The Vikings drove for a pair of touchdowns but saw momentum slip in the Motor City Sunday in a 16-14 loss to the Lions at Ford Field.
First-year Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Minnesota moved closer to the team he wants to lead into hostile environments and in front of home crowds toward the desired results of wins.
"This team will battle. They'll fight, they'll compete," Zimmer said. "That's what I've been trying to preach to them. I walked in and said, 'That's what I want to get done.' Obviously you want to get a win, but if you keep doing things like this, the wins will stack up. I've been doing this for a long, long time and I've seen the teams that come out with great effort and great heart each and every day, each and every week, win."
Detroit (10-4, 4-0 NFC North) took its first lead of the game on a 33-yard field goal by Matt Prater with 3:38 remaining to cap a 10-play, 65-yard drive that followed Jason Jones' block of a 26-yard attempt by Blair Walsh.
Cordarrelle Patterson tried spark a comeback with a 51-yard kickoff return that gave the Vikings the ball at their own 49-yard line, but a holding penalty on first down put Minnesota behind the chains. Zimmer opted to go for it on fourth-and-4, but Teddy Bridgewater's pass to Patterson fell incomplete.
The Vikings (6-8, 0-5) forced a punt to get the ball back at their own 30 with 45 seconds remaining, but Bridgewater was unable to orchestrate his fifth-game winning or tying drive in a fourth quarter or overtime. Minnesota got the ball to the 50-yard line, and Zimmer opted to send Walsh out for a 68-yard attempt that would have shattered Prater's record of 64 yards that was kicked last December in Denver instead of trying a Hail Mary pass toward the end zone.
"Either one is kind of a shot in the dark, but Blair has hit 70 yarders in practice before so I figured that was the best chance to win the football game," Zimmer said.
TEDDY'S DAY: Bridgewater opened the game ablaze, completing 15 of his first 18 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown to Greg Jennings, but suffered interceptions on his final two throws of the first half that led to 10 points for the Lions.
Glover Quin picked off the first pass and returned the ball 56 yards to set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate two plays later. Darius Slay nabbed the second interception on what Bridgewater called a "horrible throw" another two plays later.
"I was late, and you never want to be late throwing an out route, and I left the ball inside," Bridgewater said.
He finished 31-of-41 passing for 315 yards and a passer rating of 84.9, showing considerable improvement from his Week 6 outing against the Lions (his second career start) when he completed 23 of 37 passes for 188 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions for a season-low passer rating of 41.3. Bridgewater also scrambled three times for 30 yards.
It was the rookie's first opportunity for a rematch with a team this season, and although he wanted the two picks and a late overthrow to Jarius Wright back, Bridgewater said he was encouraged by the progress the Vikings have made as a team.
"Our defense only gave up six points, Bridgewater said. "They got 10 points off turnovers, so as a team, we're doing a better job of just competing with guys in this division and we're going to be pretty excited for the near future, but we still have two games left this year and don't want to look too far ahead because we know that tomorrow isn't promised. We're going to take advantage of these last two games and try to get better as a team.
"We've grown as an offense, we've grown as a team," Bridgewater added. "We're just getting more and more comfortable playing with each other and practicing with each other throughout the week."
Zimmer said of Bridgewater, who had his second straight 300-yard passing performance, "I continue to think the more he plays, the better he gets."
"He had a couple of bad plays, but for the most part, he shows the ability to do what we need to do offensively: getting in and out of the right plays, his accuracy, his composure," Zimmer added. "I'm glad he's playing and learning."
MATCHING UP WITH "MEGATRON": The Vikings opted to move their biggest cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow Detroit's Calvin Johnson more than they've previously done against other receivers, and the second-year pro held his own despite briefly leaving the game because of injury. Rhodes and the Vikings limited "Megatron" to four catches for 53 yards and Tate to 38 yards on seven receptions.
View images from the week 15 matchup at Ford Field between the Vikings and Lions.
"I thought Xavier battled well," Zimmer said. "There were times when we helped him, and there were times we weren't helping him, too."
Minnesota was without starting safety Robert Blanton, and his replacement Andrew Sendejo missed some plays Sunday because of injury, but the Vikings held Johnson and Tate to their lowest combined output of the season and joined Arizona as the only team to keep the duo under 100 yards combined in the 11 games in which they've both played this season.
In addition to Blanton, Minnesota was also without starting defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (replaced by Tom Johnson) and linebacker Anthony Barr (replaced by Gerald Hodges for a second straight week).
RUNNING AND RECEIVING: Matt Asiata led the Vikings with 11 carries for 36 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown plunge. Minnesota finished with 76 yards on 21 carries against a Detroit rush defense unit that entered the game as the stingiest in the league (62.8 yards per game).
Asiata also had seven receptions for 50 yards, catching the ball every time he was targeted by Bridgewater. Asiata finished the end of each play with physicality that helped Minnesota's strong start.
"Matt did a great job running with force, running with power," Bridgewater said. "The offensive line did a great job today, and we just executed at a high level but we didn't well enough to win a football game.
Four other players — Kyle Rudolph (seven catches for 69 yards), Charles Johnson (five for 72), Wright (four for 49) and Jennings (three for 43) — had at least 40 yards receiving.
COMBO NUMBER FIVE: Continued injuries forced Minnesota used its fifth combination of starters on the offensive line this season: Matt Kalil at left tackle, Vladimir Ducasse at left guard, John Sullivan at center, Joe Berger at right guard and Mike Harris at right tackle. Kalil and Sullivan are the only starters who remain, but Zimmer and Bridgewater said they thought the reserves played well in a tough environment.
"The offensive line, for the guys we had in there, fought their rear ends off," Zimmer said. "We played well enough to win. Hopefully, this will springboard us into the kind of football team that I want to have."