Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) readies a throw against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Detroit Lions quarterback David Blough throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Vikings brought back little to show from a trip to one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Other than additional injuries to important players and perhaps some pride in a fourth-quarter rally in Seattle that fell a bit short, that is.
There's a reward waiting for them at home, though, with a depleted Detroit Lions team toting a five-game losing streak. The Vikings will make the playoffs if they win out, and the last quarter of the season presents an unprecedented advantage. All three NFC North foes must play this month at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 5-0 this year and 23-7 in the regular season and postseason since it opened in 2016.
Never before in team history have the Vikings had more than two intradivision home games stashed in the final four weeks of the schedule. The NFL first went to a divisional alignment in 1967.
''We need this one, and it's going to be really important the last quarter of the season, now that we're three-quarters of the way through, that we finish really strong,'' quarterback Kirk Cousins said. ''We've still got to go out and earn everything in front of us.''
Even with Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford likely to miss his fifth straight game to a back and hip injury, with undrafted rookie David Blough now manning the offense, the Vikings (8-4) ought not to relax about this game. The last time they played at home on Nov. 17, they fell behind 20-0 at halftime to a Denver team that's now 4-8, before furiously rallying for a 27-23 victory. In the third game of the 2018 season, as a 16 1/2-point favorite at home against a Buffalo team that finished 6-10, the Vikings never even began a comeback and fell 27-6.
These Lions (3-8-1) have led in every game, and each of their losses during the streak have come by eight points or fewer.
''For us, there are positives in all of it and negatives in all of it,'' coach Matt Patricia said. ''You'd certainly rather be in close games than not close games, that's for sure.''
Prior to Minnesota's 42-30 win at Detroit on Oct. 20, the Lions lost by one point to Green Bay and by four points to Kansas City after leading both of those games with less than 30 seconds to go.
''They have highly paid, highly skilled players, and we barely beat them in Detroit. Barely,' ` Cousins said. ''You'd have to be pretty clueless to ever use the word `overlook' in terms of getting ready for this one.''
Blough performed admirably in his debut on Thanksgiving Day, passing for 280 yards and two touchdowns and one late interception against a stout Chicago defense to give the Lions a spark.
''It was fun to see the guys have my back and lifting me up,'' Blough said.
Here's a closer look at the matchup on Sunday:
RUDOLPH THE RED ZONE TARGET
Kyle Rudolph, who has nine touchdown receptions in 15 career games against the Lions, has six scores plus a 2-point conversion in the last six games for the Vikings. Cousins has grown increasingly comfortable throwing passes into tight windows to the ninth-year tight end, who has made a habit of one-handed grabs in the back of the end zone.
''I take a lot of pride in trying to make the quarterback right,'' Rudolph said.
BRIGHT SPOT BO
Hampered by a knee injury to starter Kerryon Johnson, the Lions have given carries to seven running backs this season. Johnson has returned to practice, but Bo Scarbrough has been a bright spot for the offense in the meantime.
''You can see him breaking tackles at the first level, breaking tackles at the second level. He can finish the run and kind of have that punishing style,'' Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. ''I think he's just kind of brought a little bit of the mentality that we're looking for, the blue-collar guy, the physical, punishing style that you'd like to play in this division.''
The Vikings just got done playing against that punishing kind of style, and they didn't fare well, allowing a season-most 218 rushing yards to the Seahawks on 43 attempts.
''You've always got to start with stopping the run. That's going to set you up for success,'' strong safety Harrison Smith said.
Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has played only a handful of snaps in the five games since hurting his hamstring during a touchdown catch in the first quarter at Detroit. Coach Mike Zimmer said Thielen has ''a good opportunity'' to return Sunday, but if there's any question about his condition the Vikings will undoubtedly opt for caution and keep him on the sideline again.
Running back Dalvin Cook is also uncertain for the game, having departed in Seattle in the third quarter, but his injury to the collarbone area is more about pain tolerance than risk of reinjury.
''I feel good, actually better than I expected,'' Cook said. ''I'll be out there.''
Detroit wide receiver Kenny Golladay has joined Hall of Famer Randy Moss as the only two players in the last 35 years to have at least 45 receptions, average 20-plus yards per catch and score nine receiving touchdowns or more through the first 12 games of the season. Golladay needs 50 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year and give the Lions a 1,000-yard receiver for the 10th consecutive season.
SECONDARY, A PRIMARY CONCERN
The Vikings have been uncharacteristically vulnerable in pass defense this season, with two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes among the culprits. Golladay is far from the only downfield threat posed by the Lions, with Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola also needing to be accounted for. Jones had four touchdown receptions against the Vikings in the first matchup this year.
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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (calf) should have a bigger role in the Super Bowl against the 49ers after playing just 28 of a possible 66 defensive snaps in the AFC Championship due to a strained calf. "I think he feels pretty good," head coach Andy Reid said. "He didnt have a setback so that was good." That's bad news for a 49ers offense that is expected to run the ball often in the big game. Jones had 36 total tackles (23 solo), nine sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 13 games played this season. Controlling the line of scrimmage will be paramount if Kansas City hopes to slow San Francisco's ground game.
Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram (calf) said that his calf is "really good." "(I was) trying to be ready for divisional. Felt good but we just werent able to pull it out," Ingram said. Ingram was hurt in Week 16, sat out of Week 17 and had just six carries for 22 yards in the Divisional Round loss to the Titans. He was more than effective for fantasy owners in his first season in Baltimore, going for his third 1,000-yard season while also scoring 15 total touchdowns (10 rushing, five receiving). Gus Edwards and Justice Hill are more than capable of splitting the workload without Ingram, but he'll continue to carry the load in 2020 as a touchdown-dependent RB2.
Miami Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said he "fully expects" quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to return to the team in 2020. The Dolphins are expected to take a quarterback in the first round of this year's draft at No. 5 overall, with Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa the most likely outcome. However, Fitz played so well in 2019 that the Dolphins wouldn't mind having him under center for one more year while a rookie learns behind him. The 37-year-old journeyman gunslinger completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,529 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 15 games in 2019. While he can go off for big games based on the opponent, Fitz won't be anything more than a QB2 streamer if he's starting games for the Dolphins in 2020.
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said the team wants quarterback Drew Brees back as long as he wants to keep playing. "No different than its been the last few years, even though hes technically a free agent. "Its easy to take him for granted yet I dont take him for granted," Loomis said. Despite just turning 41 years old, Brees still has some juice left in the tank. He played in just 11 games due to a freak finger injury in 2019, but he still completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 2,979 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions. The ceiling won't be as high if Brees returns for another season, but he'll still have QB1 upside in the right matchups, mainly at home in the Superdome if he re-signs with the Saints.
Washington Redskins quarterback Case Keenum believes he's still capable of being a starter in the NFL, but he's not expecting to return to Washington in 2020 with Dwayne Haskins in the picture. The Redskins drafted Haskins with the 15th overall pick in 2019 for a reason. The soon-to-be 32-year-old signal-caller was impressed with the progress that Haskins made toward the end of the season. "I think Dwayne did an incredible job towards the end of the season, adapting and getting a lot better," Keenum said. "I think it's his team moving forward." Haskins has some nice weapons in Terry McLaurin, Steven Sims Jr. and Derrius Guice, but he won't be seen as anything more than an upside QB2 in fantasy drafts this fall.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (illness) won't practice on Wednesday, according to head coach Andy Reid. Robinson should have plenty of time to get healthy for the Super Bowl against the 49ers in two weeks. Aside from a huge six-catch, 172-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Raiders back on Sept. 15, Robinson has done very little this year and is buried on the receiver depth chart behind Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. In the two postseason games against the Texans and Titans, Robinson has only three catches on six targets for 35 yards. He's a long shot to return any kind of value in the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett said that he's hoping to remain with the team moving forward. "I dont know where its going to end up at but Im confident that Im going to be where I should be, which I think is Tampa," Barrett said. Things couldn't have gone any better for Barrett in his first year with the Bucs in 2019, as he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks after never having more than 5.5 sacks in a single season in his four years with the Broncos. He also added 58 total tackles (45 solo), six forced fumbles and one interception during his career year. Barrett is set to become a free agent in March, but it's unlikely that Tampa lets him get away.
New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who will be a free agent in March, intends to play in 2020, whether it's in New England or elsewhere. The Patriots project to have $28 million in salary cap space for 2020. Despite being 32 years old, McCourty is still an impact defender and allowed a completion percentage of 54.3 in 2019. His 65 straight starts also marks the third longest active streak by a defensive back, according to ESPN Stats and Information. McCourty had an interception in each of the first four games of the season. Time will tell if the Patriots bring back their eight-time captain, but McCourty could be effective in 2020 if he's forced to play elsewhere.
New England Patriots impending free-agent FS Devin McCourty intends to play in 2020.
Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford (back, hip) is 'pretty much at full health,' according to GM Bob Quinn, who adds that the team is 'totally happy and comfortable' with Stafford as their starting quarterback in 2020.
Fantasy Spin: Stafford was playing very good football prior to getting injured and looking like a borderline QB1. Assuming everything progresses as planned with his recovery he'd make a nice backup fantasy quarterback that can step in as needed.
Impending free-agent TE Hunter Henry is believed to be a candidate for the transition tag if he and the Los Angeles Chargers can't reach a long-term agreement before the start of free agency, according to sources via Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline.
Updating a previous report, former Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden verbally accepted the Jacksonville Jaguars' offer to become their next offensive coordinator Tuesday, Jan. 21.
The Jacksonville Jaguars plan to hire former Redskins head coach Jay Gruden as their next offensive coordinator, according to sources. A deal isn't officially done, but the Jaguars are very close to adding Gruden in the role. The biggest question for Jacksonville's offense heading into the 2020 season will be who is the starter under center, Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew. Leonard Fournette can be an effective bell-cow back in the backfield if he can stay healthy, while the Jags have a nice three-receiver mix in place of D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook and Chris Conley. The Jaguars finished 2019 with 341.8 yards per game, 235 passing yards per game, 106.8 rushing yards per game and only 18.8 points per game. Gruden's addition is good news for this very mediocre offense across the board.
Free-agent TE Evan Baylis (Packers), OT Cody Conway (Packers), RB Damarea Crockett (Packers), CB Kabion Ento (Packers), TE James Looney (Packers), LB Randy Ramsey (Packers), WR Darrius Shepherd (Packers), QB Manny Wilkins (Packers) and LB Tim Williams (Packers) signed Reserve/Future contracts with the Green Bay Packers Tuesday, Jan. 21. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.
Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell seems confident that the team will re-sign defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. Jacksonville wants Ngakoue back, and Caldwell said something "should be done hopefully relatively easily." He'd become one of the top pass rushers available if he hits the open market after logging 37.5 sacks, 85 quarterback hits and 42 tackles for loss in 63 games since being a third-round pick in 2016. Retaining Ngakoue is the top priority for the Jaguars this offseason as they look to build their defense back up around the ferocious pass rusher.
Jacksonville Jaguars impending free-agent DE Yannick Ngakoue is the top priority for the Jaguars this offseason, and general manager David Caldwell said he hopes the two sides will be able to reach an agreement relatively easily.
Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner (ankle, knee) will not need surgery on his ankle or knee this offseason, according to head coach Pete Carroll.
Dallas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said that linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's (neck) surgery "went well." "I feel really good about it. I feel really good about him making a full recovery and being ready to participate in everything," Jones said. The second-year linebacker should be good to go for the team's offseason workouts after missing the final five games of the 2019 season. He recorded a total of 72 tackles (43 solo), half a sack and one forced fumble in his nine games played. LVE was a beast his rookie season with 140 total tackles, and he could return to being an IDP force again in 2020 if he can just stay on the field.
Dallas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said that quarterback Dak Prescott is the team's "No. 1 priority as we go into the offseason." Despite the Cowboys missing the playoffs in 2019, Prescott wasn't the problem. He had his best season with 4,902 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his fourth year in the NFL. The Cowboys continue to reiterate that Prescott is their QB of the future, so expect a contract extension to come soon. If that doesn't happen, the franchise tag is another option to retain him for 2020. Prescott finished as the No. 3 fantasy signal-caller last season, and he'll head into the 2020 campaign as a strong high-end QB1.
New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (shoulder) underwent a shoulder procedure last week that is said to involve "not a lengthy rehab," and Edelman is expected to be ready for the team's offseason program, according to a league source. The 33-year-old was noticeably hindered by his shoulder to close out the year, but overall it was a very successful 2019 season. Edelman had 100 receptions for a career-high 1,117 yards and six touchdowns over a full season. It was the second time in his career that he reached the 100-catch mark as quarterback Tom Brady's only real trusted receiving option. Edelman's outlook may change if Brady isn't under center in 2020, but he should at least be a solid WR2 in PPR leagues.