Why I think Detroit Lions beat Minnesota Vikings to stay in wild-card chase

Detroit Free Press

Minnesota Vikings (10-2) at Detroit Lions (5-7)

The coaches: Lions — Dan Campbell (13-27-1 overall, 8-20-1 with Lions); Vikings — Kevin O’Connell (10-2 overall, 10-2 with Vikings).

Last game: Lions beat Jacksonville Jaguars, 40-14; Vikings beat New York Jets, 27-22.

Last meeting: Sept. 25, 2022: Vikings won, 28-24.

Key matchups

Lions CB Jeff Okudah vs. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson

The NFL’s second-leading receiver, Jefferson was a non-factor when the Lions and Vikings met in September. He had a career-low 14 yards on three catches and was targeted just six times in that game, but has rebounded with a string of strong performances since.

“I think any and everybody that would play them would tell you, you have to have an answer for him,” Campbell said. Okudah drew the primary coverage assignment on Jefferson in Week 3, with plenty of safety help over top, and likely will be a key part of the Lions’ answer again Sunday. He missed two days of practice with an illness this week, but has had a strong season overall, allowing completions on just 59.6% of the passes thrown his way this year, according to Pro Football Reference.

Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown vs. Vikings CB Chandon Sullivan

The Lions have their own mismatch player in St. Brown, a fearless and sure-handed receiver who has become Jared Goff’s go-to target in got-to-have-it situations. St. Brown suffered a high ankle sprain against the Vikings in September and was not himself late in that game. He still finished with six catches for 73 yards, and has a significant advantage over Sullivan, a mediocre slot corner who has allowed a 77.6% catch rate and 109.6 passer rating on the season, according to Fantasy Pros. St. Brown has 20 catches for 236 yards and three touchdowns the past three weeks, and could be in line for another big game.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Vikings run defense

D’Andre Swift had 111 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches last week in his most extensive action since Week 1, and his improved health has added another dimension to the Lions’ backfield. Swift outsnapped Jamaal Williams against the Jaguars and could be in for another big workload Sunday against a Vikings team that’s been susceptible to the big play.

Williams is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry since the start of November, but his power running style wears down defenses and he’s been impossible to stop on the goal line (14 touchdowns). Running backs coach Duce Staley indicated Justin Jackson will stay in the rotation, even with Swift healthy, while the Lions could be down to their fourth-string right guard if Evan Brown can’t play because of an ankle injury.

The Vikings, led by Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks at linebacker, rank 16th in run defense at 115.1 yards per game allowed. They are sixth in run-stuff percentage, according to Football Outsiders, but have struggled in short-yardage situations, allowing 22 of 27 conversions (81.8%) on third- and fourth-and-short running plays. Edge: Lions

Lions pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense

Goff said this week he feels like he’s playing the best football of his career. Goff does not have eye-popping passing numbers, but he gets better protection than most quarterbacks in the NFL and he’s cut down dramatically on his turnovers with one interception in the past six games.

Birkett:Lions offense is humming with Jared Goff playing some of the best football of his career

The Lions’ passing attack also has benefitted from improved health of late at receiver. St. Brown has played at a Pro Bowl level since missing time earlier this season with a sprained ankle and concussion-like symptoms, and DJ Chark is coming off his best game as a Lion after missing six games with an ankle injury. The speedy Jameson Williams should see an uptick in snaps this week, though he still has only a small slice of the playbook in his second NFL game.

The Vikings have given up the most passing yards in the NFL and are showing their age in the secondary. Harrison Smith has five interceptions but does not cover ground like he used to, while Cam Dantzler could return this week after a four-game absence with an ankle injury. The Vikings do have a potent pass rush. Za’Darius Smith leads the NFL with 63 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and Danielle Hunter has seven sacks. Edge: Lions

Vikings run offense vs. Lions run defense

Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in the NFL, but the Vikings have had only moderate success running the football this season. They rank 25th in rushing yards per game and 20th in yards per attempt and failed to reach 75 yards rushing in both their losses.

Cook is a one-cut runner with exceptional vision who has a second gear to run away from defenders in the open field. He’s on pace for his fewest broken tackles since his rookie season, but his presence is a big part of Minnesota’s success in the play-action game. Cook ran for 96 yards against the Lions in Week 3, when both he and Alexander Mattison scored rushing touchdowns. The Lions did force a fumble that game, Cook’s only fumble of the year.

The Lions have been better against the run in the second half of the season, but still rank 31st in the league in yards per carry allowed (5.2). Alim McNeill has played his best football since moving to the three technique, but the Lions could be without two key run defenders in linebacker Derrick Barnes and slot cornerback Will Harris. Edge: Vikings

Vikings pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

When their offensive line holds up, the Vikings have one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the NFL. Jefferson is a superstar in his third season, and Adam Thielen and former Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson give Kirk Cousins two reliable targets in the red zone.

More:Detroit Lions want to make Vikings TE T.J. Hockenson ‘feel us’ in Ford Field return

Cousins has been sacked 14 times in the past four games, though, and is on pace to take a career-high 43 sacks this season. With a boisterous home-field crowd at their back this week, the Lions should have opportunities to get after Cousins with their pass rush.

The Lions devoted two defenders to stopping Jefferson in September, and that likely will be the case again Sunday. They’ve overhauled their secondary since that game, benching Amani Oruwariye — who had six penalties against the Vikings — in favor of Jerry Jacobs, and plugging Kerby Joseph in at safety to replace the injured Tracy Walker. Harris’ absence could cause more shuffling, but the key is keeping Jefferson in check. Edge: Vikings

Special teams

The lost to the Vikings in September when Campbell made the regrettable decision to send Austin Seibert out for a 54-yard field goal. Seibert missed, and Minnesota scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Had Michael Badgley been the Lions’ kicker that day, it’s possible things would have been different. Badgley has made 11 of 12 field goals since signing with the Lions in October and is the reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Beyond Badgley, the Lions have gotten good play from return men Jackson and Kalif Raymond this season. They’ve won the field position battle in recent weeks and have one of the best kick cover units in the NFL.

The Vikings are no slouches on special teams. Kene Nwangwu has three kick return touchdowns the past two seasons and is one of the most dangerous return men in the NFL, and punter Ryan Wright is eighth in net punting at 43.5 yards. Kicker Greg Joseph has struggled from distance this year, making just 2 of 7 field goals of 50-plus yards. The Vikings rank 20th in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, 11 spots behind the Lions. Edge: Lions

Prediction

The Lions left Minnesota in Week 3 feeling like they let a golden opportunity slip out of their hands, and they have a chance to atone for their mistakes in Sunday’s rematch with their playoff hopes on the line. Offensively, the Lions have proven they can score with anybody, and defensively they’ve been a different team at Ford Field. They’re young and hungry, and they’ve got an air of confidence about their play.

The Vikings are not a dominant 10-2 team, but it would be wrong to chalk their success up to luck. They have a diverse and dangerous offense, led by the best receiver in the NFL, and enough pass rush on defense to play deep into January. There’s a palpable excitement about this game, though, and with home-field advantage and so much at stake, I think the Lions — who likely need to win out to make the postseason — exorcise some demons by making the plays they need to late. Pick: Lions 28, Vikings 24.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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