O’HARA’S FINAL THOUGHTS: Lions need to focus on closing out games

Lions-Vikings Final Thoughts: Closing out a game; elite status for Don Muhlbach; a quote to note and Random Thoughts – spark to get Kerryon Johnson rolling, Marvin Hall doing a lot with a little, sticking with my pick and more.

Cornerback Darius Slay was holding court with his usual colorful language one day recently, but he wasn’t kidding when he talked about getting off the field on third down.

“Third down is the money down,” Slay said.

When a team plays as many closes games as the Lions have in their first five games, stopping the opposition on third down is especially important. The Lions have an overtime tie with Arizona, a pair of three-point wins over the Chargers and Eagles, and losses by four points to the Chiefs and a point to the Packers.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has to be the target for the Lions’ defense today. Cousins has completed more than 75 percent of his passes in each of the last three games.

“A lot of games are one-score games,” said linebacker Devon Kennard. “Closing out a game is really important. You definitely want to make him uncomfortable, with the pass rush, but also with disrupting routes.

“Getting off the field on third down is huge.”

Stat to note: The Vikings rank 15th on offense in third-down conversion rate (26-66, 39 percent); the Lions rank 22nd on defense in third-down conversion rate allowed (30-69, 44 percent).

Muhlbach, elite company: Don Muhlbach has reached a remarkable personal milestone.

He moved into the top 100 players of all time in games when he played in his 233rd game last week against the Packers. That put him in a tie for 97th on the all-time list, and he’ll move up today to a tie for 87th in a group that includes Hall of Famers John Elway, Cris Carter and Andre Reed.

Muhlbach, 38, played his first game as a Lion in Game 9 of 2004. He was signed as an injury replacement. He was signed after a workout that was so impressive that former Lions president Matt Millen dubbed him “the Nolan Ryan of long snappers."

Muhlbach made his second Pro Bowl last season, and there’s no sign that he’s nearing the end.

“I love coming to work every day,” Muhlbach told reporters this week. “You definitely don’t take it for granted. I enjoy it every day. Im just worried about today, and then this week. We’ll take the rest of it as it comes.

“It’s been a pretty crazy trip. I’m not done yet.”

Quote to note: Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, on Cousins’ four-TD performance in last week’s win over the Eagles: “I guess Kirk answered all the questions. Every game is a statement game. You have to check the boxes every week.”

Random thoughts

On the run: My No. 1 thought for this week is that Kerryon Johnson needs something good to happen to break the door open on the running game. He had 125 yards in the loss to the Chiefs in Game 4 but his next highest rushing total was 49 yards in the opener vs. the Cardinals.

Getting some good runs early will give him confidence that he’s seeing the holes, and confidence breeds production.

Heart ... breaking?: What will be the lingering effects of the Lions’ last-play loss to the Packers? Heartbreaking is a convenient word that’s been used to describe that defeat, but the Lions didn’t play the Packers like they’d had their hearts broken by a last-minute loss to the Chiefs in the previous game.

The Lions survived the heart-check test against the Packers. They didn’t let the symptoms linger. Win or lose, expect them to do the same today.

Dome-field advantage: I’ll keep harping on this one until the Lions take advantage of playing at home. They’re 1-1 this year, with a win over the Chargers and that loss to the Chiefs. They were 3-5 last year with a 6-10 final record and 4-4 in 2017 when they missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record overall. You keep hearing how hard it is for visiting teams to play at Ford Field. And it is. But it’s not hard for them to win.

View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Agnew, triple threat: Will we see a lot more of cornerback/return specialist Jamal Agnew on offense? Probably not, but he played his first two offensive snaps of the season against the Packers and had one carry on a reverse for nine yards.

Agnew got spot duty on offense in his previous two seasons. He had one run for 17 yards last season, and two runs for nine yards and two catches for 18 as a rookie in 2017 – when he was first-team All Pro as a kick returner.

Hall passes: Wide receiver Marvin Hall has gotten big results with limited opportunities in the last two games by staying ready. He was targeted three times and caught two passes for 47 yards against the Chiefs. Against the Packers he had a 58-yard reception on his only target.

Sticking with my pick: The Lions are facing a top 10 defense that’s had their number in the past, and a hot quarterback. I’m not sold on Cousins as the answer for a full season, but he’s on a roll with help from Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Diggs. It’s a lot for the Lions to overcome in what looks like another close game.

Prediction: Vikings 23, Lions 20.

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