The Vikings overcame a slow start offensively to defeat the Lions and stay in pursuit of the postseason.
From Minnesota’s first offensive snap, things didn’t go the visiting team’s way. The Vikings started at their own 2-yard line thanks to a good play by Detroit’s special teams, and left guard Tom Compton was flagged for a false start.
The play was followed up by consecutive 1-yard rushes by quarterback Kirk Cousins and fullback C.J. Ham, and Cousins’ pass to Stefon Diggs on third-and-9 from the 3 fell incomplete, forcing a punt.
The Vikings first four drives ended in punts, and they ended the first quarter with just four net yards of offense. Penalties put them behind the 8-ball, and they struggled to get the ground game going.
Minnesota’s defense kept the game within reach, however, and despite a barrage of struggles early on, the Vikings trailed just 9-0 late in the second quarter. Just inside the two-minute warning, momentum finally began to swing.
On-and-17 from Detroit’s 49-yard line, Cousins found an open Adam Thielen and hit the receiver for a 40-yard gain and the first trip deep in Lions territory. Two plays later, Cousins targeted Diggs in the end zone to put Minnesota on the board.
Cousins acknowledged after the game the significance of Thielen’s third-down catch.
“If you’re punting and giving them the ball back down 9-0, you’re not in a good spot, especially on the road,” Cousins said. “But to hit that, and not only hit it but now we’re way down in scoring territory and get a touchdown, suddenly it’s 9-7.
“Plays like that, one or two swing your way or don’t swing your way, it can make all the difference,” Cousins added.
The Vikings, who had won the coin toss pregame and elected to defer, hoped to “double dip” and bracket halftime with back-to-back scores. They did that and more.
The Lions were contained and forced to punt, returning the ball to Cousins and Company with 36 seconds left in the half. The Vikings made some ground and then, on a play snapped with just two seconds remaining, Rudolph hauled in a 44-yard Hail Mary to give Minnesota a 14-9 lead.
Rudolph said that the Vikings stick-to-itiveness is what makes him love the team.
“No matter how slow we started, we took the field with a couple minutes left in the second quarter knowing that, ‘Hey, if we go get points here, we’ll get the ball again, and we’ll get points again, and we’re right back in this,’ ” Rudolph said.
The Vikings entered halftime with plenty of offensive frustrations, including just 22 net rushing yards, but the pair of scores by Diggs and Rudolph breathed life into a previously listless-looking squad.
“It sparked us,” Cook said. “That really gave us an extra push. You saw it coming to the locker room on guys’ faces and everybody out there. We want to go back out there and play more football.”
Cook did just that, rushing for 55 yards in the third quarter.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he spoke with Interim Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski at halftime and told him, “Don’t be afraid to come out here and hit some play-action passes on them” after noticing that Detroit’s defense was loading up the box to defend the run.
Cousins ran a play-action pass to Thielen for 13 yards on the second play of the third quarter, and things continued to roll offensively.
“We had some good gains on them, and then the running game started loosening up, and then we looked a lot more like ourselves,” Zimmer said. “I knew it was going to be hard running the ball today. We got the ball on the 1 [to start], so that’s going to make it more difficult because guys are going to sit in there. Penalties didn’t help us today; we had way too many of those. But once we started going and getting [loosened] up a little bit, then the running game got a lot better.”
After totaling just 15 rushing yards in the first quarter, running back Dalvin Cook finished the game with 73 yards on 16 carries. Latavius Murray added 22 yards on nine attempts.
Cook said he knew it was important to stay patient.
“As a running back, you’ve got to know that every run isn’t going to be a big run or a big play,” Cook said. “We try to make it [one], but stick with it, be patient and stay the course and the guys up front will open it for you.”
Was there any rousing speech or words of wisdom that helped the Vikings rebound? Cook said it was more a reminder to get back to basics.
“Just ‘Settle down,’ and ‘Play football the way we know how to play.’ That’s loose and fun,” Cook said. “Once we start doing that and imposing our will on teams, and start running the football and throwing it around, it’s fun to watch.”
Diggs’ touchdown started a string of successful series for Minnesota:
Field goal (24-yarder by Dan Bailey)
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday.
The Lions didn’t score in the second half and were kept out of the end zone for the entire day, mustering nine points against Minnesota for a second time in 2018.
“Our D stood up and stopped them from scoring and gave our offense time to catch their rhythm, and they did,” Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said. “In the first half, [the Lions] had the majority of the time of possession, and the only thing we could do was defend and try to get our offense back on the field as soon as possible.
“They got the ball, and Diggs with a big touchdown, Rudy with a big touchdown and Adam with some big catches, and getting the running game going really helped us,” Griffen added.
Cousins also seemed to gain some pep in his step after the initial touchdown pass to Diggs and even more so after executing the Hail Mary to Rudolph. The quarterback finished the day 21-of-28 passing for 253 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 137.9. He increased his season completion total to 405, which surpassed Sam Bradford (395 completions in 2016) for the franchise’s single-season record.
He reflected postgame on notching a win in Michigan, which he considers home after moving to Holland, with his family when he was in the seventh grade.
“It means a lot to me to come back here,” Cousins said. “I found myself this morning taking stock of my journey, you know, coming from Holland and through East Lansing [with Michigan State],” Cousins said. “I just never thought I’d be here, never thought I’d be in the position I’m in. I’m living a dream.”
Cousins added that he and his teammates will enjoy the win but quickly turn the page for Week 17.
“We’re going to go into the Christmas holiday and be able to enjoy it with a smile on our faces after a win from today and then get ready for the Bears. And understand that a 16-game season really comes down to one game,” Cousins said. “It’s a great opportunity for us at home against a really good football team. There were certainly some mistakes today, like a slow start and some penalties, and if you do that against a good football team, you’re probably not going to win, so we’ve got to clean that up. What more do you want Week 17 than a chance at home to clinch a playoff berth?”