Vikings turnovers. There should be plenty of opportunity to move the ball through the air more on Sunday.
Since Stefon Diggs missed the first Detroit game, I wouldn’t expect to see Laquon Treadwell leading the team in receiving yards again. (Treadwell had a whopping 37 yards on two catches that day.) In fact, I don’t want to see much of Treadwell at all on Sunday. After trying to give him the benefit of the doubt early in the year, I think it’s safe to just be done with him now. He’s still fourth on the team in targets, receptions, and yards, but he has seen his snap count reduced since the bye week. It might be time to knock his participation down even more, especially with the emergence of Aldrick Robinson. While pundits are rightfully wondering whether Robinson can be more than just a deep threat, I’m wondering when the last time was that anyone used the words “Treadwell” and “threat” together without the word “no” in the middle. Here’s a breakdown of how Treadwell and Robinson have stacked up this year:
Treadwell vs. Robinson
|Name||Snaps||% wide/slot||Targets||Receptions||Yards||TDs||QB rating|
|Name||Snaps||% wide/slot||Targets||Receptions||Yards||TDs||QB rating|
You can’t even make the old “at least Treadwell is a decent run blocker” joke anymore. His PFF run block grade is down from 68.3 last year to 51.3 in 2018. It isn’t a small sample size either; Treadwell has run blocked over 150 times each season. The lower grade is probably because of plays like this one against the Dolphins.
I don’t mean to pick on the guy, but I fail to see a compelling reason to keep trotting him out there for significant playing time when there’s a better weapon right there on the roster. (Two if Chad Beebe can return from injury this week.)
While Diggs missed the first Lions game, Dalvin Cook had just returned from an injury and was still on a bit of a pitch count; he’s definitely in better form now. Combine that with how Stefanski seems to be catering to his players’ strengths and we could see a much more potent Vikings offense than the one we saw seven weeks ago.
The seemingly rejuvenated Vikings run game could still face a big challenge depending upon the health of Damon Harrison. “Snacks” missed practice on Wednesday with an ankle injury. His importance to Detroit’s run defense can’t be understated. Since joining the Lions two months ago, Detroit has vaulted from 30th to 17th in rushing DVOA. In his first meeting against the Vikings, Harrison had six tackles that stopped Vikings runs for three yards or less. If he’s out Sunday, I’m sure Tom Compton, Pat Elflein, and Mike Remmers won’t be shedding any tears.
Even if Snacks is a go, the Lions won’t have Ezekiel Ansah and Da’Shawn Hand available on their defensive line. Both players have been recently placed on the IR.
The injury woes on the other side of the ball are even worse. Detroit’s offense is in much worse shape than the November game where they only mustered 209 yards and nine points. The Vikings will have a star wideout and running back at full strength, which they didn’t have in Week 9. The Lions will be without one of each that they had the first time around. Dynamic rookie running back Kerryon Johnson and veteran wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. have both been shelved for the rest of the year. Those two players combined for 110 of the team’s 265 yards from scrimmage against the Vikings in Week 9. The Lions still have a trio of respectable players left at running back. Zach Zenner and LeGarrette Blount are bruising runners that can be hard to take down. Theo Riddick can always do some damage catching passes out of the backfield. But the sum of those parts is still less than the hole left by Johnson’s injury.
The one saving grace for Detroit’s offense has been Kenny Golladay. With the rest of the unit crumbling, he has become the Lions’ only consistent threat to stretch the field. Stafford heaving 50/50 balls and trusting Golladay to come down with it seems to be the only reliable way for them to move the ball lately. I would expect the Vikings to roll help over the top against Golladay and keep up with the Joneses using one-on-one coverage. (I mean “Joneses” literally—even with Marvin out, the Lions’ second and third wide receiver options are now TJ Jones and Andy Jones.)
Even with the emergence of Golladay as a big play threat, Stafford hasn’t been able to enjoy his usual statistical success. In Detroit’s previous poor seasons, you could always count on Stafford to put up huge numbers while his mediocre team played out the stretch. (Not unlike what detractors have said about Cousins throughout his career.) Now he isn’t even doing that. Stafford hasn’t had a 300-yard game since October. His yards per completion (10.3), yards per game (242.5), and adjusted net yards per attempt (5.97) are all career lows since he began his current streak of 129 consecutive starts back in 2011. Losing some of his key weapons has definitely played a part, but he’s also nursing a back injury that really seems to be bothering him. Despite solid overall numbers last week in Buffalo, he looked unsure of himself at times, missing a few passes we have become accustomed to seeing him make.
The last thing a banged up quarterback with depleted weapons wants to see is a team that has sacked him 61 times in 17 career games. Detroit’s pass protection has been better as of late; Stafford has been sacked only eight times in five games since being taken down a whopping 16 times in back-to-back games against the Vikings and Bears. Right tackle Rick Wagner looks to be on pace to return from the concussion that kept him out a week ago. But if I had to guess which side of the 3.6 sack per game average the Vikings end up with against Stafford on Sunday, I’d have a hard time taking the under.
The Vikings and Lions seem to be heading in opposite directions as the regular season draws to a close. It appears to be a favorable matchup for the Vikings on both paper and film. However, Patricia is probably desperate to put anything on the positive side of the ledger as his first year in charge draws to a close. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Lions throw the kitchen sink at the Vikings and pull out some gadget plays to try and get a quick score. Beware the team with nothing to lose.
Even if the Lions have a few “DGAF” tricks up their sleeves, I’m still very confident that the Vikings will win this game. In fact, I haven’t felt this confident about the Vikings coming away with a win leading up to a game since...well, since Week 3 against the Bills. And we all know how that turned out. But things feel much different than the bungling of the Buffalo game. For starters, we probably won’t have a starter with an off-field episode the day before the game. (Yes, I knocked on wood the instant I finished typing that sentence.) Plus the Vikings shouldn’t be surprised by anything the Lions do. They have already seen Detroit this season and they won’t be fooled by a really good running back playing under the guise of being a first-round quarterback. (Curse you, Josh Allen!) There is one potential downfall that has remained throughout the season though. The possibility of a crushing turnover is always lurking in the background and threatening to get the Vikings like it was Dr. Claw. As long as Cousins & company can curb the catastrophes, I don’t think Detroit has enough firepower to hang.
A replica of the 21-0 first quarter pounding from last Sunday isn’t required, but jumping out to a lead would be a great way to euthanize any hopes of the Lions roaring to an upset. It will also be a great way for the front seven to jump all over Stafford. I doubt we’ll see another 41-point outburst; those kinds of games don’t grow on trees, regardless of competition. I do anticipate the Vikings handling their business and taking another big jump toward the postseason.
Who knows—by about 3:30 PM on Sunday afternoon, the Vikings could actually have a playoff spot gift wrapped for them under their tree. After the season they have endured, wouldn’t that be a nice little Christmas miracle?
Vikings 27, Lions 13
And now for the rest of my Week 16 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
TITANS over Redskins
I can’t believe the exceedingly mediocre Titans are about to be 9-6, but at least when they win on Saturday they’ll take Washington out of the Wild Card picture for us.
Ravens over CHARGERS
The Chargers are the better team and they’re coming off a big win that kept them in the race for the top seed in the AFC. But the Ravens REALLY need this one to stay in the hunt and I’m worried about L.A. suffering a bit of a letdown after their huge comeback in Kansas City. I’ll throw a flier on the upset.
Falcons over PANTHERS
I feel bad for Cam Newton, whose shoulder injury derailed Carolina’s once-promising season. On the other hand, it’s nice to have the Panthers out of the Vikings’ way, and now it’s Taylor Heinicke time baby!
PATRIOTS over Bills
Everyone has been talking about the mistakes that you “never” see Tom Brady make...for two weeks running. Hmmm. If he slips up again this week at home against the Bills, perhaps it’s time to start seriously considering whether the epic run is finally coming to an end. But I’ll still give him the benefit of the doubt for now, what with the whole two decades of evidence before these last two games.
BROWNS over Bengals
The Cleveland freaking Browns are favored by a touchdown in a real live NFL football game. And I’d totally take them against the spread. I feel like I have just seen Haley’s Comet fly by my window. Twice.
COWBOYS over Buccaneers
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 10-5 on the year after the Falcons destroyed the Cardinals last week. Maybe I have already lost my “sure thing” pick five times because I keep picking games like this—going with a team that just got shut out.
Packers over JETS
I reserve the right to change my pick to New York if Aaron Rodgers succumbs to all of the crazy injuries he suddenly suffered the instant his team was knocked out of playoff contention. Funny how that works.
COLTS over Giants
I somehow made the finals in both of my fantasy leagues despite having Brady and Drew Brees stink it up. I’m benching them both this week and starting Andrew Luck in the championships because I love this matchup for him. I just wanted to put that out there so you could chuckle at me when Indianapolis wins this one 6-3.
DOLPHINS over Jaguars
Apparently the Dolphins are trying to trademark the term “MIAMIRACLE.” First, I have no idea how you even pronounce that word. Second, haven’t the Vikings already shown them in two very distinct ways that trying to capitalize on one big play is a bad idea? At least the Minneapolis Miracle had some stakes attached to it!
EAGLES over Texans
C’mon. You know making the playoffs isn’t going to be that easy for the Vikings. Nick Foles will somehow pull another huge game out of his ass and we’ll have to sweat out the season finale next week.
Bears over 49ERS
Chicago could already be coasting to the 3 seed here, but nooooo, the Rams had to suddenly forget how to play offense. Now Chicago has a shot at getting a first round bye and they’re gonna try hard. Ugh, we’re still ten days away from that Week 17 game and I’m already giving myself an ulcer thinking about doomsday playoff scenarios.
Rams over CARDINALS
If Sean McVay can’t get Jared Goff right against the worst team in the NFL, then I’ll start openly rooting for them to lose out so the Vikings can face them in the Wild Card round. Hell, I might do that anyway with how they have looked the past few weeks.
Steelers over SAINTS
New Orleans can lose this one, take out Carolina’s corpse in the season finale, and still clinch the top seed in the NFC regardless of what the Rams do. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is desperate to stay atop the AFC North, especially if the Ravens pull off the other huge upset I predicted the night before. (When the Chargers and Saints both win in blowouts, I’ll just have to remind myself that these picks sounded like a good idea at the time.)
Chiefs over SEAHAWKS
That’s a nice #5 seed you have, Seattle. It would be a shame...if something...happened to it.
Broncos over RAIDERS
Looks like ESPN is wrapping up their Monday Night Football schedule a week early this year. Because this game sure as hell doesn’t count.
Last week: 9-7
Season so far: 138-84-2