Division foe Minnesota is in town today to take on a Detroit Lions team still searching for their first victory of the season. The Vikings are currently one spot outside of the playoff picture in the NFC, and all the talk among their players this week was how they're treating today like a playoff game.
Will the Vikings keep their playoff hopes alive and earn the season sweep over the Lions? Can Detroit play well in all three phases to earn their first victory of the year?
Here are five things to watch out for in today's matchup.
1. CAPABLE BACKUPS
No D’Andre Swift for Detroit or Dalvin Cook for Minnesota means the running games for both teams will be mostly handed over to Lions veteran Jamaal Williams and Alexander Mattison for the Vikings. Both players have been in this role before, and both are very capable backs.
Williams is averaging 4.2 yards per carry on the year with a couple touchdowns. He brings a tough, physical style to the Lions' run game. Minnesota enters today's contest ranked 30th against the run, allowing 134.4 yards per game on average on the ground.
The Lions know Mattison well. He was the featured back for the Vikings in their first matchup with Detroit Week 5 – a 19-17 win in Minnesota. Mattison carried the ball 25 times for 113 yards and added 40 more receiving yards and a touchdown in that contest. In the two games this season Mattison has had at least 20 carries, he's rushed for 113 and 112 yards.
2. ANSWERS ON OFFENSE
The Lions have averaged just 13.3 points and 263.3 yards per game the last three weeks since head coach Dan Campbell took over play calling from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.
This is an important week for Campbell and the offense because they can't use injuries at quarterback or adverse weather conditions as an excuse.
Quarterback Jared Goff injured his oblique early in Pittsburgh and the weather was terrible. Backup Tim Boyle played the following week in Cleveland, also in bad weather conditions. On Thanksgiving, Goff returned, but hadn't practiced since the Pittsburgh game because of the strained oblique and the Lions only conducting walkthrough practices on a short week.
Goff is now three weeks removed from the injury, and said this week he's "feeling good" after the mini bye over the weekend. Detroit's indoors at Ford Field, so weather won't be a factor.
The Lions won't have their top offensive weapon in Swift, but the Vikings are decimated by injuries on defense, so we'll call that a wash. It's important the Lions show more on offense today, or the questions about Campbell taking on play-calling duties as a first-year head coach will persist.
3. KEY MATCHUP
Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye snagged his team-leading fifth interception last week against Chicago and now he gets a rematch with Vikings Pro Bowl wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
The two battled Week 5, and Jefferson got the better of Oruwariye in that one. Jefferson was targeted six times with Oruwariye covering him, and he caught five of those targets for 101 yards, including a long of 37 yards. The one incompletion was a drop by Jefferson. In all, Jefferson hauled in seven passes that day for 124 yards.
Jefferson already has over 1,000 receiving yards (1,027) on the year with six scores. Oruwariye's five interceptions are the third most in the NFL this season. This will be a good matchup to watch on the outside.
4. SPECIAL TEAMS
Don't be surprised if there's a big special teams play that looms large in the final outcome of this one. The Vikings are the top kickoff return team in the NFL with Kene Nwangwu averaging 41.3 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns over his last five games. Detroit ranks sixth in kickoff coverage, allowing on average just 19.3 yards per game.
The Lions rank fifth in the league with an 11.6-yard return average. Kalif Raymond's 48-yard punt return in Pittsburgh is the longest in the NFL this season and his 12.3-yard average ranks third in the league. There hasn't been a punt return touchdown in the NFL all year. It's the first time since 1960 the league has gone into the month of December without a punt return for a score, per former Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin. Minnesota has the sixth best punt coverage unit in the league (6.8 yards per return).
Which special teams unit can make a difference-making play in this one?
5. LACKLUSTER PASS RUSH
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has to find a way to spark Detroit's pass rush. The Lions have just 16 sacks on the year, the second fewest in the league (Atlanta, 15), and they've only gotten to the quarterback twice in the last five games.
For comparison, the Vikings lead the NFL with more than double Detroit's total with 33. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions on the year with a 105.3 passer rating. The Lions can't let him stand back there and find Jefferson and Adam Thielen at his leisure all game. It will be a long afternoon for the defense if they can't find a way to speed up his clock and get some pressure on him.