Lions-Vikings Final Thoughts: NFC North top contenders do battle on Thanksgiving Day; run game stats favor Matthew Stafford in QB comparison; my pick and Random Thoughts on Ziggy, Slay, Decker and more.
The way the NFC North is presently constituted, the division's top heavyweights are battling it out today at Ford Field.
It's a sign of how things change that the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings are the teams in a marquee game on Thanksgiving Day that will have an impact on the North race.
They are the leading contenders to break the grip the Green Bay Packers have had on the North.
With quarterback Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve and other key players out or playing hurt, the Packers look like faded ex-champs without even a puncher's chance to make a run at sixth division title in seven years. The Packers have dropped from 4-1 to 5-5 since Rodgers went out early in what became a 23-10 loss to the Vikings in Game 6.
At the bottom of the North, the Bears are destined to finish last for the fourth straight year and miss the playoffs for the seventh straight year and 10th time in 11 years.
That leaves the Vikings and Lions in a two-team race in a game that will decide if there still is a race.
A win by the Vikings would make their won-loss record 9-2 with a three-game lead over the Lions.
A win by the Lions would make the Lions 7-4, and put them within a game of the Vikings – and with the advantage of a sweep on the season's two games.
For the Lions, it's either game on with a win, or division hopes gone and playing for a wild card berth with a loss.
My pick: The Vikings are a solid, tough team on both sides of the ball, and they're good on special teams. They are slight favorites, and deservingly so.
But the Lions have beaten the Vikings three straight and five of the last seven. They've found a way to win this matchup, and take advantage of home-field advantage on Thanksgiving Day. They've won four straight on the holiday.
Prediction: The difference is home field and Matt and Matt – Stafford and Prater. Lions 23, Vikings 11.
QB vs. QB, on the run:** The Lions' continuing lack of success running the ball is a real issue that must be corrected, but it's a condition Matthew Stafford has operated under his entire career. It's not like he doesn't have an option to turn to when the running game is stopped.
Case Keenum has not shown he can do the same. The Vikings have been held under 100 yards rushing three times. Twice it was in losses to the Steelers and the Lions. The other time was in a win over the winless Browns.
Assist, TJ Jones: Glover Quin often has advocated for adding assists as official stats for players who don't actually make the play but help set it up.
In that regard, TJ Jones would have gotten one on Ameer Abdullah's two-yard touchdown catch in Sunday's win over the Bears. Jones executed a legal pick perfectly on Bears linebacker Christian Jones that left no defender near Abdullah when he caught Stafford's pass in the right quarter of the end zone.
"It was perfect," Abdullah said this week. "He's our unsung hero. There he was again."
In a game of highlight catches and big collisions, it was a subtle play that made a difference.
"It's something you do in practice," Jones said. "It's repetition. You have to find the perfect balance of picking the defender and deviating his path without getting interference."
Return game: The Lions will be doubly hurt with the knee injury keeping Jamal Agnew out. He's been a playmaker and decoy in his limited role on offense, and a game-breaker on returns. TJ Jones, Golden Tate and Abdullah are options to take Agnew's place on returns. Abdullah was one of the league's best on kickoff returns as a rookie in 2015.
View photos of the connections between the Lions and Vikings.
Key matchup:** Taylor Decker played a full game against the Bears after splitting time the previous week in his return to offensive left tackle for the Lions. He should be grooved to face Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who's tied for fourth in the league with 10 sacks.
Griffen had one sack in the first meeting this year, one in the Vikings' loss at home last year and none (Turkey egg?) in the Thanksgiving rematch.
Ansah answer:Defensive end Ziggy Ansah's return after missing two games with a back injury could give the pass rush the lift it needs. Ansah's had big games in big moments. Among them: 3.5 sacks on Thanksgiving Day in 2015 vs. the Eagles; two sacks vs. the Seahawks in the wild card playoff loss last year; three sacks vs. the Giants on Monday Night TV earlier this year.
Pro Bowl polling: Cornerback Darius Slay is a legit candidate to make his first Pro Bowl. He's tied with A.J. Bouye of Jacksonville for the lead among cornerbacks with four interceptions, and tied with Titans safety Kevin Byard for the lead among all players with 19 passes defensed.
A pick or highlight play in the Thanksgiving Day spotlight would add to his resume – and, incidentally, help the Lions win. Like it did last year when Slay's last-minute interception set up Prater's winning field goal.