DETROIT – The Vikings feel they have quietly been building something since opening Mike Zimmer’s first season as coach with two months of turmoil and a 2-5 start.
But Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field was their last opportunity to alert the rest of the NFL by making a loud statement against a playoff contender on their home turf.
The Vikings seemed poised to pull off the upset, jumping out to a two-touchdown lead against the listless Lions with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, their biggest reason for optimism these past few weeks, picking apart one of the league’s stingiest defenses.
But the Vikings were unable to build on that early lead and watched it slowly diminish after Bridgewater threw a pair of costly interceptions in the second quarter of what would become a 16-14 loss.
Three more points would likely have been enough for the Vikings to get their first victory against a team with a winning record since Week 4. But despite a trio of promising opportunities late, they could not get the ball between the uprights against the NFC North-leading Lions.
“We let one slip away,” Bridgewater said. “You can’t turn the ball over twice. You can’t miss field goals. So for me and this team, we’re just going to continue to try to get better.”
Clinging to a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater and the Vikings put together one of their most impressive drives of the season. They picked up six first downs, including one after stumbling backward to second-and-28 with a holding penalty and a sack, despite a ferocious Lions front four and the deafening roar from Detroit fans inside the dome.
The Lions eventually got a stop inside the 10-yard line. But the Vikings came away with nothing because Lions defensive end Jason Jones blocked kicker Blair Walsh’s 26-yard attempt.
The Detroit offense then went right down the field to have Matt Prater kick the go-ahead 33-yard field goal, giving the Lions their first lead with 3 minutes, 38 seconds left.
After a 51-yard kickoff return by Cordarrelle Patterson, Bridgewater threw incomplete on third and fourth down and turned the ball over on downs near midfield.
The Vikings got the ball back with 45 seconds left and no timeouts, and those seconds ticked down quickly.
After tight end Kyle Rudolph got out of bounds at the 50-yard line with one second left, the Vikings called on Walsh, who had not made either of his two previous attempts, instead of asking Bridgewater to heave a desperation pass to the end zone.
“Either one is kind of a shot in the dark,” Zimmer said. “Blair’s hit 70-yarders in practice before, so that was the best chance to win the football game.”
But Walsh’s 68-yard attempt — which would have been the longest field goal in NFL history had he made it — landed short in the end zone as time expired.
The Vikings, who later lamented the inadequate finish, couldn’t have asked for a better start.
Their defense didn’t give up a Lions first down in the first 20 minutes of the game, forcing four consecutive three-and-outs to start the game.
Their offense moved the ball with ease in the first half. Bridgewater struggled against the Lions in a 17-3 loss in October, throwing three interceptions and finishing with only 188 passing yards. But on Sunday, he completed 15 of his first 18 attempts for 189 yards and a touchdown as the Vikings jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
But the game turned in a hurry and the fans at Ford Field rediscovered their vocal cords when Bridgewater threw interceptions on back-to-back passes late in the second quarter.
The Vikings were in Lions territory and threatening to make it a three-score game when Bridgewater was intercepted by Glover Quin, the same Lions safety who was responsible for Bridgewater’s first career interception back in Week 6. Bridgewater was looking for wide receiver Charles Johnson, but a jam at the line disrupted Johnson’s route, leading to the miscue.
Quin was finally dragged down at the Vikings 11-yard line after a 56-yard interception return.
“That interception gave them some life,” Zimmer said.
Two plays later, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hit Golden Tate with a short pass, and the wide receiver did the rest, wiggling his way into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, Bridgewater was intercepted on his next pass by cornerback Darius Slay, who stepped in front of the rookie’s late and inaccurate throw on the right sideline.
The Detroit offense took advantage of the short field again and kicked a 29-yard field goal to pull within four points of the Vikings, 14-10, at halftime.
Bridgewater would finish the game with 315 passing yards — two shy of his career high — on 31-of-41 passing, and he has now thrown at least one touchdown pass in eight consecutive games.
But those two interceptions enabled the sleepwalking Lions to get back into the game.
Afterward, Zimmer was upbeat even though the Vikings had just dropped to 0-5 against the NFC North this season. While he said “I’m not into moral victories,” Zimmer believes a strong but incomplete effort against the 10-4 Lions was a step in the right direction for his 6-8 team.
“This team will battle. They’ll fight. They’ll compete. That’s what I’ve been trying to preach since the day I walked in,” he said. “Obviously, you want to get a win. But keep doing things like this, the wins will stack up. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and I’ve seen the teams that come out with great effort and great fight and great heart each and every week win.”