Matthew Stafford is a late-game magician. The Detroit Lions quarterback pulled off a minor miracle to send the game to overtime. Stafford got the ball at the 25-yard line with 23 seconds left. Two plays later, he was sprinting down the field to spike the ball with two seconds left, allowing Matt Prater to bang home the 58-yarder to tie the game. The Lions got the ball to open overtime and marched 87 yards on 11 plays, capped by Golden Tate’s showboating flip into the end zone on a 28-yard score.
The Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter of every single game this season. They’ve won five of those contests. Since 2011, no quarterback has more fourth-quarter comebacks than Stafford (19). It was a struggle for Stafford much of the game — including his first interception in five games — but with his back against the wall, the quarterback remained calm and made every single play necessary to win.
The Vikings will kick themselves over the lost opportunities. Minnesota missed an extra point, had a blocked field goal, came up with zero points on two red-zone drives, and allowed Stafford to get into field-goal range with no timeouts and 23 seconds remaining. The most emblematic drive of the game came after a Chad Greenway interception set up Sam Bradford at the 18-yard line. From there, the Vikings proceeded to lose 22 yards and were forced to punt. It was the first time a team punted on a drive that started in the red zone since the Rams accomplished that feat in Oct. 2011. The Rams quarterback that day: Sam Bradford.
The biggest takeaway from Pat Shurmur taking control of the offense following Norv Turner’s departure was the use of up-tempo. The Vikings jumped into no-huddle frequently Sunday. The benefit of upping the pace helped a beleaguered offensive line by wearing out an already mediocre Lions pass rush and calmed Bradford in the pocket. While Minnesota’s offense remains a herky-jerky prospect (five total yards in the second quarter), expect to see more tempo under Shurmur. Given that the new OC was still working off Turner’s game plan and playbook, it’s difficult to discern what other changes Shurmur plans to employ.
Which brings us to the reason why Minnesota’s season and offense stalled so suddenly after its bye and has stuttered since: the running game and the offensive line. While Dallas’ rookie back has 659 rushing yards before contact this season, the Vikings’ primary backs in Peterson’s absence (Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata) have combined for just 603 total rushing yards. Total! The Vikings are averaging 71.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry, both league worsts by far. (By contrast, Dallas is second in the NFL in both marks.) It’s not all the tailbacks’ fault, of course; Minnesota’s offensive line is one of the shoddiest in all of football. Already without Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, the Vikings recently lost Jake Long, who was having a miserable go of it anyways, for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. The remaining hogs have failed to spur a consistent running game and, to add insult to injury, can’t protect the passer for extended periods of time either.
If Minnesota is to steal a win from Dallas, it will need to follow the big-play, boom-or-bust blueprint used by Pittsburgh and Washington, the only two teams that have given the Cowboys a run for their new money in the last four weeks. Dallas surrendered 400 and 449 yards to Ben Roethlisberger and Kirk Cousins, respectively, in part due to their lack of pass rush, giving both big arms time and space to let plays open up downfield. While the Vikings’ dink-and-dunk offense hasn’t taken off against inferior opponents — like Detroit’s mediocre secondary in Weeks 9 and 12 — there is reason for optimism against Dallas.
Minnesota expects to see the return of Stefon Diggs from a knee injury. Diggs is responsible for Minnesota’s top receiving outputs on the season, including a 13-catch, 164-yard outing against the ‘Skins just three weeks ago. Against a non-existent Cowboys pass rush, Bradford could have success finding Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph and others downfield. On passes of 15-plus air yards, Bradford has completed 56 percent of attempts, posted a 134.2 passer rating and has not thrown a pick. The effect of this strategy could be multiplied if Morris Claiborne and Barry Church can’t go again in Dallas’ secondary because of lingering injuries.
The usually reliable Vikings defense gave up a 27-yard toss to Stafford that set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, then allowed Detroit to zoom down the field for the game-winning score in overtime, capped by a Golden Tate plunge into the end zone after missed tackles.
Sam Bradford’s offense was predictably up and down in its first game with Pat Shurmur under center but moved the ball well enough to earn a late-game lead, despite red zone struggles and four points lost on missed kicks.
The Vikings defense gave up a 17-play drive in the first half that ate up 9:45 seconds, but forced four straight three-and-outs to open the second half. Yet, the once dominant Vikings defensive front couldn’t penetrate a young Lions offensive line that protected Stafford well. Minnesota sacked Safford just once and earned four quarterback hits. Everson Griffen recorded the sack, earned two tackles for loss among seven takedowns, but the Vikings got little pressure from elsewhere. Harrison Smith uncharacteristically missed four tackles, Xavier Rhodes had a huge penalty in overtime and Anthony Barr’s play continues to slide.
“For the first time in three weeks this team fought like how I expect them to fight,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “If we continue to do these kinds of things, then we’ll win football games.”
We’ve praised Zimmer’s squad for battling through adversity all season, but there are no consolation prizes in the NFL. A three-game losing streak is a three-game losing streak.
The Vikings had a win in their grasp that would have given them a cushion in the NFC North. Instead, they let it slip, sliding the division into chaos. With a trip to Washington on deck, Zimmer’s squad needs to do more than battle, they need to win.