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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Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams picked up just six rushing yards on three carries and caught two passes for one receiving yard in a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Williams had a disappointing end to his season, as he failed to register at least 40 rushing yards in his last three games after eclipsing the mark in his previous three. The 24-year-old did show flashes at times of being the perfect complement to Aaron Jones. Still, it will be interesting to see if Green Bay hands the reins to Jones next year or continues to spell him with Williams. For now, consider Williams more of a handcuff option than a complement heading into 2020.
Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones carried the ball 12 times for 56 yards and a rushing touchdown along with five catches for 27 yards and a receiving score in a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Jones was running well and would have been able to do more damage on the ground if not for the 27-0 deficit at the half. The 24-year-old finished the year tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns with 19, then added four more scores in the playoffs. He (likely) won't score this many times next year, though Jones proved he's more than just a touchdown machine, racking up career-highs in both rushing and receiving yards. He'll be among the best options in 2020 for fantasy backs in all formats.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 31 of 39 passes for 326 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions in a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. At first glance, Rodgers' stat line doesn't look so bad, though the first half was a complete struggle for him and the offense. Down 27-0 at the half, the veteran signal-caller effectively used up garbage time to post these numbers. It's a disappointing end to the season for Rodgers, though he still put up his eighth career 4000-yard season as well as his 10th season with at least 25 touchdown passes. The 36-year-old has plenty of juice left in his arm but will probably need another threat on the outside next year besides Davante Adams if Green Bay wants to make noise.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson was not targeted often, but made it count when he was called upon. Robinson hauled in both of his targets for 31 yards during their victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. His first reception was a 24-yard catch that helped the Chiefs move upfield for their second quarter comeback. However, Robinson is normally an afterthought with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce on the roster. He could have some cheap DFS value for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman was unable to make much of an impact during the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Hardman finished with one reception for eight yards. His reception was technically a jet sweep play that was a handoff on the second drive of the game. However, he drew a big defensive pass interference call that helped the Chiefs get into scoring position. Hardman is a fantastic special teams player, but won't bring much value to DFS contests for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill was able to find the end zone twice during Sunday's AFC Championship game. Hill caught five of his seven targets for 67 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. His first score was a 10-yard jet sweep handoff that counted as a reception, but regardless it was a nice way for Hill to show off his ridiculous speed. The performance of Hill in Super Bowl 54 could help make or break plenty of DFS players.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was surprisingly held in check by the Tennessee Titans during Sunday's AFC Championship contest. He caught three of his four targets for 30 yards in the win over the Titans. Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins were the players making the splash plays in this game. DFS players shouldn't be worried as Kelce should see plenty of opportunities during Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams was able to find the end zone three times last week in the Divisional Round battle with the Houston Texans. Williams continued his strong play against the Tennessee Titans in Sunday's AFC Championship game. Williams rushed 17 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. He also caught five passes for 44 yards through the air. Veteran back LeSean McCoy (illness) didn't play and rookie Darwin Thompson saw just one carry in this game. It's clear that the Chiefs trust Williams to be their lead back going forward. Look for him to make a significant impact in Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins was able to finally find the end zone for the first time since Week 1. It's been a tough season for Watkins, but at least he was able to do damage when it mattered most. Watkins hauled in seven receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. Watkins caught a 60-yard touchdown that basically sealed the Chiefs ticket to Super Bowl 54. It's been impossible to trust Watkins this season, but maybe he's finally turning the corner.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Darwin Thompson was not able to make much of an impact in the AFC Championship game on Sunday. Thompson had one rushing attempt for seven yards in the victory over the Tennessee Titans. Damien Williams continues to be the workhorse while LeSean McCoy (illness) didn't play in this one. Thompson has only two carries this postseason, so he won't be much of an option for Super Bowl 54.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was phenomenal in the AFC Championship game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. He completed 23 of 35 passing attempts for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes also had eight rushing attempts for 53 yards and a touchdown. It was a fantastic performance for Mahomes and DFS players who stuck with him despite the high price are smiling now. The Chiefs are heading to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years.
San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman (shoulder) was forced from the Conference Championship game with an injury in the second quarter, and is questionable to return. After being tackled on the play, it initially looked like Coleman sustained an elbow or arm injury, but it is now being called a shoulder injury. He remained down on the field in pain, and was eventually carted to the locker room. Raheem Mostert has taken over as the lead running back, and Matt Breida will be sprinkled in as well for as long as Coleman remains sidelined.
The San Francisco 49ers have declared TE Daniel Helm, DT Kevin Givens, LB Azeez Al-Shaair, RB Jeff Wilson Jr., CB Dontae Johnson, QB C.J. Beathard and WR Jordan Matthews inactive for NFC Championship.
The Green Bay Packers have declared FB Danny Vitale, WR Ryan Grant, OL Alex Light, RB Dexter Williams, OT John Leglue, CB Ka'dar Hollman and DB Raven Greene inactive for Conference Championships.
Updating a previous report, Tennessee Titans LB Rashaan Evans (foot) has returned to the AFC Championship game after missing time because of a foot injury.
Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz will be a candidate for a contract extension this offseason.
Fantasy Spin: Ertz has been one of the top tight ends in the NFL over the last few seasons and should be a main option in the passing game for the Eagles again in 2020. He will be a No. 1 tight end in all fantasy leagues next season.
Tennessee Titans LB Rashaan Evans (foot) suffered a foot injury during the AFC Championship game and is considered questionable to return.
Dallas Cowboys impending free-agent TE Jason Witten has not ruled out playing in 2020 and could join the New York Giants because of his connection with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, according to sources.
Tennessee Titans WR Adam Humphries (ankle) is officially active for the AFC Championship game.
Fantasy Spin: Humphries will return to the lineup for the first time since Week 13, but his role in the passing game is uncertain. He probably will see a few targets during the game but can be avoided in fantasy leagues.
The Tennessee Titans have declared DT Isaiah Mack, OG Kevin Pamphile, WR Rashard Davis, LB Reggie Gilbert, WR Darius Jennings, DT Joey Ivie and WR Cody Hollister inactive for Conference Championships.