This loss, the Vikings’ third to the Detroit Lions in fewer than 11 months, had a similar plot to the first two installments of this twisted trilogy.
There were missed opportunities (as four would-be interceptions turned to incompletions), howls of disbelief over penalties not called and the clang of an important kick reverberating off the uprights. There was even Lions kicker Matt Prater running out at the end of a two-minute drill to try and blast a field goal from near midfield (albeit unsuccessfully this time).
But this chapter, a 14-7 defeat at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, appeared to have come with a macabre twist.
Dalvin Cook, the rookie running back who had helped the Vikings swiftly move on from the Adrian Peterson era in his first three games, left the game because of a left knee injury in the third quarter. He limped out of the Vikings locker room on crutches and with a brace on his knee after the game. And in a somber postgame news conference, coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings are concerned about Cook’s anterior cruciate ligament.
The rookie running back — who had run for more yards in his first three games than Peterson did in the same span in his first season — had already gained 66 yards on 13 carries and scored his second career touchdown in the second quarter. When his knee buckled on a 4-yard run in the third quarter, though, a hushed crowd immediately seemed to fear the worst.
“I just went in and talked to him,” Zimmer said. “I told him, he’s not the first great running back to have an ACL [injury], if it is one, and come back pretty good. Dalvin will have a great career.”
His injury sent Vikings fans home in a sour mood, on a day when they had spent plenty of time excoriating referees for a lack of calls against Lions defensive backs. The rest of the game delivered plenty of bile, too.
The loss, in the first of three consecutive NFC North games, dropped the Vikings to 2-2 while the Lions (3-1) moved into a first-place tie in the division with the Green Bay Packers. It was the Vikings’ fifth loss in seven meetings with the Lions since Mike Zimmer and Jim Caldwell became the coaches of their respective teams in 2014, and it was the fourth of those five that came by a touchdown or less.
On the Vikings’ third play of the second half, Jerick McKinnon fumbled after trying to run a zone-read play off a Wildcat formation snap with Case Keenum stationed at wide receiver. The Lions recovered, drove for a field goal that put them within a point, and then came the injury that seemed to draw the air out of U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cook took a handoff on the Vikings’ next offensive play, made a cut on safety Tavon Wilson and immediately grabbed for his left knee as it appeared to buckle on the turf. Wilson’s hit punched the ball out for Cook’s first career fumble, and though Cook was able to walk off the field with assistance briefly after going down, the Vikings quickly ruled him out for the game as he went to the locker room for testing.
The fumble gave the Lions the ball on the Vikings 29-yard line, and they were in the end zone five plays later on an Ameer Abdullah’s 3-yard run that was called a touchdown after review. Matthew Stafford’s throw to TJ Jones for a two-point conversion put the Lions up 14-7, and the margin stayed there at the end of the third quarter, when Kai Forbath’s 39-yard field-goal attempt hit the right upright.
A defense that held the Lions to 251 yards and sacked Stafford six times, employing the power rushes it believed would work against Detroit’s offensive linemen, ultimately missed its chances to tip the balance of the game.
The Vikings had three dropped interceptions by linebacker Anthony Barr and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes, while cornerback Mackensie Alexander missed a chance for a pick in Lions territory after bobbling a sideline throw and securing it only after he had stepped out of bounds.
“We missed out on a lot of turnovers,” Rhodes said. “We have to look at the film and correct where we messed up, and definitely have to win the turnover battle.”
Apart from strikes of 32, 31, 24 and 21 yards to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Case Keenum had a frustrating first 3½ quarters against a Lions defense that peppered the quarterback with consistent pressure on the right side of the Vikings line, where the team often stationed two tight ends.
Keenum drove the Vikings to the Lions 4-yard line with less than three minutes left, but after he changed the Vikings’ protection call based on something he thought he saw in the defense, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel raced untouched around the right side of the line while tackle Mike Remmers moved to help Joe Berger. Keenum, Zimmer said, needed to throw quickly, knowing there would be a free rusher coming at him.
Zettel’s sack put the Vikings in a fourth-and-goal situation from the Lions 14, and Keenum’s throw for Thielen floated out of the back of the end zone while the quarterback scrambled to his left.
“That was totally on me,” Keenum said of the sack. “I thought I saw something and got fooled. That is a huge play in the game, obviously, and that is one I want back.”
It was a familiar lament in another Lions loss filled with agonizing moments. Of all that happened Sunday, though, Cook’s left knee might turn out to be the greatest source of anguish.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org