Lions, Vikings battle for first place on Thanksgiving
DETROIT (AP) — Darius Slay smiled, ear to ear, and his eyes lit up while he sat on the stool in front of his stall.
Detroit’s standout cornerback can’t wait to play on Thanksgiving with a lot at stake for a change.
The Lions will have a featured game on the holiday as usual, continuing a tradition that dates to 1934, but it will be very significant to them in the standings unlike many matchups over the past two-plus decades.
Detroit (6-4) hosts the Minnesota Vikings (6-4) in a matchup of first-place teams in the NFC North. It will be the first time the Lions are in first place on the holiday since 1993, which is also the most recent year the franchise won a division title.
"I love it," Slay said. "We know the risks, and the stakes."
If the Lions beat Minnesota for the second time this month and sweep the season series, they would win the head-to-head tiebreaker if both teams are tied at the end of the regular season.
"You can’t help but think about that," said Detroit receiver Golden Tate, who flipped into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in overtime at Minnesota in Week 9.
"The winner of the game will definitely have an advantage in the division and will be in the driver’s seat down the stretch."
If the Vikings win, they will move into first place with a favorable schedule that includes only one team that currently has a winning record.
"I don’t necessarily think this is necessarily for the division championship," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. "It’s not like it’s the last game of the season."
Here are some things to watch when Detroit and Minnesota kick off the NFL’s holiday tripleheader:
DIGGING IT: The Lions limited receiver Stefon Diggs to a season-low 6.15 yards per catch in the previous meeting, but he set a career high with 13 receptions.
"You let him catch too many and at some point in time he’s going to burn you because he’s explosive," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
"That’s an area where we’ve just got to continue to get better. There’s not a point in time where you say, `Hey, we’ll let that guy catch as many balls as he’d like."
ROLLING ROBERTS: When the Lions signed Andre Roberts in June, a month after Washington cut him, they were hoping he would compete to be their returner and possibly provide depth at receiver.
Roberts has surpassed expectations, becoming the first Detroit player to return two punts for a touchdown in a season since 2005. He has also made some clutch catches, including a 27-yard reception that set up Matt Prater’s game-tying kick as time expired at Minnesota.
BERGER THE BULWARK: One bright spot on Minnesota’s depleted offensive line has been veteran center Joe Berger, who will make his 36th straight start.
The native of Newaygo, Michigan, played at NCAA Division II Michigan Tech and went undrafted before stints with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys.
"He’s a really smart guy," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "He’s really helped me with protections. I think that’s one of the first things when you learn a new offense as a quarterback. You want to know, `How am I being protected? What are the calls?’ And he’s been awesome."
MAKING HISTORY: Detroit, which has trailed in the fourth quarter of every game, is the first NFL team to have the first 10 games decided by seven points or fewer.
SPECIAL SPECIALISTS: Detroit’s Sam Martin and Minnesota’s Jeff Locke are two of the top punters in the NFL. Martin leads the league with a net average of 45.8 yards. Locke ranks second in the NFL with 25 punts pinned inside the 20.
Last week when Minnesota was clinging to a six-point lead over Arizona late in the fourth quarter, Locke had a 72-yard punt with a friendly roll to push the Cardinals deep into their territory.
What Locke has learned to do, perhaps unlike former Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh and some of his struggling peers, is forget about mistakes.
"In the past, I might’ve been sitting on a bad punt and letting it affect the next punts," he said. "But now I’ve learned especially this year just to clear it."
Soon after Walsh missed an extra point and had a field goal blocked in the loss to Detroit, the Vikings released the former All-Pro kicker and signed Kai Forbath to replace him.
Forbath and Prater both had an extra point blocked last week. They contributed to the total of 12 extra points missed , the most in one week since the NFL merger in 1970.
Prater has been an asset for the Lions. He made a season-long, 58-yard field goal at Minnesota before the Lions won 22-16. He has also made three game-winning field goals this season with 1:29, 1:28 and 4 seconds remaining in games.