12:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: Vikings -3, Over/Under: 44.5
A key NFC North matchup will kickoff a Thanksgiving full of football, as the division-leading Minnesota Vikings travel to Ford Field to face the Detroit Lions, in what will be the second meeting between these teams this season. Few teams in the league have been as hot as the Vikings (8-2, 1st in NFC North) of late, who as winners of seven out of their last eight contests, have managed to do so while employing a backup at the Quarterback Position. Needless to say, the success they’ve enjoyed since elevating Case Keenum (64.9%, 239.3 Y/G, 7.00 NY/A, 11 TD, 5 INT) to the Starting Gig has been completely unexpected and equally remarkable. With Sam Bradford (74.4%, 191.0 Y/G, 7.13 NY/A, 3 TD, 0 INT) eventually heading to Injured Reserve with yet another knee injury, the well-traveled Journeyman stepped in for the former No. One Overall Pick and quite frankly hasn’t looked back. On his fourth team in as many years, the 29-Year Old has settled in nicely in Minneapolis, enjoying career-highs across the board, including Completion Percentage (64.9%), Yards per Game (239.3), Touchdown Percentage (4.2%), Yards per Attempt (1.9%), and Passer Rating (92.6). Furthermore, he’s appeared to become more comfortable as the season has progressed, connecting on 68.0% of his Attempts for an average of 239.8 Yards on 7.2 Yards per Attempt, with Nine Touchdowns and Five Interceptions on his ledger. The secret to his success has been the Vikings’ retooled Offensive Line, which has kept him in large part clean and upright, with the veteran Quarterback being sacked just five times, translating to a league-low 1.9% of his dropbacks. When we last saw Keenum, he was leading his side to a 24-7 statement victory over the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams, completing 27-of-38 Passes for 280 Yards and a Touchdown, including a huge, 65-Yard strike to Adam Thielen midway through the Fourth Quarter that put the game out of reach for the visiting side. While it remains to be seen if he can in fact sustain this level of play over the long haul, the fact of the matter is that this team that has had such poor luck in regards to Quarterbacks staying healthy over the last few years, appears to be in good hands. Granted, few teams are better equipped to handle playing with a Backup for a prolonged period than the Vikings, who don’t seem to mind having a Game Manager at the position. That’s because the Running Game and the Defense rank among the league’s best. Minnesota struggled mightily a year ago rushing the football primarily due to a woefully, underperforming Offensive Line, which Management made a concerted effort to bolster in the Offseason. The addition of Tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, coupled with the emergence of Rookie Center Pat Elflein has transformed this unit into one of the more underrated Position Groups in the league. In this case the numbers don’t lie; in 2016, the Running Game was a disaster, ranking dead-last in Yards (75.3) and Yards per Carry (3.2), leading to a poor Third Down Percentage (48.8%, 19th Overall) and Red Zone Percentage (46.0%, 28th Overall), but in 2017 have seen those figures improve exponentially to 123.3 Yards (8th Overall) on 4.0 Yards per Carry (18th Overall), while converting on 63.8% of their Third Downs (5th Overall) and on 57.1% of their Red Zone opportunities (11th Overall). Keep in mind that this year’s statistics have come with highly-regarded Rookie Tailback Dalvin Cook (85 Touches, 444 Total YDS, 2 TD) languishing on IR since Week Four after tearing his ACL against the Lions. And then there is the defense, which Zimmer continues to cultivate into arguably the nastiest group in the NFL. With Pro Bowlers on all levels, the Vikings have relinquished just 17.2 Points (4th Overall) on 290.5 Total Yards (5th Overall), including 212.8 versus the Pass (11th Overall) on 5.5 Net Yards per Attempt (6th Overall), and another 77.7 against the Run (2nd Overall) on 3.3 Yards per Carry (3rd Overall). Furthermore, their situational defending has been outstanding, allowing a scant 28.6% of Third Downs to be converted (1st Overall), while granting a Touchdown scored on 40.7% of Red Zone opportunities (2nd Overall). Sure, they could probably force more Turnovers (Twelve, 20th Overall), but that would be nitpicking. When these teams met earlier in the season, a 14-7 defensive slugfest that ended in defeat for Zimmer’s troops, the Defense did their job, relegating Detroit to 251 Total Yards, while sacking Matthew Stafford six times.
Meanwhile, now is the time for the Lions (6-4, 2nd in NFC North) to make their move in the NFC, which thanks to a wealth of injuries at the Quarterback Position, has left a number of Playoff Spots up for grabs. After losing three consecutive games, Detroit has managed to turn things around with three straight victories, feasting upon the softer part of their schedule, with victories over the likes of the Green Bay Packers (30-17), Cleveland Browns (38-24), and most recently the Chicago Bears (27-24). With the foremost in freefall without Aaron Rodgers, and the latter two struggling as they break in Rookie Quarterbacks, these were games that Jim Caldwell’s side simply had to have, with the rest of their schedule appearing to be less than daunting; of their final six opponents, only the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have withstood a change under Center, with their remaining strength of schedule checking in at a favorable .483. And as far as the lone opponent with a winning record, the Vikings are concerned, the Lions have already defeated them once this season, at US Bank Stadium no less, and they could be poised to do so again. Back on October 1st, Matthew Stafford and Co. survived a war of attrition with their NFC North brethren, in a game that featured just Thirty-Four First Downs, 351 Total Passing Yards, and a dreadful Six out of Twenty-Three Third Downs converted. However, the visitors managed to possess the football for a commanding 36:27, thanks to forcing three Turnovers, which rendered the home side all but inert in the Second Half. Caldwell had to have been happy with his Defense, which in addition to accumulating the three Forced/Recovered Fumbles, also made a huge stop on Fourth Down midway through the Fourth Quarter, which ended Minnesota’s only promising Drive of the Half. Case Keenum struggled on 16-of-30 Passing for 219 Yards, while Stafford and the Offense did just enough to leave with a crucial victory. Of course, a win today would mean that as Detroit moves within a game of them in the Division, they would also hold the tiebreaker if they indeed manage to finish the campaign with the same mark. Ironically, that previous meeting with their neighbors came at a cost, for the Lions departed Minneapolis with a number of injuries which really became evident during their three-game losing streak. A return to health has had as much to do with their upward turn as anything, with Stafford (63.1%, 276.0 Y/G, 6.55 NY/A, 19 TD, 5 INT) in particular receiving better protection from a revitalized Offensive Line. Like the Vikings, this team set out into the Offseason with the intent on improving their flailing group of bigs, acquiring the likes of TJ Lang and Ricky Wagner in Free Agency, greatly bolstering the Right Side of the Line, while the healthy return of Taylor Decker, who missed the first eight games of the term on Physically Unable to Perform List, rehabbing from a Torn Labrum. The Sophomore Left Tackle’s return to action is huge, considering the man who replaced him, former No. Two Overall Pick Greg Robinson, who once again has found himself completely out of his depth at Left Tackle. Since Caldwell arrived, the Offense has been predicated on a controlled, short-passing game that has largely eschewed the Run, with Stafford judiciously spreading the football to a number of Receivers. Detroit has averaged 276.0 Yards through the air (6th Overall) on 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt (13th Overall), with five different players hauling in at least twenty Receptions, led by Golden Tate (59 REC, 691 YDS, 3 TD) and Marvin Jones (38 REC, 622 YDS, 6 TD). The Defense has helped immensely, with Nineteen Turnovers (4th Overall) gifting the ball right back to their teammates on the opposite side of the ball, even returning a league-best five for scores; Detroit has forced a least Two Turnovers on six occasions thus far, with Defensive Backs Glover Quinn (50 TKL, 3 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD, 1 FR ) and Darius Slay (36 TKL, 4 INT, 15 PD), accounting for eight of them, seven of which are Interceptions. This unit figures to get a real boost as Pro Bowl Edge Rusher Ezekiel Ansah (18 TKL, 4.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR) makes his return after missing the past two games with an ailing back, forming a potentially devastating combination with Anthony Zettel (29 TKL, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR), who in just his second season in the Motor City leads the Defense in Sacks.