Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview the Detroit Lions-Minnesota Vikings game on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press

Know the foe

Minnesota Vikings (4-3-1)

Coach: Mike Zimmer (44-30-1 overall, 44-30-1 with Vikings)

Key players: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Latavius Murray, WR Adam Thielen, DE Danielle Hunter, S Harrison Smith

Last game: Lost to the New Orleans Saints, 30-20

Last meeting: 2017 season: Vikings won, 30-23

The buzz: Things haven’t come easy for a Vikings team trying to defend its NFC North title this year. The Vikings have lost to the best teams in conference, the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, tied their rival Green Bay Packers, and somehow got blown out at home by the Buffalo Bills. This is still a talented team, though, with top playmakers on both sides of the ball. Kirk Cousins is the NFL’s second-leading passer through eight weeks with 2,521 yards, and he has two of dynamic receivers in Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen has eight straight 100-yard receiving games. If he notches another Sunday, he’ll break Calvin Johnson’s NFL record. As dangerous as the Vikings are throwing the football, they’ve been at their best this year when they’ve had a good running game. Dalvin Cook hasn’t played since Week 4 because of a hamstring injury. If he doesn’t return Sunday, Latavius Murray will continue to work as the feature back.

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Defensively, the Vikings have a pair of disruptive edge rushers in Hunter and Everson Griffen. Hunter leads the Vikings with eight sacks, while Griffen will play his second game back Sunday after a mental health break. Both have had plenty of success against the Lions in the past. Minnesota has a strong secondary led by Pro Bowlers Smith and Xavier Rhodes, who miss the Saints game with a foot injury. Smith is big hitter and ball hawk, but the Vikings could be without linebacker Anthony Barr because of a pulled hamstring.

The Lions will win if … they finish at least plus-1 in the turnover department. OK, so in the NFL, teams usually win games when they win the turnover battle. But this statistic is especially important for the Lions since they force so few turnovers. Just one NFL team currently has fewer takeaways than the Lions, and Matthew Stafford has been particularly turnover-prone in the Lions’ losses. He threw four interceptions in a Week 1 loss to the New York Jets, lost a fumble in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers, and had two fourth-quarter turnovers last week. Stafford needs to take precious care of the ball against a good defense, and the Lions need to create an extra possession or two against a team that ranks among the NFL’s most fumble-happy this year.

The Vikings will win if …Kirk Cousins throws for 275 yards or less. Wait, what? You read that right. This is not meant as a knock on Cousins at all, but the Vikings are at their best when they take the game out of their high-paid quarterback’s hands. Cousins has thrown for more than 350 yards on three occasions this year, and the Vikings are 0-2-1 in those games. He’s thrown for less than 250 yards three times, and Minnesota is undefeated in those contests. Clearly, Cousins can fling it when necessary, but that doesn’t always comport with what the Vikings are trying to do. They want to run the ball, play good defense and control the clock, and if they’re able to do those three things, Cousins shouldn’t have to wear out his arm.

Matchup to watch: Lions CB Darius Slay vs. Vikings WR Adam Thielen

Darius Slay, the Detroit Lions are counting on you to keep Calvin Johnson’s name in the NFL record books. Thielen, as mentioned, has topped 100 yards receiving in every game this year, and if he cracks the century mark again on Sunday, he’ll break Johnson’s record for consecutive 100-yard games. Thielen is no novelty act. He’s one of the smoothest route-runners in the NFL, and he’s equally adept playing in the slot and on the outside. The Lions have traveled Slay with their opponents’ No. 1 wide receiver most of the season, and as dangerous as Stefon Diggs is, that means Slay is likely to shadow Thielen all game. Typically, teams have shied away from throwing at Slay, and have picked on Teez Tabor and Nevin Lawson instead. If that happens Sunday, the NFL’s receptions leader will have a quiet game.

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!