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Vikings-Lions Preview: Minnesota Knows Winless Detroit Can't Be Taken Lightly

The Vikings can't just show up at Ford Field on Sunday and expect to win, and they know that.

At 0-10-1, the Detroit Lions are the NFL's lone remaining winless team. It's been a struggle all season for first-year head coach Dan Campbell with a roster that needs a ton of work.

In theory, the Vikings should be able to show up at Ford Field on Sunday and use their talent advantage to pick up a desperately-needed victory without much issue. But in this league, it doesn't work like that. And if anyone knows that, it's the Vikings themselves.

Back in Week 5, the 0-4 Lions came to U.S. Bank Stadium and nearly stunned the Vikings with a dramatic comeback. Minnesota led 16-6 late in the fourth quarter of a sloppy game, but an Alexander Mattison fumble helped Detroit take a 17-16 lead in the final minute. If not for a Greg Joseph 54-yard field goal as time expired, the Lions wouldn't be winless right now.

It's safe to say the Vikings were reminded of that game a few times this week as they prepare for the rematch against a Lions team still ravenously hungry for win No. 1.

"You can't really look at their record, because they've had so many close games," Mike Zimmer said. "I mean, we had to come back in the two-minute drill. We fumbled the ball at the end of the game when we had a chance to put it away, and then we let them score and get the two-point conversion. 

"They are very, very good at running the football. They're very good at double-teams. They're very good at pulling guys, guards and tackles ... They're really good on screens. They can push the ball down the field with some play-action passes. And defensively, they give you a lot of fronts and they're very stout. The last three ballgames they're giving up [15] points per game. They've [forced] six turnovers in the last three games. So they're playing really good."

Although some of Zimmer's comments are a bit of a stretch, he's not wrong about most of it. The Lions have played in five games decided by three points or fewer, including each of their last three. In addition to the Vikings needing a long field goal to beat them, the Ravens needed the longest field goal in NFL history — a 66-yarder by Justin Tucker in Week 3 — to avoid an upset.

The Lions have a solid run game that will pose problems even with D'Andre Swift out this week. The offensive line is what they're going to build around going forward, and Jamaal Williams is a tough, physical ballcarrier. Their defense has been playing quality, opportunistic football since the bye week, holding three straight opponents below 17 points.

So yeah, it's true: the Vikings are going to have to play well to win this game.

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"[One] thing that helps us is we’ve played them, and we had to win the game at the end, so they know how tough and physical of a game it was when we played them the first time, and it’s going to be that way this time," co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "I think the other thing that I tell them all of the time is, ‘This is the NFL. They’ve got first-round picks, they’ve got guys that are making millions of dollars every Tuesday, getting a check. They’ve got real, NFL players, so you have to respect them in that regard.’ It’s not, we can’t go schedule — I don’t want to make any college get upset at me, but you can’t go schedule a I-AA or a Division II school to come in here and just get beat. They’ve got great players on their team, so you have to respect their ability and their talent, and if we don’t play well, they will beat us."

Adding to the challenge for the Vikings is their precarious injury situation. They're going to be shorthanded on offense with no Dalvin Cook or Christian Darrisaw, and they could be without as many as five defensive starters in Detroit. The statuses of Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce, Patrick Peterson, and Mackensie Alexander are all up in the air as of now.

Throw in the Vikings' seemingly unbreakable tendency to play in close games every week — only one of their 11 games, a Week 3 win over the Seahawks, has been decided by more than eight points — and this has all the makings of a nail-biter that stresses Vikings fans out for three-plus hours.

If the Vikings show up motivated, avoid major mistakes, and let their talent shine, they should be able to win comfortably. But until they prove they're capable of doing that, it's understandable to be skeptical.

Three Vikings players to watch

  • Alexander Mattison will be making his third straight start against the Lions. Over the previous two, he averaged 149 yards from scrimmage and 1.5 touchdowns. He's going to be fed a ton of touches in this game.
  • There's no reason why Justin Jefferson, the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Month, shouldn't see double-digit targets in this game. He's proven himself to be one of the most dominant wide receivers in the NFL, and Lions don't have anyone capable of covering him. The Vikings' clearest path to victory is leaning on their talent, and I think Jefferson might just be their best player already.
  • Harrison Smith got on the board last week with his first interception of the season, and you can bet he'll be looking to add another one against Jared Goff on Sunday. Smith's ability to disguise what he's doing before the snap makes him such a dangerous all-around safety.

Three Lions players to watch

  • After Jamaal Williams, the Lions' offensive player to watch is tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is a major matchup problem with his size and athleticism. He's going to be a load for the Vikings' defense, particularly if Kendricks and/or Barr can't play.
  • Watch out for outside linebacker Charles Harris, who leads the Lions with 30 pressures and four sacks. The Vikings have to be aware of where he is at all times.
  • Top cornerback Amani Oruwariye is outmatched against Jefferson, but he has the ball skills to make Kirk Cousins pay for any errant throws. Oruwariye's five interceptions are tied for third-most in the NFL.

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