Five things to watch as Lions face Vikings in huge Thanksgiving matchup

Vikings hold 2-game lead in the NFC North

ALLEN PARK —  Jim Caldwell owns a 3-0 record on Thanksgiving as head coach of the Lions.

For the second straight year Detroit will face division rival Minnesota at Ford Field, the 78th Lions game on Thanksgiving.

With the Vikings (8-2) atop the NFC North, it’s a bigger division game than usual with the Lions at 6-4.

With such a short week, the emphasis is on mental preparation.

“That would be accurate, I think without question, but I’m a believer in the mental is the physical 10-to-1 any day. This great majority of this game is won and lost with those six inches between your ears,’’ Caldwell said on Wednesday. “So, it’s the focus, concentration, what you believe is what counts. But also in this kind of a game where it comes around so quickly, that that’s a huge part of it, the mental part of it because you don’t get full speed reps as many as you’d like to get on.’’

Detroit won the first matchup, 14-7, on Oct. 1 at Minnesota with the defense forcing three fumbles and keeping the Vikings offense off the field. The Lions won the time of possession battle 36:27 to 23:33.

Here are five things to watch:

1. It bears repeating week after week after week, that the Lions need their run game to flourish. Ameer Abdullah had his best run game this season (94 rushing yards, one touchdown) at the Vikings. He needs that same kind of game or better and it will be tough. The Vikings’ defense is ranked second in the NFL against the run, giving up just 77.7 yards per game.

2. Also, the Lions defense must improve at stopping the run. Over the last two games (both somehow wins) they’ve given up 423 rushing yards. Running backs Latavius Murray (412 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry) and Jerick McKinnon (367, 3.9) carry the load for the Vikings. They miss defensive tackle Haloti Ngata but must find a way to compensate for his loss. He’s not coming back this season. Others must step up.

3. Matthew Stafford needs to continue to stay hot. In the past four games he’s passed for 1,332 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception. The offense could also help itself by getting off to a faster start. In the past two games, the Lions have been down 10-0 in the first quarter. Playing from behind is tougher and, as we’ve seen before, on a rare occasion there’s just no comeback in the comeback kid, AKA Stafford. Also, in the first game on Oct. 1, Stafford was sacked six times. He needs better protection like he’s had the past few games.

4. The defensive pass rush, which has been lacking (I’m being nice) needs to get to Case Keenum. This will be his ninth start and he’s performed well. Against the Bears last week they sacked rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky just once.

5. Expect an electric atmosphere at Ford Field, it’s always like that on Thanksgiving in front of a national TV audience. The Lions, inexplicably are 2-3 at Ford Field and 4-1 on the road. No one can complain about the road results, but winning at home should be easier. Both teams are coming off a short week, but Detroit has a bit of an advantage because they didn’t have to travel on Wednesday.

PREDICTION: Lions 24, Vikings 17

(That is Caldwell with a big smile after two beat writers called him out on his abacus remark from Monday. They brought one in on Wednesday to use while asking him a question.)

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Author: Paula Pasche

Paula Pasche, a veteran sports writer, covers the Detroit Lions for her Lions Lowdown blog. She has written two books, "Game of My Life Detroit Lions" and "100 Things Lions Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" which are available at bookstores and on Amazon.com. She won first place for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists in Detroit (Class B) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was The Oakland Press 2010 Staffer of the Year.

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