EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings face a critical game Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium as the Lions (10-4) come to Minnesota on Christmas Eve.
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and the Vikings (7-7) are currently the No. 7 seed after the Rams (8-7) moved to the No. 6 spot by defeating the Saints on Thursday Night Football.
Minnesota has three regular season games left, all versus NFC North foes. But Sunday is essentially a must-win situation for the Vikings to keep alive their shot at winning the NFC North. A victory also would go a considerable distance toward earning a Wild Card playoff berth.
The defense will be **without cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr.**, for the first time this season. The fifth-year defensive back leads the Vikings in interceptions and passes defended playing his hybrid role of both outside corner and nickel defender.
There is a chance the team activates linebacker Jordan Hicks. His 21-day practice window opened Tuesday, and he was a full practice participant all week. Offensively, tackle Brian O'Neill and running back Alexander Mattison are both questionable and could each miss their second consecutive game.
Despite having an extra day to prepare, the Vikings final injury report isn't ideal ahead of such an important game. But O'Connell is confident that the team is looking ahead to Sunday following a sound week of practice.
"We're not in the mode right now where we are really looking backwards," O'Connell said. "You know, coulda, woulda, shoulda and all those things. It's about Sunday at 12 o'clock and knowing the challenge that we're going to have especially with this offense. And our defense knows that. They've been preparing all week and had a really good week of preparation."
Matchup to Watch: Vikings safeties versus Lions running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs
The Vikings are the only team in the NFL to have three safeties inside the top 10 of Pro Bowl voting, which is divided into free safety and strong safety categories. Camryn Bynum, Josh Metellus and Harrison Smith are pillars of Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' defense because of their versatility and playmaking abilities.
The trio faces one of their most challenging matchups of the season in a Lions offense loaded with similar versatility. Specifically, Lions running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs can flip field position and swing games.
Montgomery and Gibbs are the Lions smash-and-dash duo, comparable to the former Saints combo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara under Head Coach Sean Payton. Lions Head Coach Dan Campbell was the Saints assistant head coach and tight ends coach from 2016 to 2020 and brought a similar running back philosophy to Detroit. His vision was realized this offseason when the Lions drafted Gibbs 12th overall and signed Montgomery (a former Bear) in free agency.
The one-two punch of Montgomery and Gibbs has helped the Lions average 140.9 rushing yards per game, second-most behind only the Ravens. Gibbs averages 5.7 yards per carry, second-best in the league. His efficient running style is most dangerous on the edge. The Alabama product can pop a 30-yard run or reception on any drive.
Montgomery, a downhill and bruising runner, transforms the Lions offense by playing with pace. But he can flip a game, too. His season-long touchdown this year is 75 yards.
Defeating blocks and tackling in space will be critical on Sunday for the Vikings top tacklers, Bynum, Metellus, linebacker Ivan Pace, Jr., and Smith.
"They have a pretty balanced approach. They run the ball and control it," Smith said.
Six Points: Memorable Week 16 Quotes
O'Connell on taking it one day at a time and not looking too far ahead:
"We can look at the bigger picture all we want, but the best way to handle and feel good about the bigger picture is to have laser focus on this game. Nothing else matters. Can we go out and play a consistent game in all three phases? Can we finish out like we want to? Can we get off to a fast start and get U.S. Bank [Stadium] rolling and get the juice going in the building, because our fans have been phenomenal for us this year? Thinking back to the San Fran game, some of these games we started fast and were able to get a lead, just how the energy in that building can bring you to the finish line. But we've also got to have a mindset on playing four quarters and whether we can get a lead, or we've got to go track down that lead, it is going to be an every-man-up, all-60-minute type of battle. We know that."
QB Nick Mullens on communication with Kirk Cousins prior to games:
"I'd say a pretty good amount. We have a great relationship. I'm thankful for all that Kirk has been for this team and for me since I've been here. We talk a good bit, we talk about situations that play out through the game, talk about what plays look good on third down this week, so all sorts of stuff. He loves football, he loves talking football, he loves strategy, so he's been a great resource."
Smith on the Lions offense:
"There's not one guy you can focus on. Obviously Amon-Ra [St. Brown's] very good, [Sam] LaPorta's very good, all their backs are good. They've got some speed outside, as well. So they have a lot of guys who can make plays. It's definitely not a one-dimensional team."
Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips on Lions QB Jared Goff:
"I wish he wasn't in the division because I could really root for Jared Goff. I really enjoyed my time with him [in Los Angeles]. But what you see is, there's a reason he was the first pick in the draft as a quarterback. The arm talent, the accuracy – his ability to get the ball out in some tough situations accurately. And then they've got some weapons that, you put some people around him, and you see kind of what it can be. His growth, he's one of those guys where if you can scheme it right – and [Lions Offensive Coordinator] Ben Johnson's done a great job – if you scheme it right, he's gonna hit it every time. Kind of like I would say about Kirk [Cousins]."
Flores on Detroit's run game:
"Diverse. They've got two really good backs. Really, all their backs are good. But the one-two combo with [David] Montgomery and [Jahmyr] Gibbs, very good. Good offensive line. Good scheme. I think Ben Johnson's done a really good job of mixing zone schemes and gap schemes and putting their guys in good position. Their runners run hard, and their offensive line blocks well. Receivers block, tight ends block. It's a good overall group."
WR Justin Jefferson on chance to stop Lions from winning division title Sunday:
"We always want to take over the division, regardless of the record, regardless of anything. Especially from last year. We still have the crown; the crown hasn't been taken from us yet. These last three games are divisional games, and they're big for us. It's going to be a tough stretch these next three games, but this is what we live for."
Jefferson needs 6 yards to break Michael Thomas' record for most receiving yards in an NFL player's first four seasons. He passed Hall of Famer and Vikings Ring of Honor member Randy Moss (5,396) for second in NFL history at Las Vegas.
Hockenson already has the franchise single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 91, a number that is leading NFL tight ends this season. Hockenson has 902 receiving yards and needs 13 to set a new career best. He needs 103 to break Joe Senser's single-season Vikings record for yardage by a tight end (1,004).
Danielle Hunter on passing Vikings Ring of Honor member Jared Allen's 85.5 sacks for sixth in franchise history on the career leaderboard (includes totals before 1982 when sacks became an official NFL stat). Hunter has 15.5 through 14 games, which has already topped his previous highest single-season tally (14.5 in 2018 and 2019).
Long-time fan — love the Vikings.
Notes from my perspective:
- Coach O'Connell made the right call to go for it on third-and-inches and fourth-and-inches. Therefore, stop the blaming O'Connell. THE REASON the Vikings did not get a first down was due to execution!
- Even if you run a tush push or a QB sneak — instead of everyone tight in the box — spread the offense that creates a gap. The sure mass of humanity prevents anywhere to run.
- As aggressive as Cincy was, why not go with a hard count and draw them offside? If it doesn't work, call a timeout!
- In hindsight, the spot on second down in that series was as questionable as the third down play.
- Yes, the call was fine. The personnel was what should be the focus of blame.
- Defensively, we did not play smart or aggressive. You need to get a stop on third-and-21. On fourth-and-goal, Mixon got hit in the backfield for a loss of 1 but escapes because there was no "gang" tackle. On the 21-yard TD, EVEN IF Higgins goes up to make the catch instead of trying to swat the ball, all we needed to do was tackle him and hit him out of bounds while he was in the air and he would never had been able to get two feet down!
- On the muffed punt, even if Minnesota recovered the kick, it did not appear it even touched Jones, so it would not have mattered if Minnesota even recovered.
Vikes still have three games to either make the playoffs — or break our hearts again!!
— Mark in Indianapolis
First, I need to apologize because I was under the assumption the punt at the end of regulation was touched, based on the reaction of the players in real time, as well as the initial terminology of muffed that was later updated on the play-by-play. The ball did not touch punt returner Charlie Jones before taking the kind hop to Andrei Iosivas, so Cincinnati could have just let the ball rest instead of worrying about a Minnesota recovery. We have seen some plays where the return team has tried to field the ball in that situation but been unable to gather it, leading to a recovery by the punt team.
Mullens mentioned this week he thinks he can improve his use of cadence. A good hard count in that situation possibly could have drawn the Bengals offsides.
Hockenson initially thought he had it, but I do believe the refs spotting him short was correct, based on the four different angles I've reviewed. It was an incredible effort to get the ball that close to the line to gain. Truthfully, it's a microcosm of close ones and near misses that have been interwoven throughout this season.
The Higgins touchdown was particularly tough. It looked like Akayleb Evans was lining up the interception so much that Mekhi Blackmon, a corner who was playing more of a safety position because the Vikings went with a pressure defense with safeties, raised his arm and pointed the other direction.
Higgins elevated from the inside of Evans, so it would have been tough for Evans alone to get Higgins out of bounds since he went for the interception. An interception is the best-case scenario, and we'll never know what would have happened if the play was incomplete, but the touchdown is what absolutely can't happen. The sidelines and end lines can provide an extra layer of help to defenders if used correctly.
O'Connell was asked Friday about opponents' success on jump balls against the Vikings and said the following:
"Yeah, it's been critical. You look at some of those plays, and you've got to credit, whether it's [Courtland] Sutton or Higgins, guys that are, that's what they do," O'Connell said. "They're 50-50, elite ball trackers and finishers on the football, and even though you can be right there to make a play, I always go back to, 'What was your role and responsibility? Where is my leverage supposed to be? Where am I supposed to be in regards where my help may be to try to maximize not having it be a 1-on-1? Can we get a second Viking or multiple guys to the party over there?'
"We've had some plays made on us, and credit the quarterbacks for putting it in the spot, for those guys going and getting it and making the play, but we work the drills, we bring guys in here that we feel have good ball skills and guys that can make plays on the football when they get their ops," he added. "That's the other side of it, when we get those one or two or three turnover opportunities in the game, can we go make that play?"
I am seeing people suggesting our coach be fired. The coach has nothing to do with turnovers. I think if we could have limited turnovers to one per game in our losses, we could be undefeated right now.
It doesn't matter who calls plays, they don't all work. It comes down execution and sometimes the other team just does a better job than us.
— Jim in Dickinson, North Dakota
I feel like the heat of the moment and access to a keyboard are not always the best combinations for trying to assess the whole picture of what's going on.
What's ironic to me is all the coaching that goes in to mitigating absences of key players and keeping games close has inevitably led to some weighty moments that O'Connell has received a rash wave of criticism.
If the Vikings had been blown out in any of these one-score losses, it could have been, 'Oh, look at the injuries they've gone through at quarterback, receiver, running back and offensive line this season.'
Instead, it's been several games where every decision has been under the 30X microscope.
He's not claiming to be perfect. Nor should anyone else.
What is the status of Marcus Davenport? I was expecting him to be back by now but haven't heard any mention of him for quite a while. Is a sprained ankle going to keep him out for the rest of the season? I think he has played well when in the games, but the best ability is availability. He has been very disappointing and a waste of cap and roster space in my opinion.
— David Winger
Davenport remains on Injured Reserve, and the Vikings have not opened his 21-day observation window.
He last played in Week 6 at Chicago. He's played 118 defensive snaps across four games and three starts. He was showing some flashes of why he was a former first-round pick by New Orleans and why Minnesota wanted to sign him in free agency, but it just hasn't worked out the way the Vikings hoped.
Dear Minnesota Vikings, I Amy Ruby, a 31-year-old of Norwegian and some Swedish/Danish ancestry who has autism and Aspergers syndrome living in Southern California. I just want to say, as a Minnesota Vikings fan, I want to wish you guys a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Good luck at the Christmas Eve game vs. the Detroit Lions! Skol, Skol, Skol!
— Amy Ruby
We'll close here with this kind message from Amy. The organization appreciates everyone's support, near and far, particularly in years that have presented so many challenges.
Happy holidays and goodwill toward all.