EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings and Lions will both hit the midway point of their seasons Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
And despite the fact that both teams are currently under .500 — Minnesota is 2-5 and Detroit is 3-4 — both teams feel as if they can be in position to contend for a playoff spot in the expanded field if they succeed in November.
Four of the Vikings next five games feature opponents who don't have a winning record entering Week 9, while Detroit has four such games in succession.
But if either team wants to go on a streak, they'll each be looking to either snap or continue a current trend.
For the Vikings, that means getting a home win for the first time in 2020, as Minnesota is currently 0-3 at an empty U.S. Bank Stadium this season.
Detroit, meanwhile, is 3-1 on the road, meaning all of its victories have come away from Ford Field.
"I think they're the only team in the NFL that's scored first in every game this year," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of Detroit's fast starts.
In team meetings this week, Zimmer emphasized the importance of winning at home and playing with an energy that has been spiked by fans in previous seasons.
"That's an important thing that doesn't show up on the stat sheet or scouting report or whatever," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. "I think we understand what it's like — going to the home games — we got so used to all the juice that comes with playing at U.S. Bank with all our fans and getting it real loud, especially as a defensive player.
"But that's just not how it is right now. We have to create our own [energy] and we haven't done a good enough job of that and we understand that and we know we're going to have to bring that," Smith added. "We can talk about it as a team and Zim' can talk about it and the coaches, but as players, that's on us. That's our responsibility. It's something we're looking to address."
Added Zimmer: "We expect this should be a heck of a football game. We're excited to get back to U.S. Bank Stadium, get the energy going and go play well on Sunday."
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
An eye on two emerging stars | By @Eric_L_Smith
The Vikings have liked what they've seen from tight end Irv Smith, Jr., in recent weeks, as the former Alabama standout has recently flashed.
Smith is tied for fourth on the team with 11 receptions and is third with 149 receiving yards. And although the 2019 second-round pick (50th overall) doesn't have a touchdown yet in 2020, he has nine catches for 135 yards in Minnesota's past three games.
The Lions also have a second-year tight end who is a key part of their offense, as T.J. Hockenson has taken a step forward in his sophomore season.
Hockenson was the No. 8 pick in 2019, but was limited to just 12 games (seven starts) as he battled injuries as a rookie. The former Iowa star played one game against the Vikings (with three catches for 32 yards) and finished his rookie year with 32 catches for 367 yards and a pair of scores.
Hockenson already has a team-high four touchdown catches in 2020 and has nearly surpassed his rookie totals with 29 receptions for 321 yards.
Zimmer said his defense will need to keep an eye on Hockenson on Sunday afternoon.
"Yeah, you know, he's really doing good. He's been a bit part of their offense," Zimmer said. "He does a good job at the top of his routes and catching the ball really well.
"He looks faster to me this year, maybe that was part of the injury issue," Zimmer added. "But he's a really good player and we're going to have to pay special attention to him as well."
Smith and Hockenson were two of four tight ends taken in the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, joining Denver's Noah Fant (20th overall) and Cincinnati's Drew Sample (52nd overall).
View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Lions during practice at TCO Performance Center.
Pressuring Detroit's passer | By @LindseyMNSports
It seems when the Lions line up, the Vikings defenders come calling.
Over 19 games against Lions QB Matt Stafford, the Vikings have sacked him 65 times, more than another team in the NFL. The 32-year-old has been sacked 366 times in 156 starts, including five last week by the Colts. Vikings fans will remember fondly the Week 9 game against Detroit in 2018, when Stafford was downed 10 times, a Vikings franchise record for a single game.
Worth noting is that Detroit placed Stafford on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, so his status heading into Sunday's game remains unclear.
Whether it's Stafford in the pocket, backup QB Chase Daniel or even third-stringer David Blough, whom the Vikings sacked five times last December, pressuring Detroit's passer could _relieve _pressure from Minnesota's secondary. The Vikings are shorthanded at cornerback, to say the least, and any help they get from the front seven could be key for Minnesota notching its first home win of 2020.
Can Cousins continue hot streak vs. Lions? | By @pcraigers
Kirk Cousins hasn't been able to find his full rhythm in 2020 the way he did in October 2019.
The quarterback, however, managed unfavorable conditions at Lambeau Field by taking what was available last week and playing virtually error free. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 160 yards, benefitting from a 50-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Dalvin Cook. Cousins' passer rating of 138.1 was a season high and wasn't inflated by late-game stats like in the season-opener against the Packers.
Now, Cousins will be back in the favorable passing conditions provided by U.S. Bank Stadium and he'll be trying to improve to 5-0 as a Viking against the Lions.
Cousins, who attended high school and college in Michigan, has gone 87-of-114 passing for 997 yards with nine scores and one interception for a passer rating of 124.8 against Detroit in his for starts with Minnesota.
The Vikings have dialed up some solid routes to defeat man coverage against Matt Patricia's squad, but Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak cautioned against over-preparing for that and not being ready for a different defense.
Cousins noted "a couple of new faces and a few of the same faces" on Detroit's defense.
"I think they do a good job with their scheme, mixing up their fronts, mixing up their coverages," Cousins said. "Now that they've been in a similar system for a few years now, I think it enables them to play with even more confidence. I think that makes a challenge for us. We'll have our hands full."
Zimmer said he believes the Lions are "much improved from what they were a year ago."
"They've got some different guys defensively, they've got a corner (Jeff Okudah) they picked the third pick in the draft," Zimmer said. "They've got [Danny] Shelton, who's big, inside. And then obviously offensively, they're very, very talented. So you know, each year is a little bit different.
"Hopefully Kirk has a good game this week," Zimmer added. "They have played a lot of man-to-man, so we'll see. Our guys are going to have to get open versus 1-on-1 coverage to help him, and we're going to have to do a good job in protection to help Kirk."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Notable Number: 270
The Vikings will see a pair of longtime former Vikings on each side of the ball Sunday.
Minnesota's defense will go against future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, who donned Purple for 123 career games in 10 seasons.
Defensive end Everson Griffen also played 10 seasons with the Vikings, tallying 147 career games in Minnesota.
Add it up and that makes 270 career games for Peterson and Griffen in Purple, which is the exact same number of games that Vikings Legend Jim Marshall played for Minnesota over an illustrious 19-year career.
Vikings Postgame LIVE
After every Vikings game this season, make sure to log onto the team's digital and social platforms to watch Vikings Postgame Live, a new streaming postgame show that will provide fans with highlights, postgame sound from Head Coach Mike Zimmer and players, analysis and much more.