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Vikings-Lions is a clash of different rebuild approaches

The two teams took different directions and stand in slightly different spots on the NFC food chain going into Sunday's game

For two division opponents whose histories mostly pass each other in the night, the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions are now ready to play a hugely important game on Sunday. They have also played a role in shaping each other’s paths to this place.

After the 2020 season the struggling Lions tore their roster down and traded quarterback Matthew Stafford. It was general manager Brad Holmes’ plan to completely rebuild a team that had been bumbling around for years after firing Jim Caldwell. They tried to put together a winning roster around Stafford but went 6-10, 3-12-1 and 4-7 under coach Matt Patricia. Finally they accepted reality that they would be wasting Stafford’s last prime years by keeping him around through tough times and sunk to the bottom.

In 2021, a full rebuild year for Detroit, the 0-10-1 Lions beat the Vikings on a last-second touchdown pass, which ended up being one of the final nails in Mike Zimmer’s coffin. The Vikings missed the playoffs by one game and fired Zimmer at the end of the season.

Holmes’ plan has gone exactly as the Lions would have dreamed when they canned Patricia. Over the last three years they have drafted foundational pieces around quarterback Jared Goff and made huge gains from year to year, going 9-8 in 2022 and currently leading the division at 10-4.

Meanwhile the Vikings went a different direction. After firing Zimmer, they elected a “competitive rebuild” path, though it didn’t actually become rebuild-y until last offseason. For the 2022 season they made every effort to reach the heights they hoped when signing Kirk Cousins in 2018. The new regime brought back everybody and added Za’Darius Smith to the mix and took another swing at getting back to championship weekend. Ultimately they won the division but were eliminated in the first round by the New York Giants.

Along the way the Vikings and Lions crossed paths. In Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s first draft as Vikings GM he made a surprising trade in the division with Holmes to move down and pick Lewis Cine at No. 32 overall. The Lions, looking for a long-term difference-making playmaker for their rebuild, picked receiver Jameson Williams, who couldn’t play until late in the season because of an ACL tear.

Kevin O'Connell, Zygi and Mark Wilf

Kevin O'Connell talks with Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf.

The deal hasn’t worked out for either side. Cine is yet to take a defensive snap this year and Williams has just 18 career receptions.

Later in the ‘22 season, as the Vikings were racking up one-score wins, Adofo-Mensah and Holmes made another deal with Detroit sending tight end TJ Hockenson to Minnesota. Rather than signing Hockenson to a long-term contract, Detroit drafted tight end Sam LaPorta in 2023. Currently Hockenson leads the league in receptions by a tight end and LaPorta is tops in touchdowns.

LaPort was part of an offseason in which the Lions pushed the gas pedal down with hopes that they could take a massive step forward and become a Super Bowl contender in Year 3 of the full rebuild plan. They drafted running back Jahmyr Gibbs with hopes that he could be a dynamic weapon in their offense right away and sacritificed positional value and spent in free agency by signing three defensive backs and added linemen Graham Glasgow.

The Vikings did the opposite. They did not draft to fill immediate needs on defense, instead taking a receiver with hopes Jordan Addison could be a long-term partner for Justin Jefferson. They let numerous proven veterans walk, including Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson and Za’Darius Smith. They kept some veterans, including Kirk Cousins, but largely turned to unproven players in key positions.

The decision to move to inexperienced players has worked out. The Vikings have discovered young foundational players for the future i.e. Addison, Josh Metellus, Cam Bynum, Ivan Pace Jr. and Akayleb Evans and put themselves in a better place financially. But in “competitive rebuild” form, they have not matched last year’s win total and head into this week’s game with the 20th best odds to win the Super Bowl on DraftKings. The Lions, if you are wondering, are 8th.

That brings us to Sunday’s game. The Vikings and Lions are clashing at different places in their long-term plans. In Minnesota, beating Detroit would put them on the doorstep of the playoffs. It would give them a chance to argue that they overachieved for this season and overcame injuries on the back of a bunch of players who are going to be on the team going forward. They could make a case for being a resilient bunch under Kevin O’Connell that fought through losing its quarterback and developed a youth movement and culture that bodes well for the future.

The Lions aren’t looking for warm and fuzzy feelings about their direction anymore. They got that last year when Dan Campbell’s kneecap-biting bunch beat the Green Bay Packers on the final night of the season to boot the Pack out of the playoffs. This time around the Lions need to beat the Vikings to prove they belong in the same discussion as established Super Bowl contenders like the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers and more importantly they will have a chance to hunt down the Cowboys for the No. 2 seed.

The bigger implications of the two games in the final three weeks between these clubs is something we may end up looking back on in the same way we can now see the butterfly effect of the ‘22 draft or the Hockenson trade. For example, if the Lions kick the Vikings out of the postseason, it will push the Vikings up the draft board and possibly bump the Lions to better playoff position. If the Vikings win both games, the Lions will look at their successful season as more middling among contenders rather than a huge success.

There’s another question as a backdrop to this week’s contest: Where are these teams headed long term? With the Lions’ core made up presently of inexpensive stars like Amon-Ra St. Brown and Aidan Hutchinson, they can sustain a window to win with Jared Goff at quarterback over a couple of years but what happens after that? Will they be able to afford Goff and the players they have developed? Or is this suddenly an extreme win-now situation like the Cowboys or 49ers?

Will the Vikings be playing the Lions next year with Kirk Cousins back under center because they believe they can go toe-to-toe after seeing the development of young players this year? Or will they go into next year’s matchups with Detroit as underdogs because they are playing a rookie QB? Or will they trade for a veteran QB the way the Lions did. Kyler Murray, maybe?

Or is there farther to go with both rosters than we think? The Vikings showed some vulnerability against the Bengals offense last week, raising some question about whether they will need more star talent like the Cowboys and 49ers have on their defenses and the Lions’ numbers simply do not hold up against the best of the best. Detroit only has a plus-51 point differential, just 30 points ahead of the Vikings. That’s because their defense ranks 23rd in points allowed.

The Lions are resting on their top-five scoring offense. While scoring at that rate has been a prerequisite for being a Super Bowl team since the 2015 Broncos made it purely on defense, Detroit does have a long term question about that unit: How long will their offensive coordinator stick around? Lions OC Ben Johnson is being discussed in connection with every opening in the NFL and will be able to pick his spot, meaning the Lions will have to make an adjustment going forward that the Vikings do not.

On the whole these are franchises who stuck to a direction and look like their decisions paid off. But nobody raises banners or hands out rings for having decisions look like they paid off. Both teams need these games.

Huh, that sounds a bit like we could have a rivalry on our hands for years to come.