Did anyone expect a Lions game to do anything but boil down to the wire?
Following their season-long script, Detroit put their loyal fan base through the ringer before notching a crafty 16-13 victory triggered by a Darius Slay interception that set up Matt Prater‘s game-winning, 40-yard field goal as time expired.
Slay’s pick of Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford came with the game tied at 13-13 and Minnesota driving for a potential tilt-sealing score. Detroit’s ball-hawking cornerback jumped the route on a pass intended for wideout Adam Thielen and barreled 13 yards to the Vikings‘ 20 with 30 seconds left on the clock.
The win over Minnesota (6-5) gives Detroit (7-4) sole possession of the NFC North and marks the 11th straight Lions game decided by seven or fewer points.
Here’s what else we learned from Thursday’s defensive-minded divisional showdown:
1. The Lions looked ready to feast after knitting together a 12-play, 75-yard opening march that ate nearly eight minutes off the clock. The offense went quiet from there until Detroit punched in two field goals over the final three-plus minutes. Lions passer Matthew Stafford was rightfully agitated to watch Andre Roberts drop a would-be touchdown pass in Vikings territory just before the half. Stafford spent much of the game frustrated as Minnesota’s third-ranked passing defense held him to 232 yards at 5.8 yards per throw with one touchdown. Wideouts Golden Tate (5/77) and Anquan Boldin (7/69) led the way, but Stafford’s offense fizzled up for long stretches against a Vikings unit that notched two sacks and eight quarterback hits while holding the Lions to 24 yards in the second half before those two final Detroit scoring drives.
2. The Vikings are stuck with a smoke-and-mirrors offense that can’t run the ball and lacks a downfield element when wideout Stefon Diggs is out of the lineup as he was on Thursday. Quarterback Sam Bradford played well before his final interception, putting on a short-game passing clinic to finish 31 of 37 for 224 yards with the pick. Bradford delivered one completion after the next behind a battered line that lost center Joe Berger and tackle Jeremiah Sirles. The offense didn’t convert a third down until nearly 42 minutes into the contest, but those troubles come as no great surprise. This is what the injury-riddled Vikings are in 2016.
3. One of the game’s most pivotal sequences came on Minnesota’s first possession. Bradford hit his opening five passes and marched the team deep into Lions territory before losing the ball on a crushing strip sack by Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah. Game officials reversed the call, but Bradford encountered disaster on the following play, watching his lob to Laquon Treadwell bounce off the rookie’s hands into the arms of Glover Quin. The Lions safety ran it back 71 yards, but the play was erased by a questionable pass interference call on Slay. The Vikings scored a touchdown two plays later to tie the game at 7-7.
4. Fans can appreciate both teams going for it on fourth down in the first half. The Vikings failed on their attempt on fourth-and-2 at the Detroit 41 as Bradford threw incomplete to Thielen. On the next series, Lions running back Zach Zenner was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 49. With the division lead on the line, both coaches deserve credit for rolling the dice.
5. The Vikings entered Thursday averaging a measly 2.7 yards per rush, on pace for the lowest yards per carry in NFL history. They couldn’t get anything going in the first half, but effectively tired out Detroit in the third quarter with a 22-yard reverse by Cordarrelle Patterson, a smattering of Wildcat runs by Jerick McKinnon and just enough from low-wattage runner Matt Asiata. The team’s 82 yards on the ground are their most since Week 7, which tells you plenty about the putrid state of this run attack.
6. What’s next? The unlikely Lions own the division for now after sweeping Minnesota. The North still promises to wind down to the final weeks of the season, though, with the Vikings set to face the Cowboys, Jaguars, Colts, Packers and Bears. The Lions control their own destiny with remaining tilts against the Saints, Bears, Giants, Dallas and Green Bay.