DETROIT – The NFC North is a long way from being settled between the 7-4 Lions and the 6-5 Vikings. But it’s painfully clear which team can finish games and which can’t.
The Lions beat the Vikings 16-13 at Ford Field on Thanksgiving by coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win for the seventh time this season. That’s right. Seven.
Their second fall-from-ahead division loss to the Lions in 18 days included the inability to line up in a legal offensive formation with the score tied and 43 seconds left.
Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whose offensive reps were boosted Sunday by the absence of injured Stefon Diggs, inadvertently lined up off the line of scrimmage as the split end wide left. The ensuing flag negated a hard-fought 7-yard catch-and-run by Jerick McKinnon on third-and-2 from the Vikings 33-yard line. Sam Bradford threw an interception on the next play to hand the Lions a 40-yard Matt Prater field goal as time expired.
“I was watching [where I lined up], just like I always do out there,” Patterson said. “I don’t know what happened. You have to go ask the ref.”
As pool reporter, the next stop after Patterson was a chat with referee Carl Cheffers. Patterson was told his illegal formation would be one of the questions asked.
“Tell me what he says,” Patterson said.
OK. Here goes:
“We ruled that [Patterson] was not on the line of scrimmage, he was not breaking the waistline of the snapper. Therefore, he left the tackle on that end of the line uncovered. We also only had six players on the line of scrimmage. By rule, that’s an illegal formation.”
Receiver Adam Thielen didn’t argue the legality of the formation. He was spotted trying to get Patterson to move closer to the line.
“We had [Diggs] get hurt, so we were in a different personnel group,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “And because of that, [Patterson] wasn’t used to lining up on the ball.”
What a way to blow what would have been only the third third-down conversion of the day for the Vikings. They finished 2-for-10 on third down, 0-for-1 on fourth down.
Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said now is not the time, with five losses, to point fingers. And, as he put it, “the defense has enough things we need to do better to be pointing fingers.”
The prime example came shortly after Jeff Locke struck a beautiful 57-yard punt to pin the Lions at their 2-yard line with 5:02 left and the Vikings leading 13-10. Detroit drove 68 yards in 10 plays for the tying field goal.
“Not slamming the door on them right there after such a great punt by Jeff was especially disappointing,” Greenway said. “Them driving just killed our football team today.”
The Vikings had the Lions right where they wanted them on third-and-8 from the Detroit 18. Zimmer reached for one of his favorite tools — all-out pressure from seven defenders — but Detroit’s line, which features two rookies on the left side, held.
End Danielle Hunter knocked Matthew Stafford down, but not before he got the ball out to Anquan Boldin. A 36-year-old with 14 years of experience, Boldin hoodwinked Captain Munnerlyn into guessing wrong and biting inside prematurely. Had Boldin not caught the ball for a 29-yard gain, it still would have been a first down because Munnerlyn was flagged for holding.
“I gave up a play on my guy when I shouldn’t have,” Munnerlyn said. “I kind of jumped inside and the guy ran a 7 route and made the catch.”
The defense held on third-and-1, forcing a 48-yard field goal. Then came Patterson’s penalty, the fifth on the Vikings.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, the fourth quarter also began with their being unable to finish a key drive because of a penalty. A backside chop block by left tackle T.J. Clemmings on first-and-goal from the 10 led to the Vikings settling for a field goal and a three-point lead.
And the way Stafford and these Lions finish games, three points with 13 minutes to go isn’t nearly enough.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings writer. Twitter: @MarkCraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org