The Detroit Lions head to Minneapolis this weekend to take on the Minnesota Vikings for the first of two times over the next three weeks. With just three games remaining in the NFL’s regular season, Detroit holds a two-game lead in the NFC North, but Minnesota can apply some pressure with a win on Sunday. Below are some notes heading into this divisional tilt.
Three Notes Heading Into Lions at Vikings
Minnesota Pass Offense vs. Detroit Pass Defense
The Lions’ offense and Vikings’ defense both rank in the top 10 in the NFL by DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) standards. Detroit boasts the eighth-best pass offense and fourth-best run offense, while Minnesota ranks seventh against the pass and ninth in stopping the run. However, these potent offensive and defensive units may differ from the story of Sunday’s game.
Minnesota has the 18th-best pass offense but struggles to run the ball, coming in at 28th in the league. Detroit ranks 16th in defending the pass but is elite at stopping the opponent’s ground game, which is ranked fourth in all of football. Although the Vikings blew a two-touchdown lead last week, falling to the Cincinnati Bengals 27-24, new Minnesota starter Nick Mullens showed he’s more than capable of leading an offense and putting up points. Against the Bengals, Mullens completed 26 of 33 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He has a gunslinger mentality, and with star receiver Justin Jefferson healthy, the Vikings’ aerial attack could provide the Lions with plenty of problems.
CJ Gardner-Johnson Cleared To Return
After missing the last 12 games, Lions safety CJ Gardner-Johnson returned to practice this week, meaning we could see him back in the Detroit secondary very soon.
Coming over from the Philadelphia Eagles in the off-season, “CJGJ” was brought in to help turn around a defense that has historically struggled under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. But when Gardner-Johnson suffered a torn pec in Detroit’s Week 2 loss against the Seattle Seahawks, it looked as though he wouldn’t get that opportunity. Miraculously, Garder-Johnson has been medically cleared and could be available for Detroit’s showdown with the Dallas Cowboys next week. His return to the secondary would be a huge boost for a defense that has struggled to defend the pass this season, and although it looked better in Detroit’s win over the Denver Broncos in Week 15, it could still use more playmakers like Gardner-Johnson.
In his absence, rookie defensive back Brian Branch has broken out as one of the best players on Detroit’s defense. Kerby Joseph continues to man the secondary and third-year player Ifeatu Melifonwu has come into his own over the last two weeks. Adding Gardner-Johnson will leave Glenn and Co. difficult decisions to make when it comes to who plays and when, but that’s a good problem to have.
History On The Line
With a win on Sunday, the Lions would win their division for the first time since the 1993 season, when they clinched the then-NFC Central (yes, it’s been that long — so long that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are now a part of the NFC South, won the division more recently than Detroit).
A division title would be a tremendous accomplishment for a franchise with little success since the 1990s. It would also go a long way in achieving an even bigger milestone — winning a playoff game, which the Lions haven’t done since the 1991 season. Clinching the NFC North would guarantee Detroit at least one home playoff game, something Ford Field hasn’t seen since opening in 2002.
There’s much at stake for the Lions this weekend as they’ll look to take care of business and win the NFC North for the first time before heading south to take on the NFC East-leading Cowboys in Week 17.
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