By Noah Trister
DETROIT (AP) — In many ways, the Thanksgiving games mark the beginning of the NFL’s stretch drive.
For the Detroit Lions, this may be the final chance to stay in the race for a division title.
The Lions host the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday in a game that should drastically alter the NFC North race.
If Minnesota wins, the Vikings would have a three-game lead atop the division, but if Detroit prevails, the Lions would be within one game and would have a head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota. Plus, Detroit has a favorable schedule after this week.
“November football and December football — everything turns up a notch. And right around Thanksgiving, it really turns up,” Detroit receiver Golden Tate said. “It’s no secret that the Vikings are playing tremendous football right now. They’re making it happen.”
Minnesota (8-2) has won six games in a row since a 14-7 loss to Detroit on Oct. 1. The Vikings enter a stretch of three straight road games against Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina, so there’s some pressure on Minnesota to open up a comfortable division lead and earn some margin for error.
“For me, teams are judged after you finish the season,” Vikings cornerback Terence Newman said. “A lot of guys want to talk about how we have strung a couple wins together. We got eight. For me, I have been doing this way too long. I know things can go south just as quick as they can go the other way.”
Last season, Minnesota started 5-0 before plummeting to an 8-8 finish.
“They do everything well,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “They’re moving the ball up and down the field. They’re making big plays. They’ve always played great defense, and their special teams are very good.”
Here are a few more things to know about Detroit’s matchup with Minnesota:
The Lions and Vikings are playing on Thanksgiving for a second straight year after Detroit won last season’s matchup 16-13. The Lions have won four Thanksgiving games in a row after dropping nine straight from 2004-2012.
THE CASE FOR KEENUM
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will make his ninth start on Thursday, having taken over after Sam Bradford’s knee trouble.
Keenum has started seven and finished eight of the team’s eight victories, but coach Mike Zimmer has so far gone week to week in confirming Keenum’s status as the starter — with Teddy Bridgewater recovered from his knee injury and looming in the background.
Keenum has taken only one sack in the past 5½ games since Lions defensive end Anthony Zettel took him down behind the line of scrimmage twice in the game at Minnesota. He has clearly grown more comfortable with his receivers and their tendencies. And vice versa.
“Him being able to create plays with his legs and move around, we understand he can do that too,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “So you know we’re trying to get open even longer for him.”
The Lions are 18-8 under Caldwell in the second half of the regular season, and their current three-game winning streak has given them a chance to chase down Minnesota for the division.
However, if Detroit falls out of the division race, a wild card looks dicey. The Lions already lost head to head against New Orleans (8-2), Carolina (7-3) and Atlanta (6-4).
GRIFFEN TRIES TO GET BACK ON SACK TRACK
Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen had his streak of eight straight games with at least one sack stopped last week against the Rams. He sat out the game before that because of a foot injury.
Now he’ll be lined up across from Lions left tackle Taylor Decker, a 2016 first-round draft pick who was out with a shoulder injury until returning to action two games ago.
Standout returner Jamal Agnew (knee) has been ruled out for Detroit, along with running back Dwayne Washington (hip). Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (back) is questionable.
Minnesota tackle Mike Remmers (concussion) is questionable.
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