Every player on the Minnesota Vikings has had the same refrain this week. This is a different Detroit Lions team. No, not different like they’re good all of a sudden. And it’s not because their head coach talked about chomping on kneecaps in his introductory press conference.
No, this Lions team is literally different. Last year their head coach, Dan Campbell, was an assistant head coach with the New Orleans Saints. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn was the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was coaching defensive backs in New Orleans.
Gone are Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Complicating matters is that T.J. Hockenson, Penei Sewell, Trey Flowers, D’Andre Swift, and Jamaal Williams are listed as questionable and were limited in practice. For those keeping score at home, that’s their star tight end and linebacker, first-round offensive tackle, and both running backs.
And the most significant change, of course, is that Jared Goff will be under center.
The Lions are kind of an unknown, which feels strange to say. It also makes them harder to prepare for. Usually, they’ve been one of the few certainties in a sport full of surprises. The Vikings have won seven straight over Detroit, and Kirk Cousins is 6-0 against them. They’re the doormat team in the NFC North that isn’t a big rival like the Green Bay Packers, nor have they been a pesky pitfall like the Chicago Bears.
Normally, the Lions would be the team you’d want to play coming off a 14-7 slog of a loss to Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings are 1-3, and this should be an easy win before playing a beatable Carolina Panthers team heading into the bye week.
But Campbell’s Lions have a little, ahem, bite to them. They mounted an ill-fated late comeback against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, led the Packers 17-14 at halftime in Week 2, and were a record-setting kick away from beating the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3. Chicago’s win over them last week was the first time that Detroit didn’t put a scare into their opponents.
I’m not here to say that the Vikings should have trouble with the Lions. They’re nine-point favorites at home. But I’m seeing a troubling trend here.
The Browns, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals are all known commodities. But the Cincinnati Bengals were not, and that’s the game they should have won this year.
Stefanski was with the Vikings for two decades before Cleveland hired him as their head coach. Baker Mayfield has started for the Browns since being drafted 1-1 in 2018. They have Miles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, and they sacked Justin Fields nine times the week before traveling to Minneapolis. To paraphrase the late, great Denny Green, the Browns are who the Vikings thought they were.
The Seahawks? Well, we’re talking Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, institutions in Seattle who helped turn them into Super Bowl champions. The Legion of Boom is long gone, but it was the same cast of characters who were around for fourth-and-inches last year or the primetime loss the year before.
Arizona may not have had the winning streak Seattle did against the Vikings, but by now everybody knows what Kyler Murray can do. We all were well aware that he had a lot of weapons at his disposal, and we also have our opinions about Kliff Kingsbury.
The most alarming aspect of this is that of the teams Minnesota has played so far, the Bengals are probably the most similar to the Lions. Zac Taylor was hired in 2019, the same year Kingsbury was, but it was a lower-profile decision and people are still forming their opinions on him. Joe Burrow only played in 10 games last year due to injury, and Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase are young receivers.
The Vikings lost in Cincinnati because they started slow, took too many penalties, and left the game in the ref’s hands. They beat themselves, essentially. Or at least let the Bengals hang around long enough to beat them. However you want to view it, Minnesota should have won that game.
Now they have no margin for error after losing to the Bengals, Greg Joseph’s missed kick in Glendale, and their lack of offensive production against the Browns. Sunday’s game is a must-win. Not only that, but it’s a game where they need to put Detroit away early so that they never believe they’re in it. Because if they do, they are capable of making things interesting.
The Lions are a different team this year. They’ve become the ultimate trap team.