Rogers and Niyo break down Detroit's 10th loss of the season, another dismal offensive effort against Minnesota. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Detroit — The Hail Mary didn’t win the game for the Minnesota Vikings, but it was enough to break the Detroit Lions’ spirits.
The 44-yard touchdown connection between quarterback Kirk Cousins to tight end Kyle Rudolph to close the first half gave the Vikings their first lead of the game and put the team on a path to a 27-9 victory on Sunday at Ford Field.
"Certainly was a big way to gain momentum going into the half after a slow start and you know, they were calling it a Hail Rudy after it happened instead of a Hail Mary, so that was pretty good," said Cousins, the former Michigan State star.
Gifted 15 yards after rookie safety Tracy Walker hit return man Brandon Zylstra before the punt arrived, the Vikings started the possession on their own 30 with 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter. A 16-yard connection between Cousins and receiver Adam Thielen and a 17-yard grab by Rudolph put the ball at the 44-yard line with two ticks on the clock.
The Lions rushed three as Cousins took the snap, with seven defenders, a group that included wide receiver Kenny Golladay, dropped back in coverage. As Cousins’ pass arced toward the middle of the end zone, Rudolph established good position and was able to go up over Lions cornerback DeShawn Shead, the only defender in position to make a play on the throw.
"We just have to get a little bit better from an alignment standpoint," Lions coach Matt Patricia said when asked what went wrong on the play. "We have to get some of those guys in better position, get the guy who caught the ball boxed out and get him out of there."
The score gave the Vikings a 14-9 lead heading into the locker room.
Prior to the Hail Mary, the Lions' (5-10) defense had been playing well. Through four drives into the second quarter, the Vikings had been held without a first down.
During that stretch, the Lions jumped out to a 9-0 advantage thanks to a trio of field goals by Matt Prater. It could have been more had it not been for some questionable play calls in Vikings territory.
"Got into field-goal range a few times and had some negative plays," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We had a screen that went for minus, a couple runs that went for minus and against that defense, it’s tough, so (we’ve) got to stay ahead of the chains. We weren’t able to do it, and if you get third-and-long against those guys, it’s tough."
On Detroit’s opening possession, the Lions worked it down to the Vikings 37, before losing yardage on two of the next three plays and having to punt. And on the team’s next drive, running back Theo Riddick was stuffed for no gain on a third-and-3 carry from the 29, leading to a 47-yard Prater field goal.
As the Vikings (8-6-1) continued to sputter offensively, the Lions took advantage of a poor punt and found their way into the red zone. But a third-and-3 pass to Kenny Golladay sailed long, leading to Prater coming in and knocking it down from 35 yards out.
The Lions added one more Prater field goal, a 48-yard boot, before the Vikings got on the board.
A blown coverage on third-and-17 allowed Cousins to find Thielen for a 40-yard gain on a deep pass down the right sideline.
"Just kind of got behind one of our coverage guys there and just kind of got deep on us," Patricia said. "Obviously, it wasn’t a great play on third and extra-long there. We just have to get it coached up better and make sure we take that away."
Cornerback Darius Slay was shaken up making the tackle on the play and the Vikings took advantage of the Pro Bowler’s brief absence going after replacement Marcus Cooper, targeting him on an 8-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs with a 1:35 in the half.
After the gut-punch touchdown grab by Rudolph to end the half, the Lions struggled to find any traction in the second half.
"Those are never easy plays," Patricia said. "Before the half, when those things happen, certainly they have a little bit of a toll on you."
With defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson knocked out of the game with a knee injury, the Vikings managed to get their ground game going to open the third quarter. Running back Dalvin Cook carried the ball three times for 40 yards on the drive, setting up a 24-yard Dan Bailey field goal that extended the lead to 17-9.
Offensively, the Lions went three-and-out on both of the team’s third-quarter possessions.
Minnesota put the game away with a nine-play, 53-yard touchdown drive.
Despite falling behind the sticks twice due penalties, the Vikings were able to overcome holes of first-and-15 and second-and-19 to work into the red zone. Following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson, Cousins found Rudolph for a second score out of play-action, making it 24-9 with 13:31 remaining.
"Today was just my time," Rudolph said. "You just prepare each and every week as best you can and we’ve got two really, really good receivers on the outside. Today, when the ball came my way, I just tried to catch it. I can’t tell you why or give you a reason that happened today other than it’s almost Christmas. Christmas is usually good to me."
Cousins was sharp, connecting on 21 of his 28 throws for 253 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
Bailey added a 29-yard field goal after the Lions turned it over on downs in their own territory.
The Lions pulled Stafford after that failed fourth-down conversion, replacing him with backup Matt Cassel. The substitution drew a loud cheer from the thinned-out crowd at Ford Field.
"Oh, you know, it’s frustrating that that’s the way the game went," Stafford said. "Coach makes those decisions. I always want to be out there. I understand where he’s coming from with it. He knows what I’m dealing with and going through. As far as fans’ reaction, it doesn’t make any difference to me."
Stafford finished 18-for-32 for 116 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked twice. Zach Zenner led the rushing attack for the Lions with 45 yards on eight carries, while Golladay paced the receiving corps with 58 yards on six catches.