ALLEN PARK — It’s almost halfway through the season and the Lions will play just their second NFC North game on Sunday at the Vikings (4-3-1).
It’s huge. The Lions (3-4) are in the mix but it’s close with the Bears (4-3) and Packers (3-3-1).
It won’t be easy in the Lions’ first game without Golden Tate who was traded to the Eagles. Tate was Matthew Stafford’s go-to guy especially on third down, leading the team with 44 catches.
“I know you hate hearing it, but we have to take it one at a time. We can look at the big picture of all of it for sure, but this week’s starting off (with) a lot of big challenges. Really every week in the NFL, as we know, is a huge challenge,’’ Stafford said. “Going on the road in the division, I like to say division games count for two. You get the win and they get the loss. They’re big games. And the more you can go and win those, whether on the road or at your place, the better. We have a big stretch of them coming up and hopefully we’ll win more than we lose, and it’ll be a good situation for us.”
Five things to watch:
1. Stafford’s offense has been inconsistent this season and is coming off a bad showing in the 28-14 loss to the Seahawks. Stafford now has the added issue of making it work without Tate. “I think the biggest thing for me is just moving forward with what we have,’’ Stafford said. “That’s all I can do. I try to go out there and prepare each week whether somebody’s hurt or somebody’s traded, whatever it is, not available to play that week. Alright, let’s go be successful with what we have. And this week is no different from that standpoint.”
2. Look for TJ Jones to line up in the slot in place of Tate. Jones only has three catches in six games. He was inactive against the Seahawks with rookie Brandon Powell activated for the first time, but Powell only returned. He has yet to get his first NFL catch. It could happen in Minnesota. Powell will have to prove his worth. If he makes the most of his opportunities, he may get more targets. “I’ve played a decent amount of football with TJ, too. Brandon not as much. But, TJ is a savvy guy. He’s got a lot of great feel, he’s a smart guy,’’ Stafford said. “He’s a good blocker. He does everything you would want in a receiver. I think he and BP give us a really good element inside.”
3. Offensively the Lions will have trouble sustaining drives against the Vikings tough third-down defense which is the best in the NFL and it’s not even close. They allow just 25.5 percent of conversions. That’s 6 percentage points better than Baltimore which is No. 2. Offensively, the Lions convert 42.3 percent of their third-down chances. “Third down is a critical part all the way across the board. One of the things (the Vikings) do defensively on third down, which is so difficult, is the different looks and fronts and stunts and blitzes that they are able to run,’’ coach Matt Patricia said. “They have a bunch of combinations of overloads, walk-up, double-A gap looks, tight coverage that’s mixed in behind it. Some of that’s tight zone coverage, some of that’s tight man coverage. When you watch it, they do a great job with the timing, especially at home.’’
4. The Lions’ secondary will have its hands full with the one-two wide receiver punch of Adam Thielen (74 catches, 925 yards) and Stefon Diggs (58 catches, 587 yards). They’ve combined for 10 of the Vikings’ 16 receiving touchdowns. Cornerback Darius Slay can just handle one at a time. And don’t forget tight end Kyle Rudolph. “Now with a lot of attention going to those receivers, the tight end position is now back open and he becomes more critical. Especially I would in the you’ve-got-to-have it situations or most importantly the red area. He’s a big target down there, he’s a big catch radius guy, he’s a savvy veteran,’’ Patricia said.
5. The Lions must establish the run game early and stay with it which will be difficult because the Vikings rushing defense is among the NFL’s best. “We play these guys a bunch, they’re very good defense. They have really good players, very good scheme, very sort of diverse scheme. It’s a good challenge for us kind of every year getting to play these guys a couple times. It’s really quite the challenge,’’ offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “Really good players, really good scheme. Coach (Mike) Zimmer does a nice job with these guys. There always ready to play and they play a high level.” The Lions can’t fall too far behind at the half. The Vikings have outscored opponents in the second half 107-83.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Lions 17.