Inside Lions’ dramatic turnaround, Justin Fields’ chase at rushing history: NFC North notebook

I’m not sure anyone could have predicted in the first weeks of the season, with what we saw out of every team in this division except the Vikings, that three of the four NFC North teams would still be relevant in December.

The Vikings have now clinched a playoff berth, and thereby the division, with their wild, biggest-comeback-in-NFL-history victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. But then the Lions won to get them to .500 on the year. The Packers also won on Monday night over the ailing Los Angeles Rams to improve to 6-8 and now have 8% chance to make the playoffs.

Detroit has won six of their last seven. They’re riding a three-game win streak, and for all intents and purposes, is already playing playoff football. One loss would be catastrophic for the Lions’ postseason hopes. Same with the Packers. But the difference between the two is the remaining schedule.

The Lions face the Panthers on Saturday. They get the Bears and Packers to finish out the season — all teams that are below .500. Conversely, the Packers have to face three teams that are all above .500 the rest of the way, starting with the Dolphins on Christmas Day. It is entirely feasible that each team’s playoff chances are going to come down to the very last week of the season, when they face off.

They’ll need some help from other teams in the NFC, too. Mostly the Commanders.

I spent entirely too much time playing on the New York Times playoff simulator machine and it seems that if there’s one team that means more than the others when it comes to boosting both the Packers and the Lions, it’s Washington. If you’re a fan of any of the North teams, you should be rooting like heck for those guys to lose.

Lions are riding high thanks to complete football

Let’s go back to when this all started: Week 9. That was the first of six wins in seven weeks, and since then the Lions are fourth in overall DVOA. Split that up and they are seventh in offensive DVOA and 10th in defensive DVOA — both top 10 rankings. It’s taking the whole machine, but it’s finally all come together.

The offense is led by Jared Goff, who has been one of the best at taking care of the football all season. Goff has not thrown an interception in 219 consecutive passes. It’s a new franchise record for Detroit and is the longest active streak in the NFL. He’s the first Lions quarterback to go six-straight starts without producing a turnover.

The result is that Detroit is tied for eighth in overall turnover margin, sitting at +3 on the season. They’re tied for 10th in takeaways now, too, thanks to the fact that the defense has come on strong in this last stretch. And as far as forcing turnovers, they’ve actually been doing it all season. They’ve gotten at least one takeaway in every game except Week 1 against the Eagles. They’ve gotten 12 in the last seven weeks and had three games with multiple takeaways in that stretch.

Herd Hierarchy: Lions leap into Colin’s Top 10

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The defense is also being helped by the emergence of multiple rookies. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson was expected — that’s what happens when you’re the second-overall pick. Hutchinson leads the team with seven sacks. Right behind him is James Houston, who was playing for Jackson State last season. He was elevated from the practice squad for Week 12 and has tallied five sacks in four games. They are the first set of Lions rookies to each post five sacks or more in the same season.

Detroit’s rookie class ranks first in sacks with those 13 but is also first in tackles for loss with 19, tied for first in fumble recoveries (3) and is second in interceptions (5).

Helping that last stat is safety Kerby Joseph, who leads the team with three. He also leads the team with two forced fumbles. The third-round pick out of Illinois first made noise during Week 9 when he picked off Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers not once, but twice.

Even if the Lions fail to ultimately qualify for the postseason this year, their future looks bright with so many young players starting to get into a groove and a coaching staff well equipped to develop them.

Kirk Cousins could be in trouble down the stretch

Lost in the amazing 33-point comeback feat on Saturday was the fact that Minnesota went down 33-0 in the first place. It was a series of unfortunate events that led to such a hole, not least of which was the fact that the Vikings offensive line was sorely missing center Garrett Bradbury. They had gotten left tackle Christian Darrisaw back after he had missed the prior three games, but it wasn’t quite enough. Cousins was sacked seven times in the game, with a lot of them coming right up the middle and taking advantage of a vulnerable interior.

After missing the last three games, Minnesota was optimistic Bradbury was getting closer to a return. But on Saturday, he was involved in a minor car accident, and while everyone is thankfully okay, Bradbury said that he tweaked his back injury. He did not participate in Tuesday’s limited practice for the Vikings and was the only player that did not participate in any capacity.

That’s not good news for Cousins, who has to face the Giants, Packers and Bears’ defensive lines to finish out the season. None of those teams have reached notorious levels for pressure on the quarterback but on Monday night against a decimated Rams offensive line, the Packers’ defense feasted and showed what they’re capable of up front. They sacked quarterback Baker Mayfield five times and just generally harassed him all game. Green Bay will also have everything to play for. The Packers need to win out to give themselves a chance in the postseason.

Justin Fields has sights set on rushing record

Fields became just the third quarterback in history to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season, joining Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson. While Fields says that’s not going to be his goal every year going forward, with three games to go this season, he’s not far off from the NFL record set by Jackson in 2019.

“I mean, yeah, I’m already deep into this year,” Fields chuckled. “Might as well just try to go get that record. I think need, what, 206? Three games left, 70 yards a game. We’ll see what happens. Yeah, we’ll see.”

Fields is sitting at exactly 1,000 rushing yards and the record set by Jackson is 1,206. It’s a totally feasible goal and with no postseason to play for, Fields could go down in the history books in just his first season under Luke Getsy’s offense before the 2022 season is over.

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Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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