O'HARA'S FINAL THOUGHTS: How important are division games?

Posted Oct 1, 2017

Mike O'Hara shares his final thoughts heading into Sunday's Lions-Vikings matchup.

MINNEAPOLIS – Detroit Lions-Minnesota Vikings Final Thoughts:Extra meaning in division games; Peterson-to-Cook transition helping Vikings; Cased Keenum’s history vs. Lions, Stats Match and a final word on my pick for the game:

North to the playoffs: Lions head coach Jim Caldwell never looks further ahead than the game at hand, which is true of all head coaches. But the long-range impact of wins and losses in division games is undeniable.

Winning in the division can separate teams in the standings, and the winner of today’s game will get an early edge in the NFC North.

“Winning means more, regardless of who you’re facing,” Caldwell said in his final press conference of the week. “We just take each game that we play, and we go after it, and we’re trying to get a win.”  

A look back at last year’s two Lions-Vikings games, and won-loss records in division games of the four NFC North teams the last three years, underscores the importance of winning in the division.

The Lions’ were 9-7 last year, with a two-game sweep of the Vikings.  The Lions won Game 9 in overtime and beat the Vikings on a last-play field goal on Thanksgiving Day.

The Lions made the playoffs as a wild card while the Vikings were at home for the postseason at 8-8.  Had the outcome of either game had been different, the Lions would have missed the playoffs.

Green Bay has dominated the North, finishing first five times in the last six years. In the last three years they’ve been 5-1, 3-3 and 5-1 in the North for an overall division record of 13-5. The Lions were 3-3, 3-3 and 5-1, for an overall record of 11-7 and two playoffs appearances. The Vikings were 8-10 with one playoff appearance.

The Bears were 4-14 and have spent the postseason on the couch, as they have for six years.

“I can say that’s not lost on us,” Caldwell said of the division records. “I mean, we can add.”

Peterson-Cook comparison, heresy!? The Vikings are better off with the rookie Cook in this offense than they would have been if they’d brought Peterson back for another year. Peterson was released and signed by New Orleans, where he’s struggling to get carries and gain yards in an offense that functions best with a running back who can run and catch passes.

Cook has shown his versatility as a dual threat, with 288 yards rushing and 10 catches for 82 yards.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was careful not to make comparisons when asked what Cook adds to the offense.

“Speaking of Dalvin specifically, he does so many good things,” Zimmer said. “You don’t have to take him off the field on third down. He runs good routes. He understands protection for a young guy. I think he’s good coming out of the backfield. It has to help with the play action and some of those areas – especially if he’s getting it rolling a little bit.”

Case for Keenum: Case Keenum was the designated backup, but he’s making his third straight start with Sam Bradford out because of a knee injury.

Keenum can’t be taken lightly. The Lions saw him at his best last year in their 31-28 victory over the Rams. Keenum completed 27 of 32 passes for 321 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. At one point Keenum completed 19 straight passes, and he had a passer rating of 126.7 for the game.

Keenum had a 7-7 won-loss record as a starter in two seasons with the Rams. Other quarterbacks combined to go 4-14.

Stats Match: Five to consider, plus a projection:

Hands-to-hands battle: A matchup to watch is the Lions’ secondary against the Vikings receivers, who have six TD catches, led by Stefon Diggs’ four. The Lions have seven interceptions. Six are by the secondary and one by linebacker Tahir Whitehead. Safety Glover Quin and cornerback Darius Slay have two each. Quin and safety Miles Killebrew have returned picks for TDs.

Griffen, walk the talk: Vikings DE Everson Griffen had some harsh comments about Lions OT Greg Robinson. Griffen has a history of creating problems for the Lions on the field. In the last 10 games against the Lions – 2012-16 – Griffen has 8.5 sacks.  

Turnover margin: It’s a key stat that favors the Lions – and by a wide margin. They are No. 1 in the league at plus six – eight takeaways, two giveaways. The Vikings are plus two – three takeaways, one giveaway.

Turnover margin didn’t mean much last week. The Lions were plus three – all interceptions – but lost to the Falcons.

Firsts: The Vikings’ average gain on first down is 5.31 yards, compared to the Lions’ 4.05 average. But the Vikings’ defense has given up 7.43 yards on first down to 5.10 for the Lions. Getting solid gains on first down is important for the Lions to hold the Vikings’ defense somewhat at bay. Give them the edge consistently, and it will be a long day.

A C-note: Vikings rookie Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards in his first pro game. The Lions have gone 55 games without an individual 100-yard rushing game. Last to do it was Reggie Bush, with 117 yards against the Packers in Game 12 of the 2013 season.

C Note projection: By the end of this season a 100-yard rushing game by Ameer Abdullah will be a nonevent. But don’t expect that to happen today.

My pick: Some matchups favor the Vikings, but having all five starters on the offensive line from the first two games is a big help for the Lions.

It’s a close matchup, as my prediction indicates – Vikings 24, Lions 23.