NFC North champion Lions face Vikings looking to regain momentum ahead of playoffs
DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Lions won their first division title in three decades and had their hopes of possibly earning home-field advantage dashed in a seven-day stretch that brought the franchise joy and pain.
Detroit beat the Minnesota Vikings, its opponent Sunday at home, to win the NFC North two weeks ago and then lost a shot to be the conference's No. 1 seed with a setback at Dallas that ended when a successful 2-point conversion try was negated by a much-criticized penalty.
The Lions (11-5) say they're moving on and focusing on earning a momentum-building win against Minnesota (7-9) to close the regular season. Next week, the Lions will end a six-season playoff drought with their first postseason game at home since 1993.
The loss to the Cowboys on a negated 2-point pass to offensive tackle Taylor Decker helped San Francisco secure the top seed, leaving Detroit with a slim chance to earn the No. 2 seed.
If the Lions beat the Vikings as expected and the unexpected happens twice — Dallas loses at Washington and Philadelphia gets beat by the New York Giants on the road — they will bump up to the No. 2 spot, giving them a better chance of hosting two playoff games this month.
Detroit coach Dan Campbell plans to play his starters, resting only truly banged-up players, and wants to find out later in the day that the Cowboys and Eagles both lost.
“That’s why you need to win, so that you’re going to be excited to watch the games and see what happens,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to go finish out strong. We need to go out, play good clean, solid, competitive football against an opponent that is going to give us everything they’ve got.”
The Vikings' season was stunted in late October when Kirk Cousins tore an Achilles tendon, and it didn't help that star receiver Justin Jefferson was forced to miss seven-plus games with injuries, leading to three straight losses and five in a six-game stretch.
And yet, they're one of 20 teams that went into the final week in playoff contention.
Minnesota would clinch a playoff spot with a win at Detroit and losses by Green Bay and Seattle, along with a loss by Tampa Bay or New Orleans.
“We know that we have the talent on this team," said Jefferson, who has 882 yards receiving in nine games. “It’s just not our time, and there’s just things occurring that we can’t control.”
Campbell, whose gambles have become routine, went for 2 three times while playing for the win at Dallas. His first attempt was nullified on a trick play because Decker was called for illegal touching due to the officials ruling that offensive lineman Dan Skipper reported as eligible.
There’s video of Decker approaching referee Brad Allen along with offensive tackle Penei Sewell while Skipper later walks toward the official.
Allen said Skipper reported as eligible, and Skipper said he didn't say a word to the referee. Decker, meanwhile, insisted he reported as eligible.
With audio not available of the exchange, the NFL sent a video memo to all teams to remind them of the reporting rules and to say it's a player's responsibility to wipe the numbers on his jersey and to report to the referee as eligible.
“I appreciate the shot across the bow,” Skipper said.
The Vikings will start Nick Mullens at quarterback, their third starter in the last five games. Mullens passed for 411 yards against the Lions two weeks ago but threw four interceptions, prompting a switch to rookie Jaren Hall.
After Hall struggled in the first half last week, the Vikings went back to Mullens.
“Nick has been very effective moving the team,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “We’ve been very explosive as an offense when he’s been in there.”
The Lions are expecting defensive tackle Alim McNeill and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson to return. McNeill has been out for a month with a knee injury and Gardner-Johnson hasn't played since tearing a pectoral muscle in Week 2.
The Vikings are without former Detroit tight end T.J. Hockenson, who tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee when Lions safety Kerby Joseph stopped him with a low hit after a 24-yard reception in the third quarter at Minnesota two weeks ago.
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