DETROIT - It would be easy to write the Detroit Lions off as playoff contenders after Thursday’s 30-23 Thanksgiving loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
As the first half and the first drive of the third quarter played out, that’s certainly where things looked like they were headed.
The Lions aren’t as good as the Minnesota Vikings, and if they face them again they’ll surely do so on the road as a wildcard team with the Vikings playing at home as the NFC North champions.
But with Matthew Stafford at quarterback, and given the schedule ahead in the month of December, it’d be premature to think the Lions are destined to spend January at home.
Look, the Lions weren’t very good for long stretches of play Thursday at Ford Field, and they benefited from a no-call on an obvious pass interference penalty on Tavon Wilson in the third quarter. But Stafford, with one magical touchdown pass to Marvin Jones — over two defenders with 12 Vikings on the field — showed why the Lions still could make the playoffs for the third time in Jim Caldwell’s four seasons as head coach.
The Vikings scored the first 13 points Thursday, led 20-3 at one point and could have easily led by more if not for a blocked extra point and blocked field goal.
The Lions made Case Keenum look like Aaron Rodgers at times — Keenum completed 21 of 30 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another — and they had their own Keystone Cop moments. They had just 10 defenders on the field for Minnesota’s first touchdown.
But Stafford’s touchdown pass to Jones was the type of play that only a few quarterbacks in the NFL can make. He recognized the Vikings had an extra defender on the field, rushed a snap on third-and-14 and laced a beauty of a pass to Jones between two defenders down the sideline.
Jones caught the pass and skipped into the end zone, while Stafford lay on the ground in a heap of pain clutching his right ankle.
Trainers gave Stafford a heavy tape job on the sideline, but it was clear that Stafford wasn’t the same player the rest of the way. He threw a game-clinching interception on his final pass with 2:50 to play, when he couldn’t get any mustard on the ball.
The Vikings at 9-2 are almost guaranteed to win the division now. They have two tough games on the road upcoming, but should get to 12 wins given the strength of their roster and the ease of their final three games.
The Lions, at 6-4, head home in disappointment. Their run defense failed again at inopportune times, they couldn’t run the ball themselves and their offensive line remains an issue.
A wildcard isn’t the goal, nor should it be. But for the Lions, who aren’t on the same level as the top teams in the NFC — the Eagles, Vikings and Saints — it still could be in their future as disappointing as the finish was.
More observations from Thursday
- The Lions have an average offense and defense, but they have an elite special-teams unit that showed up again Thursday. A’Shawn Robinson bulldozed the interior of Minnesota’s kicking unit to block Kai Forbath’s first extra-point try, and Jeremiah Ledbetter got his hand on Forbath’s 53-yard field-goal try in the second quarter.
- Darius Slay gave fans watching at home a brief moment of excitement when he blocked Forbath’s final field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, but Slay was offsides by 2 yards and everyone in the stadium knew it (or should have). The offsides penalty gave the Vikings a first down and ended the game.
- TJ Jones also gave the Lions good field position to start the game with a 35-yard kick return, but the Lions weren’t able to capitalize on the short field that possession or after Ledbetter’s block. On both drives, the Lions went three-and-out.
- The Vikings gained 75 yards on four rushing plays to start the second half, but didn’t have much success on the ground otherwise as the Lions solved some of their defensive issues against the run in the second half. Minnesota did finish with 136 yards rushing, and Keenum scored on the type of zone-read play that’s given the Lions fits in recent weeks.
- The Lions (6-5) have three December road games. That won’t be easy to navigate, but they’re better than every team left on their schedule. They need to go at least 4-1 down the stretch to make the playoffs, and probably need 11 wins to guarantee themselves a wildcard at this point.
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