With the Vikings’ ninth win of the season secure, and last Monday’s loss to Seattle officially behind them, quarterback Kirk Cousins stepped to the podium Sunday afternoon and made an oddly candid admission.
“This was a weird one, because it felt like we couldn’t take a big step forward,” Cousins said after a 20-7 victory over Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium. “It was either, you don’t get it done and it’s going to be a problem, or you win and you kind of shrug your shoulders and move on. We just wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that edge or that energy.”
What did he mean by that?
“You come back home, and you’re playing a team that has three wins, and there’s just kind of on the outside this assumption that, ‘Oh, they’ll win or if they don’t, then they fell short of the goal,’ ” said Cousins, who threw for 241 yards and a touchdown.
“Every win is hard to earn and every win is tough. Part of the struggles we had today on offense were because of the Lions defense doing a really good job. So you just kind of get nervous about ever letting your guard down in this league because when you do that, you get hit in the mouth.
“And fortunately, we came ready to play, but it was just something I was aware of, and going back to having a good week and doing what you need to do to not let that happen.”
In a league where players repeat truisms about being impervious to public perception and treating every game with equal importance, Cousins’ words landed as a strikingly human moment.
And yet, they showed the tightrope that is life in the NFL, where victories are not weighted and power rankings do not determine a team’s playoff fate. Whether the Vikings players, as individuals, were as charged up for a Sunday afternoon game against the Lions as a Monday night game against the Seahawks ultimately did not matter. They badly needed their ninth win, their seventh in the NFC and their second in the division, for playoff positioning.
One way or the other, they would have to get it.
Their victory, as bland as it might have been, ensured the Vikings (9-4) would avoid their first losing streak of the year by traversing circumstances that have tripped them up before (in Sept. 2018 against Buffalo) and nearly did so this year (on Nov. 18 against Denver).
They stayed within a game of the Packers — who had their own quotidian victory over Washington at home on Sunday — in the NFC North, and put themselves in position to clinch a playoff spot as soon as next week.
The Vikings punted on their first three drives of the second half, and scored just three points after halftime against a team they beat 42-30 in October. But the Vikings defensive line, which produced nine of the team’s 10 sacks of Matthew Stafford at U.S. Bank Stadium last year, again tormented a Lions front it has owned in recent meetings.
Quarterback David Blough — making his second NFL start in place of injured Stafford — frequently found himself in the unenviable position of looking downfield for a place to unload the ball, rolling toward the sideline with Danielle Hunter bearing down on him. Hunter had three of the Vikings’ five sacks, as Minnesota came within 2:14 of holding the Lions scoreless.
“It’s important we get a chip back on our shoulder, and I thought we kind of did that today,” coach Mike Zimmer said of the defense. “So we need to keep going and keep doing that. You know, that’s why I wish we wouldn’t have let them score.”
The shutout would have been the Vikings’ second under Zimmer, following their 16-0 win over the Packers on Dec. 23, 2017.
But even though Blough’s late touchdown to Kenny Golladay prevented that, it came long after they guaranteed he wouldn’t put his name with Chase Daniel and Matt Moore among the backup QBs to beat the Vikings this season.
The Lions’ punchless offense, with undrafted rookie Blough struggling and veteran right tackle Rick Wagner leaving because of a knee injury, needed 40 plays to reach 100 yards for the game. It was the fourth time since 1991 the Vikings held an opponent to fewer than 100 yards through the first three quarters of a game. The Lions finished with just 231 total yards, the third fewest the Vikings have allowed all season.
“Obviously, we can’t control what happened last week anymore, but we came out today with some fire and showed what we could do,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We were communicating really well, we made little adjustments, and we had good coverage on them all day. I am excited to see the film to see how we truly did.”
The win over the Lions might not reveal what the Vikings are truly capable of; they likely will need a victory over the Packers in their next home game to prove that point, and give themselves any chance to play a playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium, where they now have the NFL’s longest home winning streak at six games.
Sunday, as much as anything, was a chance for the Vikings to steady their feet six days after losing in Seattle. Their effort, at a minimum, accomplished that much.
“You let your guard down in this league, it catches up to you,” Cousins said. “So I wanted to make sure that we keep our edge. You never take any snap easy, and I don’t think that happened today, and we got the win.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org