They have existed mostly in separate orbits, on opposite coasts, conferences and sides of the ball. Jared Goff, the California quarterback selected No. 1 overall in 2016, and Brian Flores, the pugnacious defensive coach who grew up in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood and apprenticed under Bill Belichick in New England, seem to share little to suggest each would be a prominent character in the other's back story.

But their three meetings during their shared NFL seasons have included some of the most significant days in each one's career. Their most recent matchup might have precipitated the events that brought each one to a position to determine the outcome of the 2023 NFC North race.

Goff made his third NFL start in New England in December 2016, after taking over the Rams' starting job from Case Keenum, and completed 14 of 32 passes for 161 yards and two interceptions in a loss at Gillette Stadium. By 2018, he arrived at Super Bowl LIII in command of one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses; Flores, calling New England's defensive plays in his final game before becoming the Dolphins' head coach, directed a masterpiece that secured the Patriots' sixth Lombardi Trophy and made the Rams only the second team in Super Bowl history to score just three points.

In 2020, the Rams were 5-2 heading to Miami for their last game before the bye, with Goff having posted a 102.9 passer rating in his first season with new offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell. The Rams left with a defeat so humbling, it sent them home stewing over deep questions about the future of their offense on the six-hour flight back to Los Angeles.

"Every time you tried to dictate in any way, shape or form, there was a response that was immediate and automatic," O'Connell recalled this summer. "The players all knew exactly what to do, how to attack us and then our responses to that. As coaches on the sideline, with the play clock going, you're either ready or you're not. Flo has a saying: He likes to hold the pen last. And I remember having that feeling, walking out of the stadium, he held the pen last."

Goff fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in the 28-17 loss; Pro Football Focus charged him with five turnover-worthy plays in the game. After the game, the Rams started to discuss whether they needed a change at quarterback. Three months later, they traded Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to the Lions for Matthew Stafford.

Stafford won a Super Bowl the next year for the Rams, in a run that helped turn O'Connell into one of the league's hottest coaching candidates following the 2021 season. After going 0-9-1 in his first 10 starts in Detroit, Goff directed a 75-yard touchdown drive with 1:50 and no timeouts, hitting Amon-Ra St. Brown for a touchdown as the clock expired to give the winless Lions a 29-27 victory over the Vikings that effectively sealed Mike Zimmer's fate as head coach.

Fifty-three weeks later, the Vikings were 10-2 in O'Connell's first season and in position to clinch the NFC North in Detroit. Goff's 120.7 passer rating that day in the Lions' 34-23 win remains the third-best any QB has posted against the Vikings under O'Connell. After the game, the coach ramped up his calls for a more aggressive defense, and fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell after the season ended with a wild-card playoff loss to the Giants.

Enter Flores, who has the Vikings blitzing more than any team in the NFL this season and is directing a defense that's jumped from 28th to seventh in points allowed. If Goff, who's averaged 299.3 passing yards in six career games against the Vikings, has played a part in pushing the team's last two defensive play-callers out the door, Flores might be the antidote.

According to Pro Football Focus, Goff has a 64.4 passer rating when pressured this season, having thrown eight of his 10 interceptions this season under pressure. Teams have blitzed him 152 times — the fourth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Reference — after blitzing him more than any QB in the league in 2022. Though the Lions have a healthy offensive line that's stocked with high draft picks, the Vikings might be able to slow Goff down if Flores can duplicate some of the success he's had pressuring the QB in the past.

O'Connell said he's seen Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson run some familiar concepts from his time with Goff in Los Angeles, while praising what they've done to incorporate players like rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta. He cautioned, "Sometimes it's easy to connect dots on where guys have been or previous game plans," adding, "I've seen that work out in the past; I've seen it not work out.

"It's just a matter of this 60-minute opportunity and can we play well? Can we play efficient? Can we have great communication? I do have a ton of confidence in the schemes and things that Flo and his staff put together. If we can go out and execute those things and be consistent with our execution, I do feel very confident that we will have success, but like I said, they're going to have successes in offense. They do every single week, but can you just make it a little harder on them?"

Flores said this week the last-minute scores the Vikings have allowed in recent losses like Saturday's defeat against the Bengals are "something I really take personal responsibility for. He added: "I've got to coach it better. I've got to put our guys in better position. Our guys played hard, and we need to finish better."

Whether the Vikings finish their season in the playoffs will be determined, in large part, by two games against Detroit in three weeks. If they reach the postseason, they could face the Lions again in the wild-card round.

Flores and Goff will match up this weekend for the first time since the game that might have set Goff on a path for the NFC North. Whether the Lions win their first division title in 30 years, or whether the Vikings return to the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2009, could hinge on what happens.

"[Flores] does a great job," Goff said. "You've seen bits and pieces of it. I think it's rare for it all to be in the same defense. You see a lot of defenses try different parts of what they do, but for them to do all of it is impressive. It's worked for them and it's certainly a challenge."