Xavier Rhodes ran past Golden Tate as if he were trying to get a whiff of his deodorant. Rhodes didn’t even attempt to make a tackle on his flyby.
“No matter how I missed it or how I was aiming, I just missed it,” Rhodes said later. “Simple as that.”
Harrison Smith got his chance next, 6 yards downfield. Smith wrapped both arms around Tate and slipped off as if Tate were covered in Crisco.
“Just got to make the tackle,” Smith said.
All that remained was Tate’s somersault into the end zone to complete his cartoonish touchdown that finalized a stunning collapse by the Vikings defense in a 22-16 gut punch at the hands of the Detroit Lions.
The Vikings defense surrendered a 17-play touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a last-ditch dagger at the end of the second half and a methodical 87-yard scoring drive on the first possession of overtime.
At the moment of truth, the Vikings defense blinked.
“You’ve got to have a stout defense,” cornerback Terence Newman said. “Today, we broke a little bit.”
It was a weird, uneven performance by a defense that normally makes life hellish on offenses. It alternately looked stingy and leaky.
They were on the field for 9 minutes, 45 seconds on the final possession of the first half, a drive that felt like an eternity. But then they regrouped, forcing three consecutive three-and-out series to limit the Lions to 5 yards total in the third quarter.
The Lions ran only 10 plays and gained 26 yards on their first two drives of the fourth quarter.
Everything looked rosy at that point.
Then the Vikings fell apart like soggy bread.
The defense exhaled and let down its guard — probably like everyone else inside U.S. Bank Stadium — after the Vikings took a three-point lead with 23 seconds left.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford punished them for playing prevent defense with two completions that set up a 58-yard field goal at the buzzer.
Stafford’s dismantling of the Vikings defense in overtime was clinical. The Lions made every critical play; the Vikings mostly made mistakes.
Smith missed a tackle on tight end Eric Ebron that led to a 23-yard gain. On third-and-10, Rhodes was called for pass interference after basically hugging Marvin Jones Jr. Rhodes admitted he guessed the wrong route.
The final play — on third-and-8 — took first prize in wretchedness.
A short pass to Tate deteriorated into a walk-off touchdown after Rhodes and Smith missed tackles along the sideline.
Rhodes didn’t duck responsibility afterward.
“It was a pass interference penalty and a missed tackle that gave them the game,” he said.
Those plays will get spotlight treatment, but the defense struggled in other areas throughout the game. It was uncharacteristically sloppy in tackling. Missed tackles became a theme.
“You have to make the play when it comes your way,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “I had my fair share.”
Third down was a killer, too. The Lions went 7-for-14 on third down, an unacceptable percentage for any defense, much less one considered among the NFL’s best.
Give credit to Stafford for handling those pressure situations and putting his passes on the money, but the Vikings didn’t execute well enough, either.
“They were getting the ball out quick,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “We’ve just got to find a way to play better.”
The Vikings gave up a 42-yard run on third-and-7. Rhodes was called for illegal use of hands on third-and-10, giving the Lions a first down. Griffen jumped offsides on third-and-7, giving the Lions free yards before a 53-yard field goal.
And the Lions went 4-for-4 on third down in overtime.
“[Third-down defense] is pretty much how we lost the game,” Newman said.
The loss was a collective effort. The offense didn’t score enough points with its red-zone opportunities, Mike Zimmer’s clock management at the end of regulation was abysmal, and kicker Blair Walsh continues to be a liability that the organization must address.
But the defense played below its usual standards, then crumbled with the game on the line.
The final play was a stunner. A whiff, a miss and then a flip was a sobering way to lose a game.