The Detroit Lions were just barely able to squeak out a win in Chicago over the Bears Sunday 27-24, behind a late Matt Prater field goal. It marks the second straight week Detroit looked sluggish against an inferior opponent, which leaves cause for concern for their big NFC North showdown on Thanksgiving against the Minnesota Vikings.
The matchup Thursday is opening as a pick em’ according to to the Westgate Las Vegas sports book. This is as close to a must-win as a game can get, given the way the schedules shape up down the stretch, and given that Minnesota still holds a two-game lead over Detroit for NFC North supremacy.
Once again, for a second straight week, Detroit was overpowered by their opponents rushing attack, allowing the Bears to run for 222 yards on Sunday. Now, Chicago does have one of the more underrated backs in the league in Jordan Howard, but by no means is their offensive line dominant enough to allow for that kind of output. The Lions need to figure out a way, schematically, to stop other teams for running down their throat.
Minnesota comes into this game feeling good about their running attack, even without star rookie Dalvin Cook. Latavius Murray is starting to emerge as a power threat, especially in the red-zone, and Jerick McKinnon provides a nice change of pace. But Case Keenum has been especially good over their six-game win streak. Detroit has been good against the pass, particularly because of Darius Slay, who is emerging as one of the NFL’s best cover corners.
It is no secret that the Lions have not exactly been coming out of the gates guns blazing the last two weeks. Minnesota is too good for that trend to continue. They sport an elite defense, an elite receiving core, and a quarterback who is feeling confident given how he has been playing. Matthew Stafford needs to be better in the first quarter, as does Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions play-caller. Detroit simply cannot afford to keep digging themselves out of holes, every single game.
If the Vikings are able to establish the run with Murray and McKinnon, it could end up being a long day for Detroit’s defense. That would result in bad news for the Detroit offense, who would once again be forced to play catch-up. Stafford has been excellent this season throwing downfield, particularly to Marvin Jones Jr. who has emerged as a legit deep threat. But the offense can’t be counted on to do everything, and the defense getting off the field starts with stopping the run and forcing Keenum into third and long situations.
Detroit’s schedule sets up easier than Minnesota’s the rest of the way. This may be the toughest test they have left. The Lions have already swept the division on the road, and getting a win Thursday would allow them to hold the tiebreaker over the Vikings, who still have road trips to the defending NFC champion Falcons and the red-hot Panthers.
If the Lions want to win the NFC North for the first time since joining the division, then this is a must-win. The Packers and Bears both appear out of it. Gaining the tiebreaker over Minnesota is crucial, as is pulling within a game of them. The defense, Stafford, Cooter, and Jim Caldwell need to have their best game to do it.