Sunday begins the final quarter of the season for the Lions in what's been a disappointing year after a nice start.
The Lions began 2-0-1 but lost their next two games to Kansas City and Green Bay in heartbreaking fashion, giving up the lead in the final minutes in both contests.
Detroit could never get their season back on track from there, and they currently sit at 3-8-1 after losing five straight and eight of their last nine.
While the playoffs are off the table, Lions head coach Matt Patricia is still looking to finish the season strong. He's looking for his players to do the same thing. This is an important month of evaluation for Patricia, his coaching staff and the front office as they decide where this roster needs to go heading into next season.
For a number of players, this is a key stretch, as follows:
Running back Bo Scarbrough: The second-year back out of Alabama has been good in his three starts, averaging 4.5 yards per rush. He's brought a physical toughness to Detroit's running game that wasn't there before. In the 10 weeks before Scarbrough made his first start Week 11 against Dallas, the Lions averaged 96.2 rushing yards per game with a 3.7 average per rush.
The last three weeks those numbers have climbed to 133.7 yards per game with a 4.6 average. If Scarbrough keeps up this kind of production through the last month of the season, he'll likely earn a role in Detroit's backfield next season as a tough, physical complement to Kerryon Johnson.
Cornerback Amani Oruwariye: The rookie fifth-round pick has played well in his last two games starting for the injured veteran Rashaan Melvin. He's recorded an interception and hasn't allowed a touchdown. He had six tackles against the Bears last week. Oruwariye (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) is long, physical, and can run.
If he plays in place of Melvin this week and next, or gets an expanded role as a sub-package player in those games, Minnesota and Tampa Bay both have a talented group of receivers that will be a good test for the rookie. This last month will show where he's at in his development, and where he might fit into the mix next season.
Quarterback David Blough: Detroit's third-string quarterback had a nice NFL debut on Thanksgiving, throwing for 280 yards, two touchdowns and a late interception on a final 4th and 22 play. The Lions traded for Blough at the end of the preseason, so they've obviously had their eye on him for some time. He should get his second start Sunday. The team hasn't ruled out a return of Matthew Stafford just yet. A good last month for Blough could earn him a roster spot and backup role in 2020.
Tight end Jesse James: This isn't the role James envisioned for himself when he signed a free-agent deal with Detroit this offseason. Detroit's eighth leading receiver this season has just nine catches for 71 yards and no touchdowns. He's played a backseat role to first-round pick T.J. Hockenson all year. Tight end Logan Thomas has also been more productive (11, 120, 1). But with Hockenson now on IR, James is due for an expanded role. What will he do with it this last month?
Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson: After starting the season really strong, the fourth-year defensive tackle out of Alabama hasn't received a positive grade for any performance by Pro Football Focus in any of his last eight games. The Lions have been better against the run of late, and Robinson, 25, deserves his fair share of credit for that.
Robinson is entering free agency this offseason, and this final stretch will be his opportunity to put good tape out there and secure his future, either in Detroit or elsewhere. Robinson has 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble on the year.
DALVIN COOK UPDATE
Talented Vikings running back Dalvin Cook did not return to Minnesota's Monday night loss to Seattle after exiting early with a shoulder injury, but Cook has maintained all week that he'll be back in time for Sunday's matchup in Minnesota with the Lions.
Cook remained limited in practice Thursday, listed with a chest injury, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters Thursday he expects the league's sixth leading rusher to be on the field against the Lions and close to 100-percent health.
Cook, who has 1,046 rushing yards (4.7 average) and 12 rushing touchdowns, trails Cleveland's Nick Chubb by 129 yards for the NFL rushing lead.
Early in the week it looked like the Lions were trending to have every defensive lineman on their roster available to them on gameday Sunday for the first time this season. (Reminder: It's Week 14.)
"Really excited, man, would be the first time all year," defensive tackle Damon Harrison Sr. said earlier this week. "Hopefully, we can get everyone out there on Sunday and see what it looks like because at this point we really don't know what it looks like."
Then the practice report came out.
It showed that Da'Shawn Hand aggravated the ankle injury he's been battling through the last few weeks during Wednesday's practice, and he was a non-participant in practice Thursday and Friday. He's been ruled out for Sunday's game in Minnesota.
Rookie Austin Bryant tweaked his hip in practice Thursday and he also didn't practice Friday. He's listed as doubtful.
It's gotten to a point in this final quarter of the season where it's a fair question to ask if the Lions will ever have their full complement of players upfront available for any game this season.
KERRYON JOHNSON UPDATE
It's only been a couple days back at practice, but running back Kerryon Johnson has looked good in his return after sitting out the last six weeks with a knee injury.
"I think Kerryon has actually looked pretty good out there moving around," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said Friday. "We had an opportunity to kind of get him into some of the different team periods too, which is good and make some reads.
"(There are) some things out there that we have to get back in vision and things like that that we have to see a little bit better. But movement and stuff like that has been really good from that standpoint. It looked good."
Johnson is eligible to play Week 16 in Denver if the Lions activate him off IR with the designation to return.