MINNEAPOLIS – Lions-Vikings Finial Thoughts: The Lions have played their best when they ran their best; NFC North race beginning in earnest and the Lions' bottom line; one thought to beat new kickoff rules and Random Thoughts – MVP push for Vikings' Thielen; life without Golden Tate; Lions on the road and sticking with my pick:
It might be a statistical anomaly, and it might be a meaningful trend, but there is a correlation between the Detroit Lions running well early and often and winning.
They played their best ball of the season in a four-game stretch – wins over the Patriots, Packers and Dolphins with a two-point road loss to the Cowboys – and they ran their best.
The running game was productive early on in those games, and rookie Kerryon Johnson broke some of his biggest runs thus far in what has been a promising beginning to his career.
"I think there's definitely a correlation in those games," head coach Matt Patricia said. "When you can go out and run the ball in particular games, play well and control it with a play however you want to go about it – that certainly helps.
"Like I've said before, I've been in games where you may be going against the No. 1 defense, and the plan is to throw it as much as possible to control the game that way. Certainly, you want to have the flexibility to do that."
The Lions went 3-1 in a four-game stretch after starting 0-2, and they played their best ball – with wins over the Patriots, Packers and Dolphins and a loss to the Cowboys.
Here are the run stats in those four games:
Game 3 vs. Patriots: Four runs in the first six plays, gains of 3, 6, 7 and 5 yards for 21 yards. Johnson finished with 101 yards on 16 carries, and the Lions had a team total of 159 yards.
Result: Lions 21, Patriots 10.
Game 4 at Cowboys: Johnson gained 32 yards on the Lions' first offensive play. Because of a deficit that forced the Lions to throw in the second half, Johnson wound up with 55 yards on just 9 carries, and the Lions had respectable team totals of 96 yards and 4.8 yards per attempt.
Result: Cowboys win, 26-24, on a last-play field goal.
Game 5 vs. Packers: Johnson ran for 16 yards on the Lions' second play and finishes with 70 yards on 12 carries. The Lions ran for 94 yards and got three crucial short-yardage conversions by LeGarette Blount, including two for touchdowns.
Result: Lions 31, Packers 23.
Game 6 at Dolphins: Johnson ran for 24 yards on the first play, added a 71-yard run later and finished with 158 of the team's 248 rushing yards.
Result: Lions 32, Dolphins 21.
It wasn't all run-related in the other three losses – to the Jets, 49ers and Seahawks. The Lions ran for 39 and 34 yards against the Jets and Seahawks respectively, and they got so far behind against the 49ers – 33-13 at one point – that they needed a miracle to come back, pass or run.
NFC North race: The race is on in the NFC North, and all four teams are in it. The Bears are in first place with a 4-3 record, followed by the Vikings at 4-3-1, Packers at 3-3-1 and Lions at 3-4.
Starting today, the Vikings have five of their last eight games against North teams. The Lions and Bears have five of the last nine, and the Packers have just three of the last nine.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins spent his first six seasons with Washington in the NFC East, but he was well acquainted with the North from growing up in the Midwest and playing for Michigan State.
"I think it's a good division, and anybody can win it," Cousins said this week. "It's filled with good quarterback play, good defenses, good pass rushers. I think the margin is very small in all divisions, and ours is no different.
"It could come down to the last couple games of the season."
Lions in the North: At 1-0 – with a win over the Packers – they are the only team in the division without a loss or a tie. If they repeat the 5-1 division record they had last year, they will finish with a minimum of eight wins.
It might mean that 9-7 wins the North and gets a home game in the first round.
On pass-run for the Lions: The stats show what the run game means to the Lions, but it's seldom a bad idea to put the ball in Matthew Stafford's hands. He played well for five straight games before last week's loss to Seattle, and nobody did much in that game.
On missing Golden Tate: His ability to catch the ball in tight spaces and get yards after the catch will be missed, but he was never among the leaders in average yards per catch. That includes this year – 15.9 yards for Kenny Golladay, 14.9 for Marvin Jones Jr. and 11.9 for Tate.
The run game will be tested, but so will the run defense and secondary – which would have been the case if Tate remained with the Lions. Losing a football player isn't like basketball, where it affects offense and defense.
On kickoffs and rules: As Patricia said this week, special teams is one phase of the game where teams have had to make the most adjustments to new rules. On kickoffs, I'd boom it out of the end zone every time, except for isolated cases involving strategy – onside kicks being one of them.
Sticking with my pick: The Vikings were 6-2 at this point last season with Case Keenum at quarterback. They're getting better quarterback play with Cousins, but they have not played as well overall.
The Lions have the same 3-4 record as last year, and they have some of the same issues with inconsistency from game to game and quarter to quarter. The Lions won three straight a year ago, and it started on the road against the Packers – but without Aaron Rodgers. Tougher test this year, but the Lions have been a tough team to handicap.
Prediction: Vikings 26, Lions 20.