Points are points are points.
It doesn't matter if a team is undefeated, middling so far with a shot to be better (like the Vikings) or previously winless (as the Lions were), putting points on the scoreboard or keeping them off is all that really matters.
Minnesota's 29-27 loss at Detroit on Sunday was decided on the final play, an 11-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-2 as time expired, but there were key junctures earlier that could have helped the Vikings (5-7) avoid their fourth final-play-of-a-game loss of 2021.
The loss undid a monster day by Justin Jefferson, who caught 11 passes for a career-high 182 yards.
Jefferson boosted his career total to 2,609, passing Josh Gordon (2,451) and Jerry Rice (2,497) for the third-most by a player in his first two seasons. He's got a shot at overtaking Odell Beckham, Jr., (2,755) for the most in NFL history and Randy Moss (2,726) franchise history as early as Thursday against Pittsburgh.
Beyond the yardage production, however, Minnesota's struggles to score points and prevent them was the story of the day.
Early misses in red zone
After losing Adam Thielen to an ankle injury on the Vikings first possession, the offense failed to fully capitalize after the defense stopped Detroit on a fourth-and-1 at its 41 in the first quarter.
An 18-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to Justin Jefferson was a promising start, but a 4-yard run by Alexander Mattison, who started in place of Dalvin Cook (shoulder), the Vikings followed with a pair of passes that lost 2 yards each and settled for a 41-yard field goal.
Minnesota's undermanned defense, which was playing without cornerback Patrick Peterson (Reserve/COVID-19) and linebackers Eric Kendricks (biceps) and Anthony Barr (hamstring/knee) forced a three-and-out thanks to a sack by D.J. Wonnum.
A 34-yard pass to Jefferson started the next drive, and Minnesota advanced to the 9-yard line before Mattison was tackled for a loss of 4 on first-and-goal. Consecutive incompletions to Kene Nwangwu and K.J. Osborn followed.
Rather than building a 10- or 14-point lead, Minnesota narrowly led 6-0 despite dominating the first quarter.
This wound up being the first Vikings game this season in which Minnesota didn't lead by at least seven points.
Disastrous second quarter
The decent start was quickly erased less than two minutes into the second quarter.
Jared Goff completed a 25-yard pass to T.J. Hockenson to open the period. The gain also ended with a 14-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Xavier Woods. Hockenson was easily open for a 9-yard touchdown two plays later.
Cousins fumbled on second-and-11 at the Detroit 33-yard line, denying at the very worst a long field goal attempt.
The Lions seized momentum with a 3-play touchdown drive capped with a 23-yarder to Brock Wright.
The number of times a strategy the Vikings have used at the end of the half — either from historical knowledge, advanced analytics, or maybe even gut instinct — has backfired is maddening.
The Lions added a 31-yard field goal by Riley Patterson with 1:33 remaining to end a 13-play, 77-yard drive that began at the Detroit 10. The Lions didn't face a third down until reaching the Minnesota 13.
Gains of 16 and 15 on passes to Jefferson moved Minnesota to the 42, but the drive stalled with incompletions to Tyler Conklin, Jefferson and Dede Westbrook. The third-and-10 was a deep pass attempt instead of one that could have moved Minnesota into field goal range.
Head Coach Mike Zimmer opted to go for it on fourth-and-10, and Cousins was sacked, giving Detroit the ball at its own 45 with 32 seconds remaining.
Minnesota allowed a 24-yard completion to Kalif Raymond, and Detroit was able to add a 41-yard field goal for a 20-6 halftime edge. Not bad for a team that hadn't scored 20 points in an entire game since Week 1.
"We gave them three points there," Zimmer said. "But you know, we weren't playing very well. I was trying to get something going. The two plays before that, we had guys wide open. So, I thought, you know, maybe – I had confidence in the offense, too, to hit that."
View game action photos between the Vikings and Lions during the Week 13 matchup at Ford Field.
Chasing 2-point plays
Early in the third quarter, the Vikings advanced to the red zone for a third time but again settled for a field goal.
A holding penalty changed first-and-10 at the 12 to first-and-20 at the 22. Minnesota only gained the penalty yardage back.
"I think in the red zone, one time we had a penalty that kind of put us back behind the chains. We had a couple — I think we had a third-and-18, which is just not ideal," Cousins said. "You'd much rather be in third-and-medium, third-and-short there. You try to find ways in the red zone on third down to convert, but you also want to put yourself in position where it's a more manageable distance than third-and-13 or whatever it was."
The Vikings defense forced a three-and-punt, and the offense responded with a 48-yard pass to Jefferson on the next snap. Mattison ended the drive with an 8-yard touchdown.
Rather than kicking an extra point, the Vikings tried a trick play with Kene Nwangwu, but it was stuffed.
Detroit held a 20-15 lead and added to it with a field goal late in the third quarter.
Minnesota scored on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Osborn, but again tried to chase a 2-point play after a roughing the passer penalty placed the ball at the 1.
Jefferson's 3-yard touchdown catch gave Minnesota a 27-23 lead with 1:50 to go, but Cousins was unable to connect with Jefferson on a pass.
"Yeah, they weren't very good, I didn't think," Zimmer said. "We tried to run it in, smash it down their throats from the 1-yard line. Then we tried to hand the ball off to Kene. Those weren't the best."
Hindsight is 20/20, but three extra points would have given Minnesota 30 for the day, despite those early missed opportunities.
Detroit Head Coach Dan Campbell credited Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn for having a "good beat" on what the Vikings wanted to do on the 2-point conversion attempts.
"Our guys did a good job. You can't prepare them for every look you're going to get, you just have to play the odds by personnel and looks that you get and hope that they play their roles," Campbell said. "And they did a good job today. We did, and it made a difference."
Inability to close
The Vikings defense still had an opportunity to close the game but failed to do so by allowing a 13-yard pass on a third-and-10. In addition to advancing the ball to the Detroit 49, Godwin Igwebuike was able to run out of bounds to stop the clock with 1:05 remaining.
Amon-Ra St. Brown was also able to get out of bounds after a 9-yard catch on second-and-2. The play moved the ball to the Minnesota 33 with 0:44 left.
After converting a third-and-6 with a 10-yard pass to Hockenson, the Lions spiked the ball to stop the clock.
St. Brown again was allowed to run out of bounds after a gain of 8 to the Minnesota 11, keeping 0:08 on the clock, which was enough time for two more plays.
"We were just too soft on them. Let them get out of bounds a couple times. It was pretty much it," safety Harrison Smith said. "Yeah, that's been an area we've struggled in all year, and it bit us today. We've got to fix it."