Justin Jefferson sprinted 20 yards in three seconds on Sunday, diving on a Nick Mullens fumble that otherwise would have sealed a Vikings loss to the Lions with 1:48 to go. In the huddle before the next play, Jefferson told Mullens, "No matter what it is, just throw it over." Mullens did as Kirk Cousins had done a year ago in Buffalo, and Jefferson stole the ball from two Lions defenders for a 28-yard gain on third-and-27 as effortlessly as a fifth-grader might swipe a playground ball from a kindergartner.

He handed the ball to an official and Mullens hit Brandon Powell for 26 on the next play. With the Vikings down six points and the ball 30 yards from the end zone, Jefferson put a double move on Lions safety Ifeatu Melifonwu and broke for the opening where it appeared he might catch the pass to make Mullens the fourth different QB to start a Vikings victory this season.

It had seemed at times, in the 56 days since Cousins tore his right Achilles tendon, as if the Vikings had strong-armed the steering wheel of a car with misaligned tires, keeping it straight enough to avoid drifting into a ditch. Coach Kevin O'Connell talked Joshua Dobbs through his first snaps in a Vikings uniform. Assistant QB coach Grant Udinski stayed on the field after practice on Fridays for hours-long walk-throughs with new starters. The day the Vikings pulled Dobbs for Mullens, defensive coordinator Brian Flores directed a shutout of a Raiders team that scored 63 points four days later.

The Vikings' 30-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday ended with Mullens' pass fluttering behind Jefferson, who tried in vain to cut back for it as Melifonwu came down with the Lions' fourth interception of the day. The game sealed the Lions' first division title since they won the old NFC Central in 1993, ended the Vikings' six-game win streak over Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium and ensured their New Year's Eve game against the Packers will be their last at home this season. It also put them on a path they'd somehow managed to avoid for weeks.

To reach the playoffs, they will need to make up a game on either the Rams or the Seahawks in the NFC standings, likely by winning two games against Green Bay and Detroit while Los Angeles or Seattle lose once. They are 3-4 with backup quarterbacks since Cousins' injury; now that he's out of a walking boot, Cousins returned to the sideline with his teammates for the first time since his surgery on Sunday.

He saw Mullens become just the second quarterback in Vikings history to throw for 400 yards and four interceptions in the same game, leaving as a reminder of how fleeting QB stability can be.

"I really think it goes to show the rest of the world the type of player Kirk is," Jefferson said. "At the end of the day, this is a tough league. You know, not everybody is meant for this job. So it is tough not having [No.] 8 out there, the captain that he is, the leader that he is. He's a great player. Nothing taken away from Nick. Nick is outstanding player as well. We just need to build on that confidence that we have. We just need to go on that practice field and make sure that we're getting all the timing right, make sure the ball is where it needs to be."

The Vikings allowed the Lions to hold the ball for 38:22, run for 143 yards and support quarterback Jared Goff, who completed 30 of his 40 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown to beat a Flores-coached defense for the first time in his career. The Vikings lost pass rusher D.J. Wonnum, who was carted off the field because of a quadriceps injury, and rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, who tried unsuccessfully to return from a shoulder injury. The Vikings finished the game with Andrew Booth Jr. and Jaylin Williams at cornerback, after Blackmon left and cornerback Akayleb Evans was taken out of the game.

They stewed over two second-quarter calls — a roughing-the-passer penalty on Patrick Jones on a second-and-21, and a Goff fumble that was ruled an incomplete pass on review after Camryn Bynum returned it for an 82-yard touchdown — that resulted in a 10-point swing.

"I would have loved to just hear that it was an official's ruling and maybe I could have thrown the flag and took it to the challenge," O'Connell said. "The views I had I did not necessary see it the same way. I mean, that's momentum in its purest form when your defense can force a turnover and get seven points out of it. Huge momentum plays."

The turnovers the Vikings committed were a central theme to their eighth loss, as they were for many of their first seven.

On offense, Mullens became just the 16th quarterback in NFL history, and the first since Jameis Winston in 2019, to throw for 400 yards and four interceptions in the same game. He was only the second Vikings quarterback with the dubious double, after Warren Moon did it in a 31-21 loss to the Jets in November 1994.

"A lot of ball placement [issues]. I believe I'm a very accurate quarterback. I did make a lot of good throws today," Mullens said. "Decisions, accuracy, you have to be elite at all times. I've done a good job of making plays and moving the offense, and we've worked really hard collectively to move the offense. But you have to avoid those mistakes."

Rookie Brian Branch undercut Jordan Addison at the Lions' 20 for the first interception of the day, and safety Kerby Joseph picked off a pass Mullens threw too close to the middle of the field when targeting Addison late in the second quarter.

The Vikings used the same three-level route concept on the play where Mullens hit Jefferson on the final drive, O'Connell said. At the end of the second quarter, though, Mullens missed space for a big completion when he failed to put the ball closer to the Vikings' sideline. Addison injured his ankle when colliding with a teammate on Joseph's interception return.

"We're just trying to leverage the deep defender and use the grass we have available to us to potentially drive it away from the defender," O'Connell said. "[Joseph] was able to come back and undercut Jordan coming back to the football. Normally when it's the safety, it means we probably could have drove that ball flat and away from the defender."

The turnover led to a Lions touchdown that made it 17-7 Detroit less than two minutes before halftime. The Vikings scored before the half, on Jefferson's diving catch of a 20-yard pass that Mullens threw after stepping up in the pocket, and took the lead on an adroitly-designed play where Mullens found K.J. Osborn in the back corner of the end zone for a six-yard score after halftime.

Then, after the Lions took a nine-point lead on a pair of bruising drives that took a combined 14:12 off the second-half clock, the Vikings pulled within six on a 75-yard drive for a Greg Joseph field goal. They survived a defensive holding foul on Williams that his teammates believed shouldn't have been called, and coaxed a stop from a fatigued defense that had lost Wonnum and Blackmon.

It set up for them to get the win they needed to answer the Seahawks and again wrest back control of their own future.

Instead, Jefferson kneeled on the U.S. Bank Stadium turf, dejectedly catching his breath after the final pass officially put the Vikings on a detour.

"We knew it was a tough stretch. We knew it wasn't gonna be easy," he said. "This team is a great team. They're not a slack team. And they're holding the division crown for a reason. We just need to hold this in and realize the things that we need to fix."