Detroit — The slow starts finally caught up to the Lions, all but ending the team’s hopes of winning the NFC North and hosting the first playoff game at Ford Field.
The Lions stumbled out the gate on both sides of the ball, falling behind two scores for the third consecutive week, resulting in a 30-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving.
“We just dug a little bit too much of a hole,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “Just didn’t perform well there at the onset and anytime you do that against a good team it’s going to be tough. We fought back and gave ourselves a chance, but some of those holes are a little bit too big to dig out of and it was tough.”
With the victory, the Vikings opened a commanding three-game lead over the Lions in the division. The Lions can make the playoffs with one of the NFC’s two wild-card spots, but face heavy competition and a number of unfavorable tie-breaker scenarios.
BOX SCORE: Vikings 30, Lions 23
After the Lions (6-5) went three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, the defense couldn’t muster a third-down stop as the Vikings (9-2) took 14 plays to march 80 yards into the end zone to take an early lead.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum was sharp, completing 6-of-7 on the drive, including two third-down conversions, while scrambling up the gut for a third. Once in the red zone, Keenum found tight end Kyle Rudolph wide open in the end zone out of play-action for the 1-yard score.
Making matters worse for the Lions, they had just 10 defenders on the field for the play. But the Lions did manage to block the extra point, making it 6-0.
“It was a communication problem, so I got to get that fixed,” Caldwell said.
On the ensuing possession, Detroit coughed it back up after two plays, on a botched handoff between quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Ameer Abdullah. With the short field, Minnesota needed just three plays to push their advantage to 13-0.
The Vikings got into the red zone on a 30-yard screen pass to running back Jerick McKinnon and Keenum, who is not known for his mobility, finished the series with a 9-yard read-option keeper, exploiting a clear Detroit weakness.
“It was a great call with the timing and we had some great blocking,” Keenum said.
The two sides traded punts before the Lions got on the board early in the second quarter.
After working into the red zone on a 23-yard pass to Marvin Jones, tight end Darren Fells dropped a throw in the end zone and Stafford missed a screen to Theo Riddick that likely scores, leaving the Lions to settle for a 32-yard Matt Prater field goal.
The margin remained 10 points when rookie defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter blocked a 53-yard field goal attempt on the Vikings’ next possession, but the Lions’ offense couldn’t do anything with the field position, again going three-and-out.
With two minutes remaining in the opening half, Minnesota struck quickly, going 74 yards in just five plays to go up, 20-3. Keenum connected with Rudolph for 34 yards on the second play, and again for 22 yards, beating linebacker Tahir Whitehead on a corner route with 43 seconds remaining, for the tandem’s second score of the afternoon.
The Lions managed to maintain a pulse heading into the locker room when Stafford hooked up with Kenny Golladay on a 41-yard bomb. A pair of penalties against the Vikings — a defensive pass interference and face mask — got the Lions to the 6-yard line with 15 seconds left. On the next snap, the quarterback found Jones cutting across the goal line. The touchdown call stood after a replay review, making the halftime score, 20-10.
The momentum didn’t last long coming out of the break. The Vikings went to work on the ground to start the third quarter, running the ball four straight times with little resistance. Latavius Murray broke through a tackle attempt by safety Tavon Wilson in route to a 46-yard gain, followed by a pair of chunk gains by McKinnon for 27 yards down to the 2-yard line. Murray punched it in from there, putting the Vikings back up 17.
“Up until then, I thought our guys had been doing a pretty decent job of getting (the run) stopped in the first half,” Caldwell said. “That one was tough. It didn’t knock us out of it, but nevertheless, it made things more difficult.”
The Lions appeared poised to counter-punch when Stafford found Fells in the end zone, but replays showed the ball was moving and touched the ground, leading to the third-down scoring strike being overturned. Prater came out and knocked home a 32-yarder to make it, 27-13.
A rare productive stretch from the Lions’ pass rush got the ball back, after defensive lineman Akeem Spence and Anthony Zettel split a sack on second down and Zettel hit Keenum’s arm on third down.
Detroit worked back into Minnesota territory, despite losing center Travis Swanson to injury early in the possession. But facing second-and-2 from the Vikings 27, Stafford couldn’t connect with Abdullah because the back ran an imprecise route and the offensive line gave up a sack on third down, leaving Prater to salvage three points with a 50-yard field goal.
Continuing its surge, the defense forced a three-and-out, dropping Murray for a 4-yard loss on first down before Ziggy Ansah sacked Keenum on third as time expired in the third quarter. TJ Jones opened up the fourth quarter by returning the punt 17 yards to the Vikings' 39.
After a sack put the Lions in a bad spot, facing a third-and-14, Stafford lofted a pass up to Marvin Jones despite double-coverage. The receiver made an incredible catch, leaping between the two defenders and waltzed into the end zone for the 43-yard touchdown to cut the lead, 27-23, with 14:16 remaining.
“It was kind of a surprise play,” Jones said. “Caught the defense with 12 men on the field and (Stafford) made a tremendous throw. I just went up and got it.”
Stafford was shaken up on the play, when Robinson blocked his man into the quarterback’s legs. Trainers had to help Stafford off the field, but he returned the next series. After the game, he walked with a heavy limp, but said he thought he’d miss a snap.
Stafford finished 20-of-35 for 250 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Marvin Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and two scores. Theo Riddick led the Lions’ meager rushing attack with 20 yards on five carries.
The defense nearly forced another three-and-out, but Keenum ducked under Teez Tabor, who came unblocked on a third-down blitz, and delivered a strike to Adam Thielen to move the sticks. Another throw to Thielen pushed the drive into Lions’ territory before the defense finally tightened the screws and forced a punt.
2017 DETROIT LIONS SCHEDULE
The Lions squandered the opportunity due to a mental error by Golden Tate. After hauling in a third-down pass at the marker, the shifty receiver bounced back a yard looking to make something happen after the catch. Instead, he was immediately dropped, leading to a punt back to the Vikings.
A 37-yard screen pass to Stefon Diggs set up a 36-yard field goal with 3:47 remaining to put the Vikings up, 30-23.
With an opportunity to tie the game, Tate came wide open down the seam on third down, but Stafford overthrew him. On fourth down, Stafford threw a jump ball to Marvin Jones, but the pass was deflected and intercepted by Xavier Rhodes at the 2:50 mark.
“Yeah, I just missed them,” Stafford said. “It’s frustrating.”
The Vikings lined up for a game-sealing field goal with 1:15 remaining, but the Lions blocked the boot, returning it 77 yards for what appeared to be a tying score, but cornerback Darius Slay was flagged for clearly being offside on the block. The penalty gave the Vikings a first down and two kneel downs ended it.