It's a tradition for the Detroit Lions (6-4) to play on Thanksgiving Day. But this year will differ from years past, because the Lions are contenders. Detroit currently sits on top of the NFC North, holding the tiebreaker over the rival Minnesota Vikings (6-4), their Turkey Day opponents.
The Lions started the season slowly, losing three of their first four games before winning five of the next six. What first appeared to be another woeful Lions team seems to have found their rhythm. A mundane NFC North, with the fading Packers and the sinking Bears, certainly helped.
The Minnesota Vikings have followed the opposite trajectory from the Lions. The Vikings began 2016 with five straight wins and then lost the next four before being taking out the Arizona Cardinals this past weekend. They broke their losing streak, but can they stay on track?
Minnesota has had an eventful -- even unlikely -- season. The team lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater just before the season and replaced him with the oft-injured Sam Bradford. In Bradford's first game with the Vikings, running back Adrian Peterson suffered a knee injury that would sideline him through at least November and possibly longer.
Still Bradford (2,191 yards, 12 touchdowns, 2 interceptions so far) and a stifling defense seemed to be enough. The Vikings continued to win, at least until they didn't.
Minnesota truly needed the Arizona win to stave off complete collapse, and head coach Mike Zimmer was pleased with Sunday's result. But he knows that one more W won't get them into the playoffs.
"I had 'Victory 10 Minutes,'" Zimmer said after the Cardinals win, referencing what some teams call "Victory Monday." "Now, it's time to get on to Detroit."
Zimmer knows the importance of each game, and when it's time to move on to the next and then the next. This week's NFC North battle against Detroit presents an even more important test.
The Vikings lost to the Lions in Week 9 in a back-and-forth battle that went into overtime. Both Bradford and Matthew Stafford had great outings, the former throwing for 273 yards and 1 touchdown and the latter 219 yards and 2 touchdowns. That second touchdown -- a 28-yard pass to Golden Tate in OT -- sealed the victory for Detroit, 22-16.
Every single one of the Lions' six wins this season has included a fourth-quarter comeback. Simple luck has helped, but Detroit has a knack for finding ways to win -- the Jaguars game included both a punt and interception returned for a touchdown -- and they've moved into first place because of it. If only they could spread that intensity over a full 60 minutes...
Stafford has had his ups and downs this season too, including a lackluster game Sunday. But, overall, his 2016 stat line (2,651 yards, 18 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) is pretty strong. There had even been MVP whispers back in October, though that talk seemed -- and proved -- a little premature.
This Vikings-Lions matchup should prove a worthy dish on your Thanksgiving Day menu. Will Bradford or Stafford keep their team on track for the playoffs? Can Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson top Sunday's 104-yard TD kickoff return? Will Detroit's Andre Roberts deliver another electrifying punt return? The Vikings and Lions battle it out for sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
Prediction: Minnesota Vikings 28 - Detroit Lions 24
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.
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