The Detroit Lions beat the Minnesota Vikings 34-23 in a game featuring spectacular play from both quarterbacks — both the subject of intense skepticism — but ultimately one that affirmed the Lions’ bid to be relevant late into the season for the first time since 2016.
The Detroit Lions Are Actual Playoff Contenders
The ninth Lion to catch a pass for Detroit was tackle Penei Sewell, a game-winner that gave the Lions the first down that allowed them to run out the clock with an eight-point lead inside of two minutes.
There probably isn’t a better way to summarize the game for both teams. The Vikings, 10-2 entering the game and almost mathematically locked into the second seed in the NFC, lost to the 5-7 Lions, whose chances of reaching the playoffs are hanging on by a thread.
This wasn’t necessarily unexpected. Detroit was one of the few teams with a losing record to be favored against a team with 10 or more wins. Excluding the final week of the season, this has only happened four times since the year 2000, and it’s the earliest point in the season this has occurred in that span.
Though Lions head coach Dan Campbell was shocked, the reasons behind it made sense. The Vikings’ secondary has been a mess, and Detroit’s defense has tightened up, allowing just 19.8 points per game in the six weeks leading up to this game and have allowed the second-lowest passer rating.
The Lions’ playoff chances grow every week. After a virtually zero percent chance several weeks ago, Detroit entered Week 14 with a 9% chance of making the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight. After the noon games, the Lions’ chances jumped up to 19%.
Jared Goff Exploded Against the Minnesota Vikings
If one happens to be a believer in momentum, one could imagine Detroit’s chances are even higher than one in five. The Lions have won five of their last six games and their one loss was by three points to an impressive Buffalo Bills team.
The Lions were impressive on Sunday, stringing together explosive plays and takeaways to put constant pressure on the Vikings. Jared Goff led the team over their winning stretch with careful and risk-averse football; he ranked 25th among all quarterbacks in average depth of target in that period.
But in this game, Goff found ways to sling the ball downfield, connecting with rookie Jameson Williams and DJ Chark for 40+yard touchdowns, as well as Amon-Ra St. Brown on a 25-yard gain in the final moments of the half that should have set up a field goal that expanded their lead.
Detroit’s impressive offensive and defensive lines showed up in a big way as well. Goff wasn’t sacked once and experienced only three QB hits. Meanwhile, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked three times, and the Lions racked up nine QB hits. A disastrous running back POP pass also resulted in a “sack” and a fumble, also caused by the Lions’ defensive line.
All told, the Lions had seven tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits, and four sacks. The Vikings, conversely, earned four TFLs, three QB hits, and no sacks.
Adding Williams to the lineup was big for Detroit, who had receivers capable of winning deep but not anyone whose downfield threat demanded a consistent response from the defense. With Chark, Williams, and St. Brown, the Lions can more effectively challenge all three levels of the defense vertically and stress them horizontally.
The Vikings Failed Kirk Cousins
On the Vikings’ front, the running game and defense failed them. Cousins had one of his best games of the season, and his receivers were playing well, too. But it was difficult for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison to find running room, and they couldn’t make the most of any room they did find.
The offensive line, hurt by the loss of both left Christian Darrisaw and center Garrett Bradbury, did not just have issues winning their assignments 1-on-1 but also had trouble communicating with each other. They gave up pressures on line stunts, missed their assignments in the running game, and were playing on the knife’s edge on each blitz pickup.
And the Lions blitzed often. With a blitz rate of 31.8%, they had one of the highest blitz rates of any team in Week 14. Cousins handled those blitzes well, averaging 13.6 yards per attempt and earning first downs on 41.6% of blitzed dropbacks. But he was under constant pressure in those situations and could have made some big mistakes.
Despite Cousins’ performance against the blitz, that strategy made sense — he had one of the lowest yards per attempt and first-down rates on blitzes in the NFL before this game — but it was a bit of a shift.
The Lions started the season as a blitz-heavy team that stressed their cornerbacks with man coverage. As the season progressed, their blitz rate decreased and rate of zone coverage went up. But in this game, they went after the quarterback with additional pass rushers again and again.
It’s a strategy that may have been designed to get the ball out quickly with their best cornerback in and out of the game as a result of an illness he had throughout the week, but it did mean Justin Jefferson could go off and make up for his 14-yard performance against the Lions in Week 3.
Though he didn’t earn a touchdown, it’s not controversial to say he did exactly that, earning 223 yards — meaning he averaged 118.5 yards per game against the Lions this year. This puts Jefferson on pace for 1,961 receiving yards and within striking distance of 2,000. This makes for an interesting, if longshot, MVP case.
But the Vikings’ defense allowed Goff to pass for three touchdowns and 330 yards on 39 attempts, generating a passer rating of 120.7. Many of those came on well-thrown passes, but there were also busted coverages on multiple plays, including the touchdown to Williams and other inexcusable mistakes, like the insistence on running the ball while averaging 1.29 yards per carry, or kicking an obvious onside attempt despite having two timeouts left.
Minnesota didn’t lose the game solely because of mistakes. The Lions played well and demonstrated that their turnaround is genuine. But they exacerbated their problems throughout the game with a series of bad decisions from the coaching staff and blunders from the players on the field.
Minnesota and Detroit Might Be Headed in Opposite Directions
For the Vikings, this could be a referendum on the questions about their ability to sustain their winning record. Not only have almost all of their wins come in close games that featured outcomes determined in big ways by luck, but they’ve also had issues being consistent on both offense and defense and ranked in the middle of the pack — or worse — in predictive metrics.
That’s why bettors didn’t trust the Vikings heading into the game and why fans should be wary that the presumed second seed will be able to play like the second-best team in the NFC.
As for the Lions, not many are expecting them to play like one of the best teams in the conference. But they should be exciting.
One game can’t prove anything, but a single game sure can demonstrate some things.