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It’s the Lions’ Super Bowl on Sunday- Can the Vikings Upset Expectations?

Last Big Home Game of the Season for the Lions

Jacksonville Jaguars v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

I can’t remember the last time the Vikings played the Lions in what was considered a big game for the Vikings. The rivalry isn’t nearly as strong as with the Packers, and I can’t remember the last time the Vikings needed a win over the Lions to make the playoffs late in the season- a true make or break game. And this season, neither game against the Lions has any outsized relevance- although it would be nice for the Vikings to beat the Lions and clinch their inevitable NFC North division title on Sunday.

But for the Lions, this Sunday’s game seems to be carrying greater significance. A win would keep their slim playoff hopes alive, but perhaps more than that beating the 10-2 Vikings would be something of a validation for this Detroit Lions team, which has been winning more of late.

Clearly there is a sense among the sports betting community that the Lions could beat the Vikings at Ford Field Sunday afternoon. The Lions had been as much as 2.5-point favorites, although that has come down to 2-point favorites after the final injury reports came out. At the same time, all 65,000 tickets for the game are sold out and some standing room tickets are being sold now as well. Only the Thanksgiving game in Detroit had as many ticket sales. There is a sense in the Motor City that the Lions will run over the Vikings Sunday afternoon.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell said earlier this week that games like this one against the Vikings are why he got into coaching. This may all seem a bit strange to Vikings fans. Sure it’s a division game and all that, but it’s not like they’re playing for the division crown. It’s also been a few years since the Vikings had any sort of target on their back.

But for the Lions, there were great expectations for them at the beginning of the season. There was a sense that between head coach Dan Campbell and the emerging talent on the Lions’ roster, they could be dark horse contenders for the division title or make the playoffs. But that fell through early on, after the Lions fell to 1-6. They had close losses against the Eagles and Vikings, Seahawks and Dolphins during that stretch, but 1-6 is 1-6.

But since they fell to 1-6, they’ve had an easier schedule and won four of their last five games. Their one loss being a narrow one to the Bills on Thanksgiving. They’ve since bounced back with a blowout win over Jacksonville and appear to be riding a wave of momentum heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Vikings. During this five-game stretch, the Lions have been good at all the advanced metrics like DVOA and EPA that the Vikings have not done well- although the Jets game was the Vikings best DVOA game since week six.

And so this Sunday is sort of a culmination of the momentum the Lions’ have built over the past five games leading up to their last home game of any significance. In that sense it’s sort of a second Super Bowl game for the Lions- the other being their annual Thanksgiving Day game. They have one more home game against the moribund Bears. A win against the Vikings would not only keep their playoff hopes alive, it would also provide some validation for Dan Campbell and this Lions team heading into next season. Knocking off the division winning Vikings would help build momentum into next season for the Lions’ program, regardless of whether they make the playoffs. The Lions have just an 8% chance of making the playoffs according to 538, and a win over the Vikings improves them to only 17%. For the Vikings, a win would clinch the NFC North crown and continue an unbeaten division record with two division games remaining. It would also keep them in the running for the first seed should the Eagles falter.

But for all the lead up to this game- especially in Detroit- can the Vikings upset the Lions as betting underdogs on Sunday?

The Vikings Earlier Matchup with the Lions

The Vikings came away with a win over the Lions at US Bank stadium week three, 28-24, in what proved to be their first of nine straight wins in one-score games. The Lions had played the Eagles close week one, losing 38-35, and beat the Commanders the following week heading into their first road game against the Vikings with some momentum.

The Vikings, by contrast, had just gotten blown out by the Eagles on the road, taking away the good vibes from the Packers blow-out week one. It was a game in which the Eagles played a lot of man coverage, which the Vikings struggled with and clearly hadn’t planned for. The Eagles had played mostly zone coverage against the Lions week one.

And so the Lions, seeing the struggles the Vikings had against man coverage against the Eagles, took the same approach. They played man coverage over 70% of the time, including a lot of Cover-5, with two high safeties and man coverage by the underneath cornerbacks. They were very physical, drawing 8 penalties against defensive backs and should have been flagged a couple more times according to the NFL after reviewing some plays the Vikings submitted for review following the game. As it was, they had 7 accepted penalties for 59 yards. But they held Justin Jefferson to just 14 receiving yards, his lowest total this season. The Vikings still struggled much of the game against man coverage but were able to break through just enough to come back for the win after being down 14 points in the second quarter and ten points entering the fourth quarter. The Vikings were 6-point favorites in that game.

In terms of key injuries, the Lions were without starting left guard Jonas Jackson and the Vikings were without safety Harrison Smith.

For the Lions, it was one of their better games this season in terms of yards allowed. In their recent win streak, they’ve given up more yards than they did to the Vikings week three in every game except the Jaguars blow-out last weekend. And the Lions haven’t beaten a team with a good offense all season, including over this recent five game stretch. What they have done is score over 30 points in three of those five games. They’ve also won the turnover battle in their four most recent wins. Both the Lions and Vikings had one turnover in the week three matchup.

The Lions also had one of their better offensive performances of the season against the Vikings in week three, generating 416 yards- their fourth-highest total this season. Only in the Jacksonville blow-out last weekend did the Lions’ offense generate more yards than against the Vikings in any game since week four.

The point here is that while the Lions have reportedly been playing better in recent weeks, they haven’t played better than they did against the Vikings week three- one of their better offensive and defensive performances of the season. They also didn’t lose the turnover battle in week three- but they did lose the game. The Vikings’ loss was one of only three games this season where the Lions have outgained their opponent in total yards. The two others were the Commanders week two and the Jaguars last weekend- both Lions’ wins.

The Vikings-Lions Matchup on Sunday

Since week three, the Vikings have built up more of a catalog of plays and knowledge in their new schemes. They’ve gotten better at working against man coverage- which was a real struggle in the first part of the season. The offense has faced top ten defenses (mostly top five) the last five games. They’ve averaged 30 points per game against the last two top defenses they’ve faced in the Jets and Patriots. Both play a lot of man coverage and rank 7th and 6th respectively in points allowed. The Lions defense ranks last in the league.

The Lions have been winning more in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen if that is due to them playing better or simply facing weaker opponents. They fired their defensive backs coach a few weeks ago and that has reportedly led to better defensive performance.

Injuries and New Players Compared to Week Three

In terms of injuries, the Lions will be without their starting right guard and primary backup and look to be going with Dan Skipper- the second-worst pass blocking guard in the league. He started against the Vikings week three as well, so while he’s playing right rather than left guard this time, the Lions have their other four starting offensive linemen available Sunday. Skipper gave up 3 of the Lions’ 13 allowed pressures week three. The Vikings had no sacks and only one QB hit in that game.

The Lions may also be without starting slot corner Will Harris. He’s listed as questionable, but injured his hip in practice this week, was limited in practice Thursday and did not practice Friday. ‘Questionable’ is supposed to be a 50% chance of playing designation, but most often they do play. In Harris’ case having not practiced Friday, I’d say it’s less likely he’ll play on Sunday. If Harris can’t go, it could be former Viking Mike Hughes replacing him. Hughes is ranked 81st of 119 cornerbacks overall this season, and 100th of 119 in coverage. He also played most snaps at slot corner for the Lions week three, with a 27.4 coverage grade from PFF that game.

The Lions also have CB Jeff Okudah listed as questionable, along with PR/WR Kalif Raymond- both listed with illnesses. Okudah didn’t practice until Friday when he was limited.

On the Vikings’ side, Harrison Smith, Garrett Bradbury, and Christian Darrisaw are the only starters on the final injury report and all three are listed as questionable. Darrisaw was a full participant in Friday’s practice and that bodes well for his starting on Sunday. He hasn’t played the last two games but has cleared the concussion protocol and would seem more likely than not to play.

Smith and Bradbury were both limited in practice Thursday and Friday, with a neck and back injury respectively, but Kevin O’Connell didn’t seem overly concerned. It would seem more likely they both start absent additional information. Overall, assuming all three play on Sunday, that would leave the Vikings with one additional starter in Harrison Smith than they had week three. Josh Metellus did a great job filling in for Smith week three, however.

For the Lions, they’ll get back starting edge rusher Romeo Okwara. He has yet to play this season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last season. They’ll also have first-round pick Jameson Williams, who is playing in his second game of his pro career after rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered at Alabama at the beginning of the year. Williams didn’t have a catch in his first game last weekend. The Lions will also have Kerby Joseph at free safety rather than Juju Hughes, who started week three. Joseph has been an improvement over Hughes, but his PFF grades have declined each of the last three weeks. Juju Hughes gave up just 5 receiving yards week three in his coverage.

Also, the Lions now have Jerry Jacobs at cornerback instead of Amani Oruwariye who started week three. You may remember Oruwariye for having six penalties in coverage for the Lions that game.

Lastly, tight end TJ Hockenson will be playing for the Vikings this time around instead of the Lions. That may be a bigger gain for the Vikings than a loss for the Lions. Hockenson had 3 receptions for 18 yards and a touchdown for the Lions week three. The Lions have allowed the third highest fantasy points per game to tight ends this year. Week three, Johnny Mundt and Ben Ellefson combined for 47 receiving yards against the Lions. Hockenson could have a big game against Lions’ linebackers if they continue to play Cover-5 as they did week three. Having a better receiving tight end than the Vikings had week three could yield better results.

Overall, there may be a slight advantage in personnel for the Vikings over week three, but probably not a big one. But if Darrisaw can’t play, that would be a significant loss over week three. On the other hand, if Okudah can’t go for the Lions, that would be a significant loss for them.

Vikings Offense vs. Lions Defense

PFF

Relative to week three, the Vikings will hope to get more production out of their passing game and be more productive on 3rd down. They went 2/9 on 3rd down conversions week three, so improving on that will be key- especially against a Lions defense that ranks 31st on third down, allowing 48.6% of 3rd downs to be converted. The Vikings have improved on third down and now rank 13th in converting them.

The Vikings went 3/3 in the red zone week three, but also had three 3-and-outs, two 5-and-outs, and two missed field goals (both 50+ yards). That allowed the Lions to win time of possession and kept the Vikings’ defense on the field longer. Sustaining more drives against the Lions’ weak defense will be a key for success on Sunday.

The addition of TJ Hockenson may help in that regard, as Hockenson may be more adept at hauling in chain-moving receptions than Mundt or Ellefson.

Additionally, the Vikings are better now against man coverage and connecting with Justin Jefferson in that scheme than they were week three. Expect more production from Jefferson in this game. Don’t be surprised if Jalen Reagor gets involved a bit more too, although it was KJ Osborn that led Vikings’ receivers week three.

It should be noted that RG Ed Ingram has improved since week three, and particularly in pass protection the past few weeks. That should help alleviate some pressure on Cousins. The Vikings matchup pretty well against the Lions’ defensive front, as the Lions are better on the edge, just as the Vikings’ offensive line is, and not as good on the interior- just like the Vikings offensive line.

Lastly, the Lions rank 31st in rush yards per carry allowed (5.2) and rushing TDs allowed (18). The Vikings have been trying to get more out of the run game in recent weeks, so don’t be surprised if they surpass the 123 yards they had on the ground week one.

Vikings Defense vs. Lions Offense

PFF

Wide Receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has become the go-to receiver for Jared Goff in recent weeks, and he’s led all receivers in production. Week three, Josh Reynolds led the team with 96 receiving yards followed by St. Brown with 73. They used St. Brown primarily in the short game, where he added a lot of yards after catch. Reynolds was targeted more on intermediate-deep balls. The Lions have talked about wanting more explosive plays on offense, so don’t be surprised to see them take some deep shots- whether to Reynolds, St. Brown, or new-comer Jameson Williams.

The Lions are not afraid to run the ball either- or use D’Andre Swift out of the backfield- although they’re only about average in yards per carry. The Vikings have a stout run defense so hopefully they’ll be able to limit the damage from the Lions’ ground game.

In week three, the Vikings held the Lions to just 3/16 on third down. That was mitigated some by the Lions going 4/6 on fourth down. Getting off the field more often, which the Vikings defense has been getting better at in recent weeks, whether on 3rd or 4th down will be a key defensively on Sunday.

Lastly, the Vikings allowed the Lions to go 3/3 in the red zone week three. This is another area where they’ve struggled all season but have improved in recent weeks. Forcing more field goals or stops in the red zone compared to week three will also be helpful- and doable.

Controlling the Big Mo

Expect the Lions crowd to come out roaring from the get-go in this one, and for the Lions to be keyed up and aggressive throughout the game. They’re playing with confidence and will doubtless be fueled by the sellout crowd at Ford Field.

The Vikings will have to overcome the initial onslaught brought on by the Lions’ home field advantage. If they can do that, they should be able to hold their own on both sides of the ball. Winning the turnover battle would also be key. Week three each team had one turnover. The Lions have yet to win this season when losing the turnover battle, so forcing an errant Goff throw, or a fumble here or there, while taking care of the ball on offense, may be the most important key to success for the Vikings on Sunday.

Lastly, the Vikings allowed the Lions to have nearly a ten-minute advantage in time of possession. Given the Lions’ top ten offense, but last ranked defense, it would be useful for the Vikings to keep that last ranked defense on the field as long as possible- and keep their top ten offense off the field against the Vikings’ rather bendy defense.

Bottom Line

Much has been made of the 10-2 Vikings being road underdogs against the 5-7 Lions. This is the first time in the Super Bowl era that a 10-2 team has been an underdog to a 5-7 team.

But I think the Vikings offense will do well against a drop in defensive quality compared to the last five weeks, and not enough attention has been given to the quality of offense the Lions have faced over their last four wins.

Defensively, I’m not expecting any miracles, but something similar to week three with perhaps a better showing in the red zone and for the Vikings to win the turnover battle. That should be enough for a Vikings road win against the Lions and their first NFC North division crown since 2017.

The last four Vikings-Lions games have been one-score games and the Vikings have won four of the last five meetings. The lone loss was the pathetic play-not-to-lose game at Detroit last year. I don’t expect a repeat of that this year. I wouldn’t be surprised by another close game however.

Poll

The Lions are a 2-point favorite at home against the Vikings. Will the Vikings:

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Win
    (522 votes)
  • 3%
    Lose but beat the spread
    (24 votes)
  • 23%
    Lose and not beat the spread
    (165 votes)
711 votes total Vote Now