Greg Joseph's kick sailed through the west uprights at U.S. Bank Stadium, providing the Vikings an escape hatch against the winless Lions and touching off an extended celebration that seemed fueled by relief and release.
Players mobbed Joseph at midfield, hoisting him up in the air as he pointed toward the sky. Kirk Cousins grabbed coach Mike Zimmer by his sweatshirt; the quarterback bellowed his "You like that?!" catchphrase, sources said, before Zimmer gave him a two-handed shove, in a celebration that was emotionally charged enough to inspire social-media conjecture the two were about to fight. Afterward, players blasted DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win" from the locker room loudly enough it could be easily heard by reporters gathered outside.
The 19-17 victory at least helped balance the ledger, after three one-score losses in the season's first four weeks. And Joseph's field goal, following three Cousins completions in the game's final 37 seconds, kept an eight-game win streak over the Lions alive despite the fact the Vikings blew a 10-point lead in the game's final five minutes.
But the Vikings will play four of their next six away from home, facing teams with combined records of 20-9 and making two trips to each coast in the process. They head into the stretch with issues that the victory on Sunday could do little to mask.
The Vikings have now gone four games without a second-half offensive touchdown, after a game where only two drives produced field goals after halftime and one ended in a Cousins interception. A conservative approach, exceeded only by Lions coach Dan Campbell's risk aversion, had the Vikings running four times on second downs where they needed at least 10 yards and kept them from a chance to add at least a field goal before halftime.
And then, after Joseph's 49-yard field goal with 4:28 to go was short and the Lions got a quick field goal of their own, Jalen Reeves-Maybin stripped the ball from Alexander Mattison's hands at the 20 with two minutes left. That set up a Lions touchdown and a two-point conversion that gave Detroit a 17-16 lead with 37 seconds remaining. The Lions had trailed since early in the second quarter and did not reach the red zone until Mattison's fumble.
"Sometimes when you win games like that, it's a good thing because it evens out at some point if you can keep plugging along," Zimmer said. "I'm proud of our guys the way they fought; not particularly proud of the way we played, though."
The Vikings allowed only 288 yards and stopped two Detroit drives with turnovers in Vikings territory: a strip sack that Everson Griffen shared with Danielle Hunter, and an Eric Kendricks interception when Jared Goff tried to force a pass between four defenders.
The game remained close, though, as the Vikings offense was periodically met with boos, for things ranging from conservative play-calling to penalties on the offensive line and cautious throws from Cousins.
After getting the ball back with 42 seconds left in the first half, the Vikings opted to run the ball twice and end the half instead of pushing the ball downfield, despite the fact Justin Jefferson had already gained 104 yards on five receptions. Fans jeered the decision as the Vikings went to the locker room, and voiced their displeasure again when Rashod Hill — who'd been trading series with rookie Christian Darrisaw at left tackle — was bowled over for a Trey Flowers sack on the opening play of the second half. The Vikings ran Alexander Mattison on second-and-15 (one of four times they opted to run on second-and-10 or longer); they punted two plays later.
Zimmer said the only series he thought the Vikings were too conservative was in the fourth quarter with 3:39 left, when they ran Mattison twice, gaining only 3 yards and leading to Joseph's missed field goal, after sacking Goff on third and fourth down to get the ball in Detroit territory.
When asked about his thinking on the series before halftime, Zimmer said: "I shouldn't have to explain all of this to you. But the plan was we screwed up a couple plays at the end of the first half this year, right, because we ran out of bounds. We did some things. So the plan was to run the ball the first play, see how much yards we get and then go from there. If we get a first down, then we get on the ball and we move. But we got like no yards so that was that."
When Cousins was asked about the sequence at the end of the first half, he said: "Coaches are going to decide what to do and we're going to go with it. We trust them and that's their call."
Jefferson caught five passes for 104 yards in the first half; he had only two targets in the second half. Though a holding call negated Adam Thielen's 21-yard gain on a screen, he didn't catch a pass until the Vikings' final drive.
"They played a lot of two-deep and clouded Justin," Cousins said. "So it's essentially double coverage. Several times where Alex Mattison got the ball, C.J. Ham got the ball, Justin's the design, but they take him away."
Campbell — who worked with Zimmer on Bill Parcells' staff in Dallas and interviewed for the Vikings' offensive coordinator job in 2018 — was even more conservative with his decision-making for much of the day than the Vikings were in theirs.
The Vikings got the ball back at the end of the first half after Campbell opted for a field goal from the Minnesota 34 rather than going for it on fourth-and-2. Then, after the Lions had driven to the Vikings' 42 while trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, Campbell sent the punt team out on fourth-and-4 and took a delay of game before Jack Fox punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback.
His most aggressive decision of the day — going for two and the lead after D'Andre Swift's 7-yard touchdown run — led to Goff finding KhaDarel Hodge in the back of the end zone. It had the coach in position for his first NFL win, and put the Vikings in position for a stunning loss.
Three throws from Cousins, and a big kick from Joseph, were the only things that prevented the game from ending that way.
"We aren't happy with our performance," Thielen said. "But at the end of the day we've got to enjoy a win. We've got to still use it as momentum. It's a lot easier to correct mistakes when you win. It is what it is. We've got a lot of mistakes to correct. But it still feels good to win."