After comfortable back-to-back wins at home, the Detroit Lions took a much different route to victory on Sunday. They dug themselves into a 14-0 hole early on, and it was a struggle just to move the chains. The Lions regrouped, however, and they came back to eventually beat the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 16-14. It was a much closer game than most expected, but the important thing is the victory pushes the Lions back in first place in the NFC North after a Packers loss earlier Sunday afternoon.
A Slow Start
To say the Lions got off to a slow start in this game would be an understatement. They went three-and-out on the game's opening drive, and that would become a theme as the first quarter progressed. The three-and-out resulted in good field position for the Vikings, who had a 35-yard return on the ensuing punt. Luckily for the Lions, the punt return merely produced a missed 53 yard field goal, but the entire sequence was a sign of things to come.
Case in point: The Lions went three-and-out on their next drive. The Vikings responded with a punt of their own, but the Lions went three-and-out yet again after getting the ball back. It was at this point that the Vikings put some points on the board. They carved up the Lions defense on the ground and through the air, and Matt Asiata ultimately scored from 2 yards out.
The Lions closed out the first quarter with a first down that was called back by a holding penalty. As a result, they started the second quarter with another three-and-out, and the Vikings made them pay with another impressive touchdown drive. This time, Teddy Bridgewater found Kalamazoo native Greg Jennings for an 8-yard touchdown, giving the Vikings a 14-0 lead.
The Lions finally ended their first-down drought on their next possession, but another punt gave Minnesota a chance to extend its lead. With the Vikings needing only three plays to get to midfield, it looked like they were going to add to their lead, but that's when everything changed. A couple of plays later, on third down, Glover Quin intercepted Bridgewater and took the ball back to the Minnesota 11. Suddenly the Lions were in position to score, and that's exactly what they did two plays later. Matthew Stafford hit Golden Tate on a quick pass, and Eric Ebron delivered a great block to free up enough room for Tate to score from 7 yards out.
Things continued to go the Lions' way with Bridgewater throwing another interception on only the second play of the Vikings' next drive. Darius Slay made a diving catch for the pick at the Minnesota 32, giving the Lions an opportunity to put more points on the board before halftime. This time around, they had to settle for a 29-yard field goal, but the Lions still led 14-10 after 2 quarters despite being outgained 215-89.
The Second Half
After forcing a stop on Minnesota's first possession of the second half, the Lions put together their best drive of the game. It only produced a 30-yard field goal, but the Lions covered 74 yards on 13 plays and kept the Minnesota defense on the field for 7:19 of game time. A touchdown obviously would have been nice, but at least the Lions cut the lead down to 14-13.
The Vikings followed up the Lions' lengthy drive with one of their own. The Lions just couldn't seem to get off the field, even with the Vikings once facing a 2nd-and-28 situation. This eventually became an 18-play, 75-yard drive that ran 11:02 off the clock, but the Lions came up with a stop on third-and-goal. A sack by Jason Jones on second down backed them up to the 18, and they were only able to get back to the 8. This led to a 26-yard field goal attempt, and Jones blocked it, meaning this extremely long drive produced zero points.
With a chance to take the lead, the Lions offense delivered. They put together an efficient drive that ultimately stalled in the red zone. Matt Prater took care of business from 33 yards out to put the Lions on top by a score of 16-14, leaving this game in the hands of the defense.
The defense actually had a short field to work with to keep Minnesota out of field goal range thanks to a 51-yard kick return by Cordarrelle Patterson. The return gave the Vikings the ball at midfield, meaning one first down would have given Minnesota a shot at a field goal. Thankfully, that first down never happened. The Lions held tough on third-and-4, and they held tough once again on fourth down when the Vikings went for it. Bridgewater threw an incompletion, giving the ball back to the Lions.
Finishing Off the Vikes
The offense unfortunately was not able to put the game away despite needing only one first down. As a result, the Lions punted the ball away, and it was a bad one. Sam Martin's punt sailed only 27 yards, and an illegal formation penalty tacked 5 more yards for the Vikings on top. This put them at their own 30 with 45 seconds left and no timeouts.
That part about no timeouts is important, because the Vikings wasted a lot of time on the game's final drive. Asiata, for example, fell short of the first-down marker and stayed inbounds on one play, forcing the Vikings to spike the ball on third down. Needing only a yard, the Vikings converted on fourth down, but Kyle Rudolph was in the middle of the field, and the clock ran all the way down to five seconds before the next spike.
After a quick pass to Rudolph got the Vikings 11 yards in four seconds, the game came down to a 68-yard field goal attempt by Blair Walsh with one second left. I had flashbacks to last year's Baltimore Ravens game, which featured a 61-yard field goal that gave the Lions the loss, but the situation was thankfully much different this year. Walsh not only pushed the kick wide left, but it didn't even have the distance. As a result, the Lions held on for a 16-14 win.
Now back on top of the NFC North, the Lions could clinch the division next week if they beat the Chicago Bears and the Packers lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A Packers loss seems unlikely, but the Lions will at least be in position to clinch a playoff spot with a win over Chicago as long as Sunday night's game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles doesn't end in a tie. That's also pretty unlikely, so the Lions appear to be one win away from returning to the playoffs.