EAGAN, Minn. — It's no secret that the Vikings have had more success in odd-numbered years since Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer arrived in town.
Minnesota went a combined 24-8 in 2015 and 2017, winning the NFC North each season. But what helped those campaigns be successful was strong play within in the division, as the Vikings went a combined 10-2 against their rivals. [Minnesota went a combined 7-10-1 against the NFC North in even years of 2014, 2016 and 2018].
The Vikings appear to be on track for more success in 2019 as they are 4-2, but they haven't had any wins within the division so far.
Minnesota is 0-2 in the NFC North, having dropped road games to Green Bay and Chicago. The Vikings now have another chance for their first division win of 2019, and it comes in their final NFC North road game of the season.
"When you play in the division, it's obviously very important, and then when you go on the road, you'd love to be able to steal one," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "So, all those reasons right there are enough.
"But the old cliché, 'they all count as one,' is true, and we're trying to get them any way we can," Cousins added. "A road division game would certainly be a way to get one win."
Zimmer said earlier this week he understands the importance of this game, but doesn't want his players overhyping things.
"What we need to do is try to win each week and try to go from there, and the more wins that we can stack up the better chance that we have at the end of the year to be there," Zimmer said. "Yes, it's a division game, it's on the road, and we need to get a win, but we're just taking this like any other game like we did with the Giants, the Eagles, and so on and so forth."
The Vikings have gone winless on the road within the division twice under Zimmer — in 2014 and 2016 — and did not make the playoffs either season.
Minnesota's focus this week is on avoiding an 0-3 hole in the NFC North. A win would push the Vikings to 5-2, and keep them right in the mix for another odd-season division title.
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Let Dalvin loose | By @Eric_L_Smith
Dalvin Cook has already endured some ups and downs in his young career, but he's always found plenty of success against the Lions.
As a rookie, Cook tore his ACL in Week 4 of the 2017 season at home against Detroit. Despite playing for half the game, he had 13 carries for 66 yards and a score.
In two games in 2018 against the Lions, Cook had 26 carries for 162 yards, giving him a total of 228 rushing yards against Detroit, his highest against any opponent.
The former second-round pick is off to a blazing start in 2019, as Cook is fourth in the NFL with 583 rushing yards. He is also tied for fourth with six rushing touchdowns.
But as the Vikings offense has evolved in recent weeks, teams are finding Cook can hurt them whether he has the ball in his hands or not.
If he gets the handoff or catches a screen, Cook is a threat to go the distance. But with the Vikings running the ball so effectively so far in 2019, a fake handoff to Cook has also opened up big passing plays from Cousins to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
The Lions are allowing 133.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 27th in the league. Although Detroit features stout defensive tackles in Damon 'Snacks' Harrison and A'Shawn Robinson, the opportunities could be there for Cook on the ground.
"Just taking what they give us … the big runs are going to come," Cook said. "They might not come, but just taking what they give you so we can keep them honest. We're going to run the football.
"They know that, so we just got to take what they give us, [3, 4, or 5-yard gains], we've got to take that, go back to the huddle and just imagine they were big runs because that takes a toll on the defense," Cook added. "So, come the fourth quarter we hope they'll be wearing down enough and everything and we can make some big runs.''
Making it count in the red zone | By @LindseyMNSports
The Vikings know they could face a tough challenge if they get inside the Lions 20 on Sunday.
Detroit currently ranks fifth in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score a touchdown on just 45 percent of their trips inside the 20.
"Yeah, they'll let teams get down there in the red zone, but they bow up and make you settle for field goals," Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "We talk about it all the time – the quickest way to get beat is settling for field goals in the red zone. That's something that they do very, very well as a defense.
"They're very multiple. Obviously [Lions Head Coach Matt] Patricia coming from the [Patriots Head Coach Bill] Belichick tree, they're going to take away what we do best and, as the saying goes, kind of 'make you play left-handed.' "
The Vikings offense ranks No. 8 in the NFL in red zone success, having scored touchdowns on 12 of their 19 trips (63.16 percent) deep into their opponents' territory. In wins against the Falcons, Raiders and Eagles, Minnesota scored touchdowns on 9-of-11 attempts inside the 20-yard line. The Vikings had just a 40-percent success rate inside the red zone against the Giants, which players called unacceptable despite the win.
"When you don't come away with enough points in the red zone, many times those plays don't fall your way, and now it comes back to haunt you in the last five minutes of the game," Cousins said earlier this month. "So, we will look at how we can find touchdowns in the red zone whenever possible and not settle for field goals."
On the lines | By @pcraigers
The Vikings rebuilt offensive line looks like it will enter Sunday's game with all of its starters, including its two most-experienced players. Riley Reiff (ankle) and Josh Kline (foot) appeared on the injury report this week but did not receive designations for Sunday's game.
Minnesota was able to rely on Rashod Hill off the bench in place of Reiff and start Dakota Dozier for Kline last week.
Reiff was a Lion for four seasons before joining Minnesota in 2017, and Kline played in New England for three seasons (2013-15) during part of Detroit Head Coach Matt Patricia's time as defensive coordinator.
The experience of Reiff and Kline could come in handy against a heavy-handed Lions group that uses multiple types of fronts.
Zimmer noted Harrison's presence at defensive tackle, saying he's a "big bodied guy" and adding, "it's going to be probably a pretty physical battle."
"They do quite a bit [with their defensive front]," Zimmer said. "They'll go with a 3-4, 4-down, a bear front, a lot of different looks and give you some different looks in the secondary. They might rush three guys and drop this one guy, so there's a lot of different combinations that you could get. It's really about communication and making sure we get on the right guys."
The Vikings might not use as many defensive fronts, but they have thrown in new wrinkles this season.
A recent example from last week's game was after a delay of game penalty by the Eagles turned a third-and-4 into a third-and-9.
Zimmer initially had linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks showing Double A-gap blitz, which people across the league have come to expect from his defense, on the third-and-4. After the penalty, he went more exotic by having Everson Griffen join Barr and Kendricks in a 2-point stance between Ifeadi Odenigbo at right defensive end on the right of Kendricks and defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa on the left of Griffen and Danielle Hunter at left defensive end.
Throw in Mackensie Alexander and Harrison Smith crowding the line of scrimmage, and that's a lot of pass rushers for Philadelphia QB Carson Wentz and the offensive line to account for on the line of scrimmage.
Center Jason Kelce blocks Griffen, and left guard Isaac Seumalo blocks Barr. Kendricks zips through a big hole between Seumalo and the left tackle. Running back Jordan Howard started on Wentz's left but moved in front and to the right of the QB and was unable to double back to Kendricks.
"I felt that we've basically been lining up the same way for six years, and these teams knew exactly where we were going to be all of the time," Zimmer said this week when asked about realigning players. "And we have smart guys, so I felt like it's being able to move a couple of guys here and there or put a guy in a different position or changing alignment could help us."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Lions.
— In 18 career games against the Vikings, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been sacked 63 times (3.5 sacks per contest), including 12 just last season thanks to a franchise-record, 10-sack performance by Minnesota in Week 8. The Bears have the next-highest total, with 46 career takedowns of Stafford.
— Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks is currently tied with Harrison Smith for the team lead with seven passes defensed, having recorded two in back-to-back games against the Giants and Eagles, respectively. Kendricks also leads Minnesota in tackles with 61 (coaches' tally).
— According to nflpenalties.com, the Lions have received 234 beneficiary yards off penalties, which is the least of any team in the NFL. Detroit and Minnesota (341) both are in the bottom 40 percent of the league in the respective category. Green Bay (501) has received the most beneficiary penalty yards.
— Minnesota and Detroit will face off in the 116th all-time contest between the NFC North franchises. The Vikings lead the series with a regular-season record of 74-39-2. The teams have never met in the postseason.
"I think it's going to be a physical game. They're good up front … there's going to be a number of physical battles."
— Zimmer on needing a relentless mindset on Sunday.
The Vikings will be on a short week following Sunday's game, as Minnesota's Week 8 contest is Thursday at home against Washington. Kickoff is at 7:20 p.m. (CT).
The Vikings will wear their #PrimetimePurple jerseys, which were last worn on Thursday Night Football in 2016.
Minnesota is 6-11 all-time on Thursday night, not including Thanksgiving games. The Vikings have lost four consecutive games in primetime on Thursday night.