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Lions thankful for kicker that actually performs
0:55 | NFL
Lions thankful for kicker that actually performs
Thursday November 24th, 2016

Seven wins. Seven margins of victory fewer than seven points. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks.

That’s the season in a nutshell for the Lions, who locked up a crucial 16–13 win over the Vikings on Thanksgiving and have taken control of first place in the NFC North—something that seemed practically impossible just six weeks ago after Minnesota’s fast and furious start to the season. Detroit’s win completed a sweep of the Vikings this season, and at 7–4 the Lions hold a clear advantage in a tight playoff race.

Against Minnesota in Week 9, the Lions stole a victory after a 58-yard Matt Prater field goal pushed the game into overtime, then Golden Tate issued a huge mic drop with his 28-yard touchdown reception on the first possession of the extra period. This time, it was top cornerback Darius Slay who played hero, stepping in front of Vikings receiver Adam Thielen and picking off Sam Bradford with 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter, setting up Matt Prater’s game-winning 40-yard field goal.

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The Vikings now fall to 6–5 and face plenty of uncertainty going into their final five games of the season. Last week, Minnesota halted a four-game losing streak with a 30–24 win over the Cardinals, holding Carson Palmer to just 198 passing yards and sacking him four times. Now that looks more like a fluky win against a fading Arizona squad instead of a turning point that put their season back on the upswing.

It was said plenty of times heading into this Thanksgiving Day, but rarely has there been a slate of games on the last Thursday in November featuring so many quality teams (every team in action is at or above .500 for the first time since 1935) with so many crucial playoff race implications. The first game of the day didn’t disappoint.

The first quarter was all offense—both teams opened with touchdown drives that gobbled up most of the clock in the first quarter. Stafford had complete control the first drive of the game, taking the offense 75 yards on a perfectly balanced drive with six passing plays and six rushing plays (including one Stafford scramble). He spread the ball around, completing passes ranging from two yards to 20 yards to Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr.

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The Vikings’ opening drive was nearly thwarted by two potential turnovers which were overturned after the fact. Ziggy Ansah roughed up Sam Bradford on a strip sack, but the fumble was ultimately ruled an incompletion. Immediately following that, Glover Quin intercepted a Bradford pass intended for Laquon Treadwell and returned it 71 yards, but a pass interference call on Slay brought it back, putting the Vikings on the Lions’ 15-yard line. Minnesota escaped with seven points on the board.

But after fans got their hopes up for a potentially high-scoring Thanksgiving matchup, the defense took over for an extended stretch of the action—the teams traded punts and turnovers on downs, with the Lions getting three points in the second quarter and the Vikings tying it up midway through the third.

Bradford played conservatively for the majority of the game, leaning on short passes to move the ball, but he found his stride in the third quarter, completing a 41-yard pass to Jerick McKinnon, the Vikings’ longest play of the game, which set up a game-tying Kai Forbath field goal. On the following drive, Minnesota executed a reverse to Cordarrelle Patterson for 22 yards, immediately followed by a 15-yard rush up the middle for Asiata. Another field goal at the end of that possession gave the Vikings a 13–10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

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But if nothing else, the Lions know how to execute a fourth-quarter comeback—they had done it six times so far this season entering Thursday. Stafford led the offense from its own two-yard line to get the tying field goal with 1:45 remaining, and Slay’s interception put the bow on the package.

Minnesota looked like the stronger overall team for much of the afternoon, but the Vikings lacked the big plays from defense and special teams on which they have relied so much this season. Injuries to center Joe Berger and left tackle Jeremiah Sirles certainly didn’t help, either. The Lions have yet to put together a complete game this season, and they have flirted with disaster in every single one of their wins.

The NFC North battle isn’t a done deal just yet: The Vikings host Dallas next week, but with games ahead at Jacksonville and Green Bay and at home against Indianapolis and Chicago, they have a far more favorable schedule than the Lions, who play in New Orleans, New York and Dallas in addition to hosting Chicago and Green Bay down the stretch.

The Lions might be sharing their turkey on Thursday night, but they are no longer sharing their division lead.

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