MINNEAPOLIS – Entering Sunday, Detroit ranked in the top four in rushing yards per game, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns. The Lions ground game ran as advertised at U.S. Bank Stadium. But the Vikings defense found a way to stall Detroit's 4-minute offense when Minnesota needed the ball back.
Leading by six, the Lions started their potential game-sealing drive from their 25-yard line. Detroit running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs had already combined for 114 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But the Vikings defense had one stop left in them.
Vikings defenders Harrison Phillips, Pat Jones II, Jonathan Bullard, Danielle Hunter, Ivan Pace, Jr., Jordan Hicks and Harrison Smith combined for tackles on the drive. Hicks, Jones and Phillips each had multiple tackles on the series, all against a Lions running back. Minnesota also overcame an illegal contact penalty on a third-and-7 that extended the series.
A roaring crowd helped force a Lions false start and delay of the game a play later, and the Lions eventually punted back to Minnesota. But the Vikings offense couldn't land a go-ahead score as quarterback Nick Mullens thew his fourth interception of the game just yards outside the end zone on a deep pass intended for Justin Jefferson.
Despite Minnesota throwing for a season-high 411 yards on just 22 completions, the Vikings lost 30-24. The victory secured the Lions their first division title since 1993 and first NFC North (established in 2002) crown.
"Thought our guys battled. Left everything absolutely out there. Some critical plays to try to find a way to win the game there in the end, but ultimately fell a little bit short there," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "Got to tip your hat to Dan and his group over there. Hard-fought football game. You know, very much a tough feeling in the locker room right now."
Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores and the Vikings defense led the league in points allowed per game (16.7) before Sunday. Minnesota, however, has allowed seven touchdowns in its past five quarters.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff threw for 250 yards and one touchdown on 30 of 40 passing. Pro Bowler Amon-Ra St. Brown caught 12 of 14 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Detroit hit their average mark of 143 rushing yards as Gibbs and Montgomery combined to average 4.2 yards per carry. Gibbs, the 12th overall pick in last year's draft, proved difficult to tackle in space. He added four catches for 20 yards, totaling 100 scrimmage yards.
Detroit was also efficient in gotta-have-it situations. The Lions converted 6-of-12 third downs, both their fourth-down tries, and were four-of-five in the red zone.
But the Vikings defense had its chances in potential game-changing moments. Safety Cam Bynum forced two fumbles and finished with eight tackles.
He appeared to have a game-changing play, recovering a Goff fumble —jarred loose by a blitzing Hicks – that he scooped and returned 82 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. But as the Vikings were celebrating and its field goal unit was setting up for the point after try, the referees said the play was reviewed and ruled an incomplete pass.
Detroit netted a 37-yard field goal the next play to capitalize on the six-point swing.
"Yeah, I mean this is exactly how playoff football is. It's going to come down to the last drive, last play. And we obviously didn't play our best game, but we gave ourselves a chance to go win it at the end, and at one point, we had the lead in the [third quarter]," Metellus said. "We cannot rely on the refs. We've got to control what we can control. We didn't get those calls."
Jones had a career day, finishing with six tackles, including three for losses and one sack. The sack came in the second quarter on a first-and-10 at midfield. Jones beat Lions guard Graham Glasgow with an inside rush and took Goff down 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Then, the Lions were flagged for a delay of the game.
Suddenly, Detroit faced second-and-26 in a 7-7 game with nine minutes left in the first half. But Jones was flagged for roughing the passer on the next play despite slightly pushing Goff as he threw. The flag essentially negated Jones's sack and the ensuing delay of the game.
Eight plays later, on the same drive, Bynum's scoop-and-score was reversed, and the Vikings were down three points.
"Every time you make plays it feels good but when you don't come out with the win it doesn't matter. It actually gives you a bad feeling you've gotta build off." Jones said. "In the NFL, it's going to come down to one possession."
Hicks, who missed the past four games after overcoming compartment syndrome in his leg, sparked the Vikings defense in his return. He finished with one quarterback hit, one pass defensed and nine tackles.
Though the Vikings playoff chances took a hit on Sunday, Hicks expressed how grateful he was to be back on the field with his teammates and in front of fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"There were plenty of moments that I was reminding myself that I was on the couch just a week ago watching this game," Hicks said. "I was saying out loud and telling the guys that we are lucky to do this. We are lucky to be in this opportunity. So there is a major, major appreciation for being back out there."