DETROIT – The regular season, for all intents and purposes, ended Sunday for the Vikings in the visitors’ locker room at Ford Field, as players congregated following a 27-9 win over the Detroit Lions.
Five hundred eighty-eight miles to the southeast, Jake Elliott’s 35-yard field goal sailed through the uprights at Lincoln Financial Field, giving Philadelphia a victory that meant the Vikings would head home without clinching a playoff spot.
The Vikings retain a half-game lead over the Eagles for an NFC wild-card spot, and their playoff destiny remains in their hands as they prepare for a Week 17 game against the Chicago Bears.
But the Vikings can be assured of no help from the Eagles, their 2017 postseason foe, which used Elliott’s kick to beat Houston and now plays a Redskins team that was eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.
“Win and in. That’s how it is,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I’m OK with that.”
Are these Vikings ready for such vital games? The season’s first 15 contests produced no conclusive answer to that question, and they’ll step up in class Sunday from a Lions team with little to play for to a Bears team that still can earn a first-round bye. The start time was changed from noon to 3:25 p.m. for the game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
On Sunday, the Vikings pulled away from the Lions with 27 unanswered points, ending the first half with a flurry after a somnambulant start in which they were outgained 111-5 and outscored 9-0 in the first 26 minutes. If the Vikings wanted reason to feel good about their postseason bona fides, though, they could at least point to the fact their defense preserved their chances until their offense found its stride.
The Vikings limited the Lions to three first-half field goals, despite the fact Detroit started four drives within 70 yards of the goal line. When Kirk Cousins found Adam Thielen for 40 yards in the middle of what appeared to be a busted coverage, the Holland, Mich., native eventually broke the dam.
Cousins threw for 162 yards in the final four minutes of the first half, connecting with Stefon Diggs for a touchdown that pulled the Vikings within two. Then, after the Vikings got the ball back, Cousins fired a 44-yard pass into the same end zone where Aaron Rodgers beat the Lions with his famed Hail Mary three years earlier. It was a tight end waiting for Cousins’ throw, just as it was for Rodgers, and Kyle Rudolph was in such perfect position that he barely had to jump for Cousins’ pinpoint pass.
“It sparked us,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “We had the touchdown before that. But that really sparked us, gave us an extra push coming into the locker room. You saw it on guys’ faces. Everybody was coming in and wanting to go back out there and play some more football. You seen the spark that touchdown gave us. It was big.”
The Hail Mary also seemed to sap whatever resolve was left for the Lions, who didn’t pick up a first down in the third quarter and only got two before a drive at the end of the game where quarterback Matt Cassel — the former Vikings passer who stepped into the game after the Lions benched Matthew Stafford — drove the Lions into Minnesota territory.
By that point, the game was well out of reach.
A unit that sacked Stafford 10 times when the teams played Nov. 4 had only three sacks Sunday, but the Vikings finished with 12 tackles for loss. Linebacker Eric Wilson stepped in for the injured Eric Kendricks and contributed three of them, including a sack.
“We’re playing good on defense. I didn’t think we played great today on defense,” Zimmer said. “I thought we played good. I thought we played solid. We had some tackles for losses and things like that that helped. But they were getting some yards on the runs using that big guy [extra OL] in there. I didn’t do a good job of scheming that up, I don’t think. If it happens again, I’ll do a better job. Guys were covering. They wanted to throw some screens and runs on third downs to keep us out of some of the pressure stuff we do. I thought we handled a lot of those things well.”
Rudolph finished with a career-high 122 yards on eight catches, hauling in his second touchdown pass of the day from Cousins on a play-action throw with 13:25 left.
The Vikings have the NFC’s second-lowest strength of victory figure, with their eight wins coming against teams carrying only a .359 win percentage. Their only win over a team with a winning record came a week ago against the Dolphins — who fell to 7-8 on Sunday — and it’s entirely possible their season could hinge on their ability to beat the Bears, after Cousins had what might have been his worst game of the season against them on Nov. 18.
Their chance to put it all together, though, remains right in front of them.
“Ball’s in our court, as it has been for several weeks now,” Cousins said. “If we win, we win. If we don’t, we’ll have to see what happens around the league. But I don’t think I want to get in 8-7-1, I think 9-6-1 is a better way to earn your way in and hopefully we can get the job done next week.”
Staff writer Andrew Krammer contributed to this story.