Lions no longer the turkeys on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a special occasion for Michigan sports fans. It’s a day when people around the state gather together to overeat and watch the Detroit Lions look terrible in front of a national audience. You have to admit, that’s a hard tradition to top.

However, this year things will feel a little different. When kickoff happens, Detroit should still be in contention for the North Division crown, which from what some Lions fans have told me is something that was deemed unheard of a few years ago.

Yes, it’s true. If the Lions get past Chicago today, and they should, they’ll be 6-4 and potentially be just one game behind the Minnesota Vikings.

That sets up a Turkey Day showdown at Ford Field between underachieving Detroit and the overachieving Vikings. As a Minnesota fan, I can honestly say that I never thought the Vikes would be in this situation, let alone doing it with a third-string quarterback like Case Keenum.

Minnesota’s success is just one bizarre part of the 2017 season. The other three NFC division leaders, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Rams, join the Vikings in missing the playoffs last season.

In the North, Green Bay was the preseason favorite and with quarterback Aaron Rodgers out with a broken collarbone, the Packers’ season seems pretty much over.

I know it’s hard to take for you Packers fans, but backup quarterback Brett Hundley won’t be leading you to the playoffs.

Even if by chance he does, Green Bay’s lack of a running game and shaky defense make a first-round exit an almost sure thing.

So the divisional title comes down to two teams whose postseason success leaves a lot to be desired with Minnesota’s four Super Bowl losses and Detroit’s one playoff victory during the Super Bowl era.

The question now is who is going to end up on top, not only on Thursday, but at the end of the season.

The Vikings have a tenacious defense, sitting fifth in the league in total yards per game. The plus side for the Lions is that Minnesota’s strength is against the run, whereas Detroit is a pass-oriented offense with a rushing game as an afterthought.

The Vikings’ secondary is still tough, though, and seeing as Lions QB Matthew Staf-ford has been running for his life lately thanks to a porous line, a good pass rush could give him fits Thursday.

On the other side of the ball, the Detroit secondary could be in trouble. The Lions are 25th in the league against the pass and the Vikings have clicked offensively, even with Keenum at the helm. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are skilled receivers and Kyle Rudolph is one of the best tight ends in the league.

There was some talk that Minnesota would change its starting quarterback to Teddy Bridgewater, who hasn’t played since August 2016, but that idea got squashed thanks to Keenum’s solid outing in last weekend’s win.

On paper, Detroit fans shouldn’t be wary, but considering how DeShone Kizer and the Cleveland Browns carved up the Lions defense last week, Keenum and the Vikings could have a field day.

Ultimately, I think the game will come down to special teams and that’s where the Lions win.

Detroit kicker Matt Prater is almost automatic, whereas Minnesota has the hard-to-predict Kai Forbath.

Not to mention the fact that the Lions tend to play well on Thanksgiving, winning their last four games.

As far as who wins the division, it’s going to be Minnesota. The Lions have a much more favorable schedule, and again on paper, they should be a shoo-in for their first divisional title since 1993.

However, the Vikings are playing more consistently and if they top the Rams today and the Lions on Thanksgiving, they’ll be the team to beat in the NFC. I never thought I’d type those words in a column, but here we are.

So when you sit down Thursday for your holiday meal, wherever that may be, be thankful for all that you have, and that includes a good Lions team to watch on TV. The way things are going, that may no longer be just a special occasion.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.