Lions set franchise-worst defensive marks in loss but secure top-7 pick in NFL Draft
Detroit — It was a fitting end to a dismal season.
By allowing the Minnesota Vikings to rack up 507 yards of offense and score a season-high 37 points on Sunday, the Detroit Lions set new franchise-worst marks in yardage and points allowed in the 37-35 defeat, sinking below the winless 2008 squad.
"I’m going to forget about this year, to be honest with you," Lions safety Tracy Walker said. "I’m going to move on from this year and get better from it. That’s (the) bottom line."
The silver lining that comes with a four-game losing streak to end the season is the Lions locked up a top-7 draft pick, a valuable asset for whoever the franchise hires as the next general manager.
The Lions (5-11) allowed 519 points and 6,978 yards this season, both franchise records. The winless 2008 team had held the record with 517 points and 6,470 yards.
The combined 72 points were also a season high for the Lions this season, and a bit of a surprise given the way the game started, where it appeared we might be in for a low-scoring affair after the first four possessions ended with punts. Three of those belonged to the Vikings after Lions return man Jamal Agnew fumbled a return back to the opposition.
But after the Lions got a stop following the turnover, the offensive floodgates opened for both teams.
Detroit opened the scoring with a seven-play, 90-yard drive. Quarterback Matthew Stafford connected on a pair of big gains to Marvin Jones, including a 43-yard touchdown out of play action where the receiver zipped past the Vikings' Anthony Harris on a corner route.
Matt Prater missed the extra point, leaving the Lions with an early 6-0 advantage.
The Vikings (7-9) quickly countered before the end of the first quarter. Facing a fourth down in Lions territory, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins flipped the ball to running back Alexander Mattison in the flat. He raced down the right sideline, beyond the reach of linebacker Jahlani Tavai before juking past Walker into the end zone for the 28-yard score.
The Lions quickly regained the lead after Adrian Peterson broke through the right side of the line for a 38-yard gain to open the second quarter. Two plays later, Stafford found rookie receiver Quintez Cephus down the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown, between the coverage of the cornerback and safety.
Again, the Vikings had an answer. Cousins found one of his tight ends on three consecutive throws for 55 total yards. Then, on third-and-goal found, Cousins hit running back Ameer Abdullah running a shallow cross for a short touchdown.
It was Abdullah's second touchdown of the season, both coming against the Lions, the team that drafted him in the second round in 2015.
The parade of touchdowns was briefly interrupted when the Lions stalled and settled for a 54-yard Matt Prater field goal, giving them a 16-14 advantage.
The Vikings missed a field goal on their ensuing drive when kicker Dan Bailey sent a 46-yard effort wide left, but the Lions couldn't take advantage, punting the ball back with under a minute remaining in the half.
It looked like the score would hold heading into the locker room, but with 11 seconds remaining, Cousins found receiver Chad Beebe down the sideline where cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts collided, allowing Beebe to glide the final 20 yards into the end zone.
"Just a terrible misplayed play," interim coach Darrell Bevell said. "I thought we were handling it correctly, we knew one more play, we felt they were going to try to throw it to the sideline, we had the sideline defense. You know, catch and tackle it. Instead of tackling and wrapping him up, the guys went for, to really trying to kill him and knock him out of bounds. It’s just not fundamental ball there, we have got to do a better job of wrapping him up."
The Vikings' halftime lead held for just two plays into the third quarter thanks to a 70-yard kickoff return by Agnew. Stafford finished the job with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jones, who blew by cornerback Cordrea Tankersley with a slick out-and-up move.
"Marv was hot early and I was going to keep feeding him," Stafford said. "Was just happy for him, man. He’s been a really good player for us for five years and I’ve enjoyed playing with him. We’ll see what happens (with Jones' contract) and who knows, but guy’s an incredible talent, obviously a great friend of mine and a great teammate. Just happy that he had a big day."
Minnesota, as it did all afternoon, quickly responded. Two completions to rookie Justin Jefferson netted 52 yards and a roughing the passer call against Romeo Okwara set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Mattison, putting the road team back up, 28-23.
Stafford made a critical error on the ensuing series. Staring down Jones on third down, safety Harrison Smith jumped the route for an interception. That turnover turned into three points for the Vikings, extending their lead to eight.
The Lions cut it back to two with a 10-play, 75-yard drive. Stafford extended the possession with a pair of third-down completions, including a 31-yarder to Cephus. A screen to running back D'Andre Swift set up first-and-goal from the 5 and Adrian Peterson capped the possession with a 2-yard touchdown run, before the 2-point conversion failed.
But the Vikings refused to ease up, with a 14-play touchdown drive of their own.
The Lions appeared to have them stopped on downs when Walker sacked Cousins on fourth down, but was flagged for a questionable roughing the passer that gave the Vikings a fresh set of downs at the 1-yard line.
"It’s probably one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen," Peterson said. "You think about the game of football, it’s a physical game. It’s such a critical situation, fourth-and-1, that was a game-changer-type of play. I’m standing there watching the entire play, and (Walker) actually finished with his hands down and running. To say that he put all his body weight on the quarterback, it was just one of those calls you just can’t make."
Two plays later Cousins pushed the ball across the goal line on a sneak, but a missed extra point by Bailey kept the Lions within a score, 37-29.
"I thought out team battled today, obviously offensively played really well," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "We started out slow, but we picked up quick."
The Lions would fall victim to another officiating decision when a replay review overturned a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jones, but the offense overcame the pitfall, working its way back into the end zone on a 2-yard Swift run seven plays later.
But the 2-point attempt again fell short, leaving the Lions down, 37-35 with under five minutes remaining.
Converting another fourth down in Lions territory proved to be all the Vikings needed to run out the clock.
"I’m actually proud of what we just displayed on the field," Bevell said. "We were shorthanded in a lot of ways and the guys that went in there, they gave everything they had for the game, for their teammates. So I think that’s what I’m feeling right now, just proud of what those guys did. It was a hard-fought game and guys stepped up in many ways. I know it wasn’t good enough. We did not win the game, which is always the goal, but some of the short-handedness and guys just continuing to step up and continuing to fight, that really meant a lot to me."
Stafford finished 20 of 31 passing for 293 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Jones totaled 180 yards on eight catches and his two TDs. Peterson (63 yards) and Swift (54) combined for 117 yards with a touchdown each.
Cousins was 28 of 40 for 405 yards and three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Mattison had 95 yards on the ground, while Jefferson led the Vikings’ receivers with nine catches for 133 yards.