The Vikings traveled to Detroit for a Thanksgiving Day matchup a year ago having lost four of their previous five games, and knowing they needed a win at Ford Field to maintain any grasp on their playoff fate. They filed silently and sullenly out of the visitors’ locker room, having watched Lions kicker Matt Prater put a winning field goal through the uprights on the final play for the second time in 18 days.
Things couldn’t be much different for their holiday return a year later. This year’s Vikings are on a six-game winning streak, owners of an 8-2 record that has them two games clear of the Lions in the NFC North and tied for the second-best record in the conference.
The Vikings head for Detroit after holding the NFL’s top-ranked offense to seven points Sunday in a win over the Los Angeles Rams, and they don’t seem particularly perturbed with the quick turnaround after a physical game on Sunday.
“We’re winning games right now, so we’re ready to play,” defensive end Everson Griffen said on Monday. “If we had to play again today, I think we’d muster it up and be ready to play.”
For as much as has changed in a year, though, there is still this: The Vikings’ division title prospects will be much stronger if they can find a way to score a road win over the NFC North team they have had more trouble beating than any other in the Mike Zimmer era.
The Vikings’ eight-year losing streak at Soldier Field? That’s gone, after two hard-fought three-point wins in the past three years at Chicago. Minnesota has turned things around against the Green Bay Packers, too, winning three of four against the perennial NFC North standard-bearer. The Vikings snatched a division title from the Packers in Week 17 at Lambeau Field two years ago, beat Green Bay on national TV in the U.S. Bank Stadium opener last season and changed the complexion of the division when Anthony Barr’s hit broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone on Oct. 15 this year.
It’s been the Lions, doormats for so many previous Vikings coaches, who have caused recent Minnesota teams the most trouble. Bud Grant was 26-8-1 against Detroit. Jerry Burns went 8-4, Dennis Green 12-8, Mike Tice 8-0 and Brad Childress 8-1. Even Les Steckel got one of his three wins as Vikings coach against the Lions.
But after beating Leslie Frazier’s teams in four of seven meetings, the Lions have taken five of seven against Zimmer’s teams, including the past three games.
Much of that can be attributed to the Lions’ improvement. They have gone to the playoffs two of the past three years under Jim Caldwell, and are in the hunt for a postseason berth at 6-4 this season.
“It’s coaching, I guess, [and] players stepping up,” Griffen said. “The quarterback [Matthew Stafford] is playing well. They’ve got a good running game, two good running backs.”
A victory Thursday would put the Vikings up three games on their NFC North competition with five to play. It would improve their division record to 3-1, while handing the Lions their first division loss. And it would keep them out of a potential tiebreaker scenario that would feel eerily similar to last year should the Vikings lose Thursday.
If the Lions — who handed the Vikings their most recent loss with a 14-7 decision at U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 1 — win at home Thursday, they would pull within a game of the Vikings, and claim an advantage in any division tiebreaker by virtue of their third sweep of the season series in four years. While Thursday begins a three-game road trip for the Vikings that includes visits to Atlanta and Carolina, the Lions’ remaining schedule includes five games with teams (the Ravens, Buccaneers, Bears, Bengals and Packers) that are a combined 21-29.
Thursday, then, could be the line of demarcation between the Vikings having a stronghold on the division and having to sweat it out.
“It’s cool,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said of playing Detroit on Thanksgiving. “It’s one of the few games that’s on, so everybody gets a chance to see you play. I think that means you’re a pretty good team, if they put you in a Thanksgiving game.”
The Vikings, through 10 games, have been a pretty good team. They can set themselves up to be an even better one if they score a road win against the division opponent that’s turned into a peculiar pest.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: email@example.com