DETROIT – With three games left on the regular-season schedule, the 9-4 Detroit Lions are just two wins away from earning a playoff spot in the stacked NFC. The next hurdle comes Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, a team coming off two straight victories and looking to climb back to .500 for the first time since Week 2.
Detroit is heavily favored in this matchup, not only due to a 17-3 dismantling of the Vikings in the Week 6 meeting, but also thanks to an impressive 6-1 record in Ford Field this season.
Remember, the Lions were favored against the Vikings in Week 17 last season, but a 14-13 loss dropped Detroit to 7-9 on the season. The difference in this matchup is that the Lions have something to play for. With a win, Detroit holds onto its current position as an NFC wildcard spot. But a loss will push the Lions to the outside looking in.
Game time: 4:25 p.m. FOX. LINE: Lions -7.5. O/U: 43
Here are three players that have to step up on Sunday to help the Lions cruise to their 10th win of the season.
Ezekiel Ansah -- Teddy, meet Ziggy
2014 stats: 41 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Ansah and Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater became close friends in the first meeting between these two teams in October.
Well, in Bridgewater's mind, Ziggy is probably more like a bully.
The 6'6, 278-pound defensive end put on the greatest show of his young career in Minneapolis, assisting in five sacks of Bridgewater and finishing the game with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, officially.
Now, with the rookie QB quickly gaining confidence, it will be up to Ansah and the rest of the Lions defensive line to knock Bridgewater around and disrupt an improved Vikings offense.
Over the past three weeks Bridgewater has thrown for 657 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. The 22-year-old has posted passer ratings over 115 in each of the Vikings last two wins.
Meanwhile, Ansah is busy leading Detroit's defensive onslaught in just his second season out of BYU. He leads the team with 7.5 sacks, and tops the defensive linemen with 41 tackles.
If Ansah spends as much time in the backfield with Bridgewater as he did on Oct. 12, the young gunslinger will be forced into some tight situations against a ball-hawking Lions secondary. Last time the rookie forced passes against the Lions, he threw three picks and no touchdowns en route to his worst passer rating as a pro.
Reggie Bush -- What Would Theo Do?
2014 stats: 61 rushes, 217 yards, 1 TD
When the Lions last saw the Vikings, Reggie Bush was sidelined with an injury and passed along his running back duties to Theo Riddick. Though Riddick earned just three carries throughout the afternoon, he was clearly the most explosive offensive player for Detroit, catching five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Minnesota ranks third in the NFC in passing yards allowed per game behind stout defensive units in Seattle and San Francisco. Matt Stafford got a taste of that strong Vikings secondary in October, when he threw for just 185 yards in the game, his second-lowest total of the season (183 -- Arizona).
Here's a breakdown of how ineffective the Lions' receivers were in that contest:
Golden Tate: 7 catches for 44 yards
Corey Fuller: 2 catches for 12 yards
Jeremy Ross: 1 catch for 8 yards
In other words, Stafford couldn't find any of his favorite targets open downfield. His longest completion to a wide receiver was a 15-yard strike to Tate with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
So what did the Lions do? They attacked the weak underbelly of the Vikings' defense and dumped the ball off to Riddick on short crossing routes over the middle and screen passes out to the flats. As a result, Riddick broke a 41-yard reception and finished with the most receiving yards of his career.
But after Bush returned for a Week 14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Riddick couldn't even sniff the field, it's clear that Bush will have to take over where Riddick left off against the Vikings.
Coach Jim Caldwell said that Riddick doesn't play when Bush is healthy because the two backs feature largely the same skill set. Bush, considered the starting RB for Detroit heading into the season, gained 26 yards on eight carries in his first game back and prompted questions about why the more effective Riddick was erased from the game plan.
Caldwell's message was clear: Bush is the starter, so he'll have to get the job done.
If Bush can force the Viking secondary to pinch forward by making short grabs through the air, it'll open up a rejuvenated Calvin Johnson downfield and let Stafford pick apart a solid defense.
Glover Quin -- Warning: No fly zone
2014 stats: 60 tackles, 5 interceptions, 9 passes defended
As the Lions continue to rank among the top five teams in the NFC in defending the pass, much of the credit should fall on the shoulders of 28-year-old free safety Glover Quin, who combines with James Ihedigbo to form one of the strongest safety tandems in the league.
Quin has not only picked off five passes -- one short of the NFL's leader, Tashaun Gipson -- he's also been instrumental in the rapid evolution of Darius Slay, Detroit's second-year breakout cornerback. Quin has given Slay and CB Rashean Mathis the confidence to jump routes and make plays on the ball this season, offering consistent protection over the top and developing a tendency to beat receivers to the ball.
In the last meeting with the Vikings, Quin snagged his second pick of the season, victimizing Bridgewater in the end zone on his first drive of the game. That interception not only prevented Minnesota from tying the game, it ended their only trip inside the red zone.
Quin has picked off a pass in each of the past two games for the Lions and defended three passes against the Bucs. The safety has been instrumental in the resurrection of Detroit's secondary and should erase half the field for Bridgewater Sunday.
If the Lions hold off the Vikings on Sunday, they'll improve to 10-4 on the season with a chance to with an 11th game for the first time since 1991 when they finished 12-4 and won the NFC Central Division title.