Their playoff hopes faded officially seven days ago, and in all reality weeks before that, yet somehow the Detroit Lions’ 27-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in their home finale Sunday was as disappointing as any of their nine previous defeats this year.
With a chance to play playoff spoiler against the defending NFC North champs, the Lions instead laid one of their biggest eggs of the season.
They dominated the first half, holding the Vikings without a first down for the first 26 minutes of the game, but were repeatedly their own worst enemy on offense and melted down on defense just before halftime.
The Vikings scored two touchdowns in a 1-minute, 32-second span in the second quarter, first on Kirk Cousins’ 8-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs — a play that was set up by a 40-yard pass on third-and-17 to Adam Thielen, when Pro Bowler Darius Slay appeared to misplay coverage — and then a second on a 44-yard Hail Mary to Kyle Rudolph on the final play of the first half.
The Hail Mary gave the Vikings (8-7-1) a 14-9 lead and led to a lackadaisical second-half effort that renewed questions about how much players believe in first-year head coach Matt Patricia.
Patricia is 5-10 in his first season in Detroit, and the Lions have lost six of their 15 games by double-digits and are ticketed for a top-10 pick in April’s draft.
They close the season next week against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in a game in which the loser will receive better draft position and the fourth-place schedule (and likely games against the lowly Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) in 2019.
The Lions had plenty of opportunities to pull an upset Sunday. They held the Vikings to 5 yards of offense on their first 12 plays and had an average starting field position of their own 39-yard line on their first five drives.
But the Lions squandered that field position with predictable play-calling and an inefficient running game and were forced to punt twice in their first three possessions after crossing into Vikings territory.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford passes against the Minnesota Vikings during the first half at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, December 23, 2018. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Trailing 9-0 with 4 minutes to play in the second quarter, Cousins led an eight-play, 69-yard touchdown drive for the Vikings.
Thielen beat Slay deep on the drive's biggest play, gaining 40 yards on third-and-17. Slay briefly knocked himself out of the game tackling Thielen, and Cousins went right after his replacement, finding Diggs wide open in the end zone two plays later against Marcus Cooper.
The Lions punted on the ensuing possession, and after Tracy Walker was called for a 15-yard fair-catch interference penalty, the Vikings started their final drive of the first half at their own 30.
Cousins completed a 17-yard pass to Rudolph on second-and-19, when DeShawn Shead missed a tackle on the tight end at midfield and the Vikings called a timeout with 2 seconds left before halftime.
Detroit Lions cornerback Mike Ford tackles Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook during the first half at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, December 23, 2018. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
The Lions sent their Hail Mary defense, including wide receiver Kenny Golladay, on for the next play, but Rudolph boxed Shead out for position in the end zone and no defenders made an effort to knock down the pass in front of him as he caught an easy 44-yard lob from Cousins for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Lions had just 5 yards of offense in the third quarter, and Minnesota scored 13 second-half points for its second convincing win over the Lions this year.
Golladay had six catches but for just 58 yards as Matthew Stafford averaged a measly 3.6 yards per passing attempt.
Stafford finished 18 of 32 passing for 116 yards — his second game with less than 120 yards passing in the last three weeks — before he was pulled for Matt Cassel to cheers from the Ford Field crowd with 4:10 to play.
Rudolph had nine catches for 122 yards and Cousins was 21 of 28 passing for 253 yards for the Vikings, who need a win in their season finale against the Chicago Bears next week or a loss or tie by the Philadelphia Eagles to make the playoffs.
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.
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