DETROIT — Cornelius Washington thought about the question for a second: Will Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings ultimately decide who wins the NFC North?
“Do we need that to win the division?” Washington turned and asked a team staffer standing nearby.
“It’d be helpful,” the staffer said earnestly.
“Yeah,” Washington said. “Let’s go with that.”
The Lions aren’t quite in must-win territory this week against the first-place Vikings, but you don’t need to be Vince Lombardi to know what’s at stake on Thanksgiving.
Win, and the Lions have a legitimate chance to win their first division title in 24 years. Lose, and their NFC North chances will look a lot like that turkey sitting in your freezer — all but cooked.
The Vikings are one of the five best teams in the NFL right now, winners of six straight and the clear favorite in a division that was blown open for the taking by Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone.
They haven’t lost since Oct. 1, when they hosted the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium, and they’re coming off a convincing win over the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams.
The Lions, winners of three straight, sit two back of Minnesota in the standings, and at 6-4 remain on the outside of a crowded playoff picture. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are in pole position for wildcard spots, and the Seattle Seahawks are pushing for a playoff berth, too.
Even with the easiest remaining schedule of NFC playoff contenders, the Lions, who don’t play a team with a winning record in December, have little room for error if they’re going to reach the postseason for a second straight year.
“Everything’s on the line every week,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “That’s the most important thing to us right now, and we’ve got to come back home and get prepared and put the time in to make sure that we know what we’re doing and get ready for Thursday.”
Beating the Vikings won’t guarantee the Lions anything other than a chance at the division crown.
The Vikings (8-2) look like good bets for 11 wins no matter what happens Thursday.
They have tough road games to start December against the Falcons and Panthers, but close the season with three very winnable games at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, at the (for now) Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers, and home against the Chicago Bears.
If the Vikings win Thursday, they should get to at least 12 wins, a place the Lions will not be able to mathematically go.
That’s why Thursday’s game is crucial for a Lions team that, despite its current winning streak, hasn’t played great football of late.
The Lions beat the Bears on a late Matt Prater field goal Sunday to sweep their division road games for the first time in the Super Bowl era, but still allowed an indefensible 221 yards rushing to an offense that has no viable passing game. A week earlier, they gave up an even more disturbing 201 yards on the ground to the winless Cleveland Browns.
The Vikings are better offensively than both the Bears and Browns, even though they’re without stud rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the play that turned their last loss the Lions’ way.
Case Keenum is playing the best, safest football of his career. Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon have approximated Cook’s production with a timeshare in the backfield. And the Vikings have quite possibly the best defense in the NFL.
Washington, in explaining the Lions’ road success on Sunday — they’re 4-1 on the road and just 2-3 at home — said defense travels, and that’s something the Lions will be up against Thursday.
“We just got to get some (stuff) tightened up,” Washington said. “People see what you’re deficient at the week before and they run that (stuff) the next week. So that’s what we got.”
Standing in the visitor’s locker room at Soldier Field on Sunday, Washington went through the math on the division race with the help of two reporters.
If the Lions win Thursday, they’ll be a game back of the Vikings and clearly within striking distance. If they lose, they’ll fall three games behind the pace with five games to play.
November games are must-haves, he said, “so you can get to the playoffs,” and that’s especially the case this week.
“There’s no if, ands or buts about it,” Washington said. “Minnesota’s one we have to have.”
NFC NORTH STANDINGS