Beating the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Eve, the Detroit Lions won their first NFC North title in franchise history, and their first division title since winning the NFC Central in 1993.
Detroit won this game on the backs of their defense which had four interceptions on the day. Second-year safety Kerby Joseph led the way with two picks, rookie Brian Branch had one pick and should’ve had two if not for a dropped interception early, and third-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu had the game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter.
Melifonwu has been great for the Lions, taking veteran safety Tracy Walker III's spot on the defense the past few weeks. The 24-year-old safety was all over the place on Sunday with five total tackles, two sacks, two pass breakups, and the aforementioned game-sealing interception late in the game.
“I love it when it’s the defense out there to close it out,” said the third-year safety. “It’s just like put it in our hands pretty much.”
The Lions' run defense, which has been a staple of this team all season, came to play on Christmas Eve with the Vikings only having 11 carries for 17 yards on the day. Being able to run the ball with ease and stop your opponent’s run game is a recipe for success in the NFL. This Lions rebuild started with the offensive and defensive line, and those trenches have led the Lions to their breakout.
Vikings QB Nick Mullens ran up his passing yards on the day with just over 400, but his four interceptions put Minnesota in a tough spot to win. The Lions look to have star safety CJ Gardner-Johnson back next week to help out this at-times struggling secondary.
The Lions’ offense played well in spurts against a Minnesota defense that has been playing very well as of late. Despite Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ aggressive play style, the Lions offensive line gave quarterback Jared Goff plenty of time to pick apart the Vikings.
Despite Flores’ over 50% blitz rate, which is at the top of the league, the Lions offensive line only gave up one sack to the Vikings, which was crucial to getting the win.
The Lions were able to establish the run in Minnesota, running the ball over 35 times for nearly four yards per carry. Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs continued his dominance with 15 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns, adding on four catches for 20 yards.
In the air, the Lions did what they did best and got the ball to their playmakers. Third-year star wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown had a dozen catches for 106 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. The former fourth-round pick currently is third in receptions, fifth in yards, and seventh in touchdowns among all wide receivers this season.
Surging second-year wide receiver Jameson Williams is increasing his volume each week, having his second straight game with a career-high in receptions. Williams had five catches on six targets for 43 yards on Sunday.
Detroit’s current leaders in receptions are all players drafted by Brad Holmes in the past three seasons. St.Brown leads the team with 106 catches followed by rookie tight end Sam LaPorta with 74, and rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs with 51.
The Lions under Dan Campbell are now 19-6 in their last 25 games and have locked up the Lions' first home playoff game in over 30 years. The Lions' current home stadium, Ford Field, has yet to host a Lions playoff game since being built in 2002.
“I’m proud of so many people in this organization,” said Campbell. “It’s a special group, but it’s just the beginning, we feel that way.”
This playoff game will be Detroit’s first in eight seasons and a win would mean their first win in 32 seasons. For guys like veteran tackle Taylor Decker, who has been with the Lions for eight seasons, have a full grasp of what this means for the Lions.
“I honestly remember the times when we were the joke and people didn’t respect us,” Decker said while holding back tears. “I can’t say enough about my appreciation for my teammates and the coaching staff and their unwavering belief that we’re going to get this thing right.”
Detroit has clinched at worst the three-seed in the NFC playoffs and looks to improve that seed line over the next two games.
With the Eagles losing last week to the Seattle Seahawks, the Lions control their destiny in terms of moving up to the two-seed in the NFC. If the Lions win both of their two remaining games (at Dallas and at home against the Vikings) they will be at worst the two-seed having beat the Cowboys who hold a win over the Eagles.
As far as competing for the one-seed and the bye in the NFC, the Lions got some help on Christmas night with the Ravens defeating the 49ers 33-19 in Santa Clara. The Lions would not have the tiebreaker over San Francisco as they would over Philadelphia, so they will need the 49ers to lose one of their remaining two games to have a shot at the bye week.
The 49ers play at Washington this upcoming week, and at home against the Los Angeles Rams in the final week of the season. Although a loss against a weak Commanders team is unlikely, the Rams have been playing elite football as of late and may be fighting for their playoff lives in week 18 against the 49ers.
However, to move up a seed or two in the NFC the Lions must go into Dallas and beat the Cowboys on Saturday night. The Cowboys at home are unbeaten in seven games this season and have run many teams off the field.
“Obviously we got the home playoff game, we got the division,” said veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone. “Now we have a huge game next week, an away game, that we have to go out and do what we have to do to get the win.”
The Cowboys are now on a two-game losing streak after losing in Buffalo and Miami the past two weeks.
This upcoming Saturday Night Football game in Dallas should be interesting with the Cowboys' top-5 pass defense up against the Lions' top-5 pass offense. However, both teams do have a mismatch in this contest.
For the Cowboys, they currently have the number five passing offense in the league, while the Lions have the ninth-worst passing defense in the NFL. This has been a worry for Lions fans looking at this game all season, but the possible return of Gardner-Johnson could help the Lions greatly in this contest.
For the Lions, their mismatch is in the run game. The Lions have the third-best rushing offense in the NFL this season, with the Cowboys sitting a few spots under the middle of the league in rushing defense. The Lions will have to continue to dominate the trenches and play their style of game to win this game.
Although for Lions fans the NFC North title celebration doesn’t look to be ending any time soon, the Lions players and coaches look to move on quickly and get to focusing on moving up in playoff seeding.
Image 1 Credit: Matt Krohn, USA TODAY Sports
Image 2 Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA TODAY Sports
Image 3 Credit: Stephen Maturen, Getty Images
Image 4 Credit: Matt Krohn, USA TODAY Sports
Edited by: Victoria Muzio
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