Asked to reflect on the end of the Vikings' 2020 season on Sunday afternoon, Mike Zimmer closed his postgame news conference after a 37-35 win over the Lions at Ford Field with something of a valedictory statement.
"I'm proud of the way these guys went through all the [COVID-19] protocols and everything they had to do, and all the different changes that were made and the way we handled our business," he said. "The way they practiced. You know, it's frustrating that we had so many injuries, especially defensively. Guys opt out and [Danielle] Hunter and [Anthony] Barr and [Eric] Kendricks. Lot of times when you get injured players, it depends on who the injured players are. And we had a lot of really good ones get hurt this year. So we've got a lot of work to do. I've got a lot of work to do.
"In saying all that, I'll say two things: We probably weren't good enough of a football team this year to be in the playoffs. We weren't good enough defensively, obviously. But we missed a lot of guys. And the guys that ended up playing battled like crazy and we still had opportunities to win a few more games, probably. But, you know, with the turnover that we had, the injuries that we had on defense, we just weren't good enough. We fought like crazy and 7-9 is not great, but under the circumstances and everything that went on, maybe it's the best we could have done."
The claim's veracity will probably be in the eyes of the beholder, at the end of a year where the Vikings played six games that were decided by a field goal or less, losing to Tennessee, Seattle and Dallas before beating Carolina, Jacksonville and Detroit. And there might not be much riding on its interpretation, five months after Vikings ownership gave both the coach and general manager Rick Spielman contract extensions.
But as a campaign that began with bold rhetoric ended with an early-afternoon game between two sub-.500 teams, quarterback Kirk Cousins might have put it best: The 2020 Vikings season was one decided on the margins.
"You realize, boy, Seattle, we're a play away, Tennessee we're a play away, Dallas we might've been a play away. Even the Chicago game there [in Week 15] we might've been a play away," he said. "You could also point to some wins that we were maybe a play away from losing. You do know, golly, we were really close to being in the playoffs. If anything it just gives me an edge a little bit, and I'll want to make sure our teammates have that edge as we go to the offseason and get ready for next year. 'Hey guys, wins and losses are one play and we've gotta work and prepare and grind with that understanding.'"
Cousins, who threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in the win, pointed to the roughing-the-passer penalty on Tracy Walker that gave the Vikings new life on the goal line after Walker sacked Cousins on a blitz early in the fourth quarter. The Lions had denied the Vikings on three goal-to-go runs before what appeared to be a routine tackle by Walker. The penalty gave the Vikings a first down at the Lions' 1, and Cousins scored on the Vikings' sixth goal-to-go play of the drive.
"I said to the player [Tracy Walker] who tackled me, right away, 'I don't necessarily agree with that call, but I'll take it,'" Cousins said. "But you realize the difference between a win and a loss could be that call, could be an injury, could be just a bounce of the ball or a break that you get."
The touchdown, which gave the Vikings a 37-29 lead, proved to be the decisive score. On Detroit's ensuing drive, Matthew Stafford threw incomplete on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game after De'Andre Swift's TD run.
The Vikings ran 2:26 off the clock and bled the Lions of timeouts by the two-minute warning, allowing Cousins to kneel out the clock and finish a season where he played every offensive snap.
He found Justin Jefferson nine times for 133 yards, which allowed the rookie to break Randy Moss' team rookie record for receiving yards and finish with exactly 1,400 for the year. Jefferson's total surpassed Anquan Boldin's 1,377 yards in 2003 for the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era (the NFL Record and Fact Book considers the 1,473 yards Bill Groman posted for the Houston Oilers in the AFL's inaugural 1960 season as the overall record).
Jefferson played the game in custom cleats with Moss' rookie stats on one shoe and his own numbers on another. He said after the game he hoped the Hall of Famer would sign them for him. Jefferson said he wasn't keeping track of how many yards he had, but added he had people approaching him on the sideline during the game to tell him how close he was to Moss' mark.
"It's an honor to break Randy Moss' record. Him being a Hall of Famer and him just being so dominant in this league, so to break his record is truly a blessing," Jefferson said. "It's truly crazy to be in this position."
The Vikings had to piece together other elements of their offense, with Rashod Hill starting at left tackle in place of Riley Reiff (who was on the COVID-19 list) and Alexander Mattison posting 145 yards from scrimmage in the absence of Dalvin Cook, who was with family after the unexpected death of his father, James.
Mattison carried 21 times for 95 yards, finishing with another 50 receiving yards. He scored once on the ground and once as a receiver, making an impressive cut to finish a 28-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
It was all the Vikings could do to keep in front of the Lions, who posted 417 yards with Matthew Stafford returning from multiple injuries for the season finale. The quarterback's only mistake came when he threw under pressure in the third quarter and Harrison Smith picked him off, setting up Dan Bailey's only field goal of the day.
After shutting out the Buccaneers in the first quarter on Dec. 13, the Vikings gave up scores in their final 15 quarters of the season, allowing 146 points in that time.
"Defensively we started out OK and then we struggled there at the end with some of the throws they were making," Zimmer said. "But you know we came in and we battled, we were very shorthanded, missing a lot of guys on defense and missing Dalvin and Riley today. But it's good to get a win and a nice way to start the new year."
The 2020 season, Zimmer's seventh as the head coach, was the fourth where the Vikings missed the playoffs. They talked about getting over the hump after a run to the divisional playoffs last year; they finished with just the second losing record in Zimmer's tenure.
Will the returns of injured players, and the possibility of a full offseason program to develop young defenders, put the Vikings on the path to the Super Bowl?
"Hard to sit here and make that comment," Cousins said. "We went 7-9 this year, we're not in the playoffs. So it's hard to measure, but when we come back in April or whenever we come back, I'll certainly be encouraged as I look at our roster and the group of guys we have and the coaches we have, just as importantly. I'll be encouraged by the group we're bringing together."
Ben Goessling did not travel to Detroit. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.