The 1-3 Vikings host the 0-4 Lions this week in a game that is as must-win as must-win gets for a team that entered this season with high expectations and internally, still believes it's capable of a lot despite a frustrating start.
At 1-3, two games behind the division-leading Packers, this would be a must-win game regardless of context. Falling to 1-4 is hardly something any team can afford, even with a 17-game schedule and seven teams from each conference making the playoffs.
Add in the circumstances, and it's clear that the Vikings' season will be functionally over if they can't find a way to win this game — ideally by a comfortable margin. The Vegas line opened with the Vikings as 7.5-point favorites and is up to 9.5 or 10, depending where you look.
Let's run down all of the factors theoretically working in Minnesota's favor.
For starters, the game is at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 28-15 since it was opened in 2016. It's against the Lions, a team the Vikings have beaten seven straight times, including three straight home wins by at least 13 points.
That alone is always favorable. But we're talking about a winless Lions team — with an entirely new coaching staff — that has the second-worst point differential in the NFC and ranks 29th in the NFL in both overall DVOA and team PFF grade. They've been a bit frisky with a couple one-score losses, but the Lions have also trailed by 18 or more in three of four games and were easily defeated by both the Packers and Bears.
That's before we even get into Detroit's injury situation.
Here are some of the Lions' projected starters who are on injured reserve:
- LT Taylor Decker
- C Frank Ragnow
- DE Romeo Okwara
- WR Tyrell Williams
- CB Jeff Okudah
Their new left tackle, No. 7 overall pick Penei Sewell, is also injured and seems unlikely to play in this game. If Sewell can't play, they'll either be starting third-string tackle Will Holden or guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai at LT. They're guaranteed to start backups at center (Evan Brown) and right tackle (Matt Nelson). There's no reason why Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, and the Vikings' pass rush shouldn't feast on Jared Goff in this game.
Without Williams, the Lions' top three receivers are Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, and Amon-Ra St. Brown. That's two recent Day 3 picks and a former UDFA.
The Lions' main weapons on offense are tight end T.J. Hockenson and running backs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, all three of whom are a bit banged up this week.
And yet, Detroit's offense is its strength.
The Lions' defense has been one of the worst in the league, ranking 31st in DVOA, 32nd in PFF grade, 31st in EPA per play, and 29th in points allowed. That was before losing Okwara, their top pass rusher, to a season-ending injury last week. Okwara had 16 pressures on the season. Journeyman Charles Harris is now the only dangerous pass rusher on the roster, with 11 pressures and three sacks this year. No one else has more than five pressures in the first four games, and Trey Flowers has missed the last two games with an injury. This should be a great bounce-back spot for the Vikings' offensive line.
As a result, it should be a good game for the entire Vikings offense. Whether it's Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, or a combination of the two at running back, there should be plenty of space to work with. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen have great matchups against cornerbacks Amani Oruwariye and Bobby Price, and K.J. Osborn and Tyler Conklin won't face difficult assignments either.
The Vikings can't overlook this game. After all, the Ravens needed a 66-yard field goal to beat the Lions. As Dalvin Cook pointed out, they still have a team full of NFL players.
“You can’t let a team’s record or anything they have going on dictate how you go play or prepare for a game," Cook said. "It’s the NFL, any given Sunday you could lose to anybody. They’ve been in some close games. They had a close game vs. Baltimore. This is an NFL team, they have NFL players over there. We’ve got to prepare and get ready to go play a good football team."
At 1-3 and with their backs against the wall, it's not like the Vikings are in a position to overlook anybody anyways.
Because of the schedule, this is simply a game the Vikings have to win if they want any chance at getting back into the playoff hunt. After this, they face five straight teams who are currently 3-1, with three of those on the road. Here's a look at their next six games.
- Week 5: vs. Lions (0-4)
- Week 6: at Panthers (3-1)
- Week 7: BYE
- Week 8: vs. Cowboys (3-1)
- Week 9: at Ravens (3-1)
- Week 10: at Chargers (3-1)
- Week 11: vs. Packers (3-1)
Lose this game, and you'd have to win four of the next five just to get to 5-5. And if you're losing to the Lions at home, you're not winning four of those five games.
In fact, if the Vikings lose this game, it would not shock me if Mike Zimmer became the first NFL coach fired this season. A loss would make ownership think long and hard about making some serious changes and start looking towards 2022 and beyond.
So yeah, this is as must-win as it gets. I expect to see a fired-up Vikings team come out strong and impose its will on the outmatched Lions. If they don't, we're talking about a lost season after just five games.
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