As one of the NFL’s historically bad franchises, the Detroit Lions don’t usually have much on the line in their annual Thanksgiving game. That isn’t the case, however, in the 2016 season. Detroit can take a big step towards winning the NFC North when they host the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday.
No NFL team has had a season quite like the Lions this year. Usually a team with no luck—Detroit has just one playoff win since the AFL-NFL merger—the Lions have arguably had more luck than anyone in 2016. With their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Detroit became the first team ever to complete six fourth-quarter comebacks in the first 10 games.
Detroit needed a punt return for a touchdown, as well as an interception return for a score, in order to defeat the 2-8 Jaguars by seven points. Four of their victories have come as a result of game-winning scores in the final two minutes, and the Lions’ win over the Vikings three weeks ago might have been their most improbable of the season.
After the Vikings went ahead by three points with 23 seconds left in regulation, Matt Prater hit a 58-yard field goal as time expired to send the contest into overtime. Detroit was only able to tie the game because Minnesota had missed an extra point earlier in the game, and the Lions scored on their first possession in the extra session to get the victory.
Prior to letting Detroit make an unlikely comeback, Minnesota dominated defensively. In regulation, Matthew Stafford was limited to just 158 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Lions averaged less than four yards per carry against a Vikings defense that has been among the NFL’s best all season long, even as the team has had trouble winning games in recent weeks.
Minnesota snapped a four-game losing streak on Sunday, defeating the Arizona Cardinals in a dominating defensive performance. Carson Palmer was intercepted twice and sacked four more times as the Vikings remained tied with the Lions for first place in the division.
Stafford has made his way into the conversation for NFL MVP, leading the Lions to first place with little help around him. Detroit has difficulty winning when Stafford isn’t at the top of his game, and their victory over Minnesota has been the one exception this season. The Lions are 1-3 when Stafford posts a passer rating of less than 90.0, and the Vikings have held opposing quarterbacks to a 73.4 passer rating on the year.
Much of the Vikings’ success in defending the pass has depended on their ability to put pressure on the quarterback. Minnesota has just three total sacks in their four losses, and they have 23 sacks in their six wins. Only 10 quarterbacks have been sacked more than Stafford in 2016.
Averaging less than 68 rushing yards per game in their last eight contests, the Lions will be forced to throw the ball plenty against Minnesota. That’s not exactly a recipe for success against an elite pass defense.
Thursday’s contest is almost certain to be a low-scoring affair, and the over/under of 43 is one of the smallest on the Week 12 schedule. Minnesota ranks second in the NFL in points allowed per game (17.6) and third in yards (306.9) surrendered per game. Detroit has held their last four opponents to 20 points or fewer, and the Vikings rank dead last in total offense.
Despite their offensive struggles, Minnesota has been able to win on the strength of their defense when limiting turnovers. Only six teams have fewer takeaways than the Lions, and Detroit could have trouble covering the 2.5-point betting line and winning outright if Sam Bradford takes care of the football.
Prediction: Minnesota over Detroit, 20-17