DETROIT – As the Vikings settled into their chairs in the team meeting room at Winter Park last week, coach Mike Zimmer flashed three statistics from Week 15 last season up onto the large projection screen.
In a two-point loss at Detroit last December, a game the Vikings led by 14 in the second quarter, they did not sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford once. Their quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, threw two costly interceptions. And Blair Walsh missed all three field-goal attempts, booting away nine points.
Sunday at Ford Field, it would be the Lions who would blow a double-digit lead, in large part because the Vikings checked off every item on Zimmer’s list.
They sacked Stafford seven times. They gave away only one turnover, on a botched handoff. Walsh nailed all five of his critical field-goal tries, including a pair from beyond 50 yards. And after quickly falling behind by two scores, the Vikings scored 22 straight points to run away with a 28-19 victory.
“What I think we did a great job of, for the most part, is not making the same mistakes twice,” Bridgewater said. “The guys answered Coach Zimmer’s challenge.”
And by doing so, the Vikings (4-2) won on the road for the first time this season. It also happened to be the team’s first road victory over an NFC North opponent since beating the Lions in 2012 and the first of the Zimmer era.
For much of the first half, it looked as if the Vikings had fallen flat on the road again. The Lions (1-6) scored touchdowns on their first two drives without much resistance to jump out to a 14-3 lead. Stafford completed all six of his first-quarter passes for 119 yards and two TDs.
“They had some rhythm in their first 15 [plays], their scripted plays,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “They got us on a couple of sneaky ones that got by us and we were able to adjust.”
The Vikings kicked field goals on their first two drives to remain within striking distance, and late in the first half they started to make their move.
Bridgewater threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph with 1 minute, 49 seconds left in the second quarter. The defense then forced a three-and-out, and the offense moved into position for Walsh to make a 51-yard field goal as time expired. Suddenly, it was a two-point game.
The Vikings got the ball to start the second half and seized the lead when rookie sensation Stefon Diggs made a spectacular diving grab in the end zone. The 36-yard touchdown, the first of the receiver’s NFL career, put the Vikings up 22-17, their first road lead of the season.
“[The game] changed very fast,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.
The Vikings, who scored points on seven of their first eight possessions, would stretch the lead to 28-17 with two more field goals.
Bridgewater completed 25 of 35 passes for a season-high 316 yards and two touchdowns. Diggs reached triple digits in receiving yards for a second week in a row, pacing the Vikings with 108 on six catches. And Adrian Peterson, bottled up for most of the day, rumbled for 75 yards on one run to set up a field goal. He finished with 98 rushing yards.
The Vikings, who entered Sunday ranked 30th in the NFL with an average of only 305.6 yards per game, racked up a season-high 425 yards.
“It was great as an offense to get going,” Bridgewater said.
After getting picked apart by Stafford early, the defense began to settle down. Adjustments were made at halftime and the offense gave the Vikings the lead early in the third quarter, giving the defense the green light to start going after Stafford.
The Vikings sacked him seven times and recorded 13 quarterback hits. Just like in the Vikings’ 26-16 home victory in Week 2, Stafford had to get X-rays after the game, this time on his non-throwing hand.
“Once we get the lead, we smell a little blood, then we can go eat,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “And I think we ate today.”
After giving up 160 yards in the first quarter, the Vikings budged for only 7 in the next two. The Lions finished the game with 274 yards.
A goal-line stand in the final minutes sealed the Vikings’ victory, one that seemed pretty unlikely hours earlier when the Lions were scoring and the Ford Field crowd was roaring.
“This is a resilient team,” Walsh said. “We could have easily shut it down being down that quick on the road in a hostile environment. But that’s not in our DNA and that’s not what this team is made of.”
And in the end, it was Walsh’s five kicks, the defense’s seven sacks and only one turnover for the offense that flipped the script from a year ago and got Zimmer his first road victory against an NFC North rival.
“It has nothing to do with where you play,” Zimmer said. “It’s how you play.”