Had the Vikings consulted Matthew Stafford’s résumé and respected the gunslinger’s gigantic right arm, they wouldn’t have started celebrating victory 23 seconds too soon.
Stafford, the Lions’ 28-year-old quarterback, entered Sunday’s 22-16 win at U.S. Bank Stadium averaging three game-winning drives per season over an eight-year career. In four wins this season, he was a perfect 4-for-4 when it came to leading the Lions to victory while tied or trailing in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Make it 5-for-5 after he led the Lions 35 yards in 21 seconds with no timeouts, spiking the ball, watching Matt Prater kick the tying 58-yard field goal as time expired and then going 5-for-6 for 73 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
“Obviously,” Stafford said, “this is not planned.”
But the 5-4 Lions sure are good at it. Stafford has 25 comeback wins, including three against the Vikings.
And, come to think of it, the Vikings also should have consulted Prater’s résumé before playing a super-soft prevent defense at the end of regulation.
After all, the dude does own the longest field goal made — 64 yards with the Broncos in 2013 — in NFL history. All he’s done this year is make three game-winning kicks late in the closing two minutes of the fourth quarter or OT. Sunday, he made field goals of 47, 53 and 58 yards while his counterpart, Blair Walsh, missed a PAT and had a 46-yard field goal blocked by a defensive tackle who didn’t have to jump to get a hand on the ball at the line of scrimmage.
“I don’t overanalyze it or think too much,” said Prater, hopefully loud enough for Walsh to understand. “I just kick it and hope it goes straight.”
When the Vikings scored the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left, coach Mike Zimmer admittedly made a mistake by playing too soft against the powerful arm and leg of Stafford and Prater, respectively.
“That’s probably the thing I regret most,” Zimmer said of the three-man rush he used. “There’s  seconds left, they have no timeouts. Even a 60-yard field goal was a long ways to go. If I had it to do all over again, I would probably rush four and try to get it that way. He scrambled and made a play.”
Actually, Mike, he didn’t have to scramble. With Linval Joseph playing soft on the nose and ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter outmanned on the edges, the pocket was massive for Stafford on second-and-2. He stepped into a 27-yard rocket to receiver Andre Roberts in the middle of the field. The Lions raced up to the line, spiked the ball and, well, you know.
“[Offensive coordinator] Jim Bob Cooter put that play in this week as the play when we need 30 yards, maybe 40 with no timeouts,” Stafford said. “You don’t want to be in those situations, but we have the majority of time this year. But these guys just believe in each other.”
The Lions were 1-6 and had just given up seven sacks to the Vikings at home a year ago when they fired Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator and promoted Cooter from quarterbacks coach. They’re 11-7 since then, and, oh yeah, the Vikings sacked Stafford only once on Sunday.
On the 27-yard completion, the Vikings had two linebackers, three cornerbacks and three safeties fanned out downfield. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Emmanuel Lamur — who replaced Chad Greenway in third-and-long situations and in the prevent defense on Sunday — were middle deep when Stafford zipped the ball into the lane between them. Safety Andrew Sendejo was nearby, while the corners were protecting the sidelines and two other safeties were 35 yards from the line of scrimmage.
“It happened so fast,” Lamur said of the throw. “We were just protecting field position. What was the kick? A 60-yarder? Something crazy like that. There are certain areas you have to protect. You have to protect high to low.”
Yeah, but you also have to know who’s doing the throwing and who will be doing the kicking. Had the Vikings paid more attention to that, they wouldn’t have started their celebration 23 seconds early.