DETROIT - Forty minutes had passed since the final gun, ample time for the sting to set in. Yet as Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph threw on his sport coat, packed up his belongings and prepared to leave the visitors' locker room at Ford Field, he still found himself struggling to process Sunday's final play.
Loss No. 11 for the Vikings went into the books at 34-28 in favor of Detroit, ending with another sledgehammer to the solar plexus.
The Vikings, thanks to an astonishing rally that followed a miserable first half, were 1 yard away from a glorious upset, 1 yard away from pulling a Lions-like comeback on the Lions.
Nine seconds remained. Backup quarterback and hero du jour Joe Webb was under center. Rudolph was wide to the left, matched up against a Lions safety in what he said was "the absolute perfect play call."
Finally, it seemed, the Vikings might steal their first win in six weeks.
"We couldn't have asked for a better look than we got," Rudolph said.
And yet the fade route that Rudolph ran against man-to-man coverage? It didn't matter.
Detroit's all-out blitz flustered Webb. Enough, anyway, that he didn't think to throw the ball away. Instead he scrambled, had his face mask grabbed by DeAndre Levy without the referees noticing, and lost control.
The ball squirted free, bouncing backward like a frightened kangaroo, past midfield and all the way to the Vikings 43 before Cliff Avril fell on it.
The Lions celebrated.
Rudolph banged his helmet into the turf.
This is Vikings football in 2011. So close, yet so far away.
"You take pride in the attitude this team has, the way we never give up," Rudolph said. "At the same time, these losses seem to hurt more and more."
If you're looking for a comprehensive summary of Sunday's wild ride, the Vikings provided several rundowns. Take this analysis of the first quarter from coach Leslie Frazier: "That start was rough, now. ... You don't like to look up at the scoreboard and see it that way."
Frazier was talking about a 9-minute stretch when the Vikings fell behind 21-0. The offense's first play? Total disaster. Right tackle Phil Loadholt never laid a finger on Avril, who blindsided and stripped Christian Ponder. Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch fell on Ponder's fumble in the end zone.
That was the first of six Vikings turnovers.
On top of that, the Lions yawned to 121 first-quarter yards with Matthew Stafford connecting on touchdown passes of 57 yards to Titus Young and 12 yards to Brandon Pettigrew.
Yep, that start was indeed rough.
And the blunders didn't stop there. Take this honest postgame thought from Ponder: "I was hurting the team more than I was helping."
After missing most of practice last week with a hip pointer, Ponder felt well enough to start Sunday. But the Vikings may have been better off if he hadn't. The rookie threw three picks -- one returned 30 yards for a score by Alphonso Smith -- and also lost that early fumble.
When Ponder was benched shortly after halftime, a Detroit romp seemed inevitable.
"We love each other," Percy Harvin said. "Everybody in this room is going to keep on fighting -- to the last play all the way down to the last game and into the offseason."
Harvin cited the final quarter and a half when the Vikings outscored the Lions 14-3 and rode the playmaking wizardry of Webb within a yard of a dramatic road upset.
Webb's final numbers: 12-for-23 passing for 84 yards and a 2-yard TD toss to Toby Gerhart. Oh, he also added a 65-yard touchdown run that appeared way too easy.
"The guy makes plays, man," receiver Greg Camarillo said. "Even when a play's not there, he takes off and scores a touchdown. He was that spark we needed today."
Added Harvin: "We couldn't ask for anything better. It was sort of like what Christian did in the middle of the season, to be able to come in, pick the torch up and be ready to go on call. I don't think we could have asked any more of Joe."
Alas, Webb ran out of magic on the final play. First came a mental error, Webb failing to throw under pressure.
"It's a play of immediacy," Frazier lamented.
Then came a bad break, Levy's tug at Webb's face mask overlooked by the officials and providing a symbolic end to a frustrating game in a season that's gone haywire in so many different ways.
"That's one play I wish I could take back," Webb said. "But I can't."
Dan Wiederer firstname.lastname@example.org