DETROIT — From the time the second half started until Jared Goff got the ball on his own 25-yard line, down four points with 1 minute, 50 seconds left, the Lions had managed three points, two turnovers and 56 total yards, turning a 20-6 halftime lead over the Vikings into what appeared to be only the latest case study in how a winless team manages to stay that way for three months.
The Vikings had charged back with four second-half scores, turning what was shaping up to be a stupefying loss into what seemed to be a gritty but necessary victory. Yes, they only led by four instead of six after missing their third two-point conversion of the second half. But following Kirk Cousins' 3-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson, all they needed was one more stop from a defense that had no trouble producing them for the past two quarters.
Why, in those moments, are these Vikings so often incapable of getting the one last thing they need? Why did the Lions — owners of one tie and 10 losses before Sunday — become the third team this season to celebrate a game-winning score against Minnesota as time ran out?
Those questions, after a 29-27 loss at Ford Field on Sunday, won't be easily purged from players' minds. They might be the ones on the 2021 Vikings' epitaph.
The Lions' 14-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in Goff's 11-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown as time expired, sent the Vikings to their seventh and most stunning defeat of a 2021 season now on the edge. They became the first team to lose to the Lions since Dec. 6, 2020, dropping to 5-7 before a Thursday home game against the Steelers.
"We were just too soft on them. Let them get out of bounds a couple times. It was pretty much it," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of the final drive. "That's been an area we've struggled in all year and it bit us [Sunday]. We've got to fix it."
At this point, the Vikings might need to win four of their last five games to reach the playoffs. At this point, it's fair to question whether they have the wherewithal for such a run.
Their defense, missing five starters Sunday, offered little resistance on the final drive as Goff completed nine of his 14 passes to five different receivers. The Vikings got their only pressure of the final drive on a six-man blitz where Smith and linebacker Nick Vigil rushed the quarterback as he threw deep for St. Brown.
Otherwise, the Vikings rushed Goff with four defenders seven times, and sent three defenders on each of the game's final four plays. The quarterback still found room to hit St. Brown in front of Cameron Dantzler, who played 10 yards off the receiver and still backpedaled into the end zone.
Coach Mike Zimmer said Dantzler was supposed to be in off coverage, but added, "I couldn't tell exactly where his inside help [safety Xavier Woods] was or not." The cornerback drifted into the end zone from his initial alignment, allowing St. Brown to catch a curl route for the score in front of Dantzler and Woods.
"We have a play that we've been running probably since training camp," Goff said. "It's for that exact situation. A few weeks ago, we actually switched it and put St. Brown as that guy that's going to catch that ball in the game-winning situation. Sure enough, it showed up."
Before the final drive, the Lions hadn't converted a third down all day. The Vikings only sent four rushers after Goff on a third-and-10, where he hit Godwin Igwebuike for 13 yards after Dantzler missed a tackle to keep the fullback in bounds. Then, after a delay-of-game penalty turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-6, Goff hit T.J. Hockenson for 10 yards against a four-man rush.
Asked afterward if he wished he would have brought more pressure after Goff, Zimmer said, "We weren't covering that great. Everything's hindsight, I guess."
Though they lost Adam Thielen to an ankle injury on the game's first series, the Vikings made their comeback by rediscovering the play-action bootleg game they've used so much in previous years. Cousins hit Jefferson six times for 91 yards in the second half alone, connecting with the receiver on a 48-yard downfield shot off play action that set up the Vikings' first touchdown in the second half. They then connected on the go-ahead score, a 3-yard touchdown pass with just under two minutes left. Jefferson finished with a career-high 11 catches and 182 yards.
Meanwhile, Detroit's receivers were dropping passes. Goff was intercepted by Dantzler in the fourth quarter while throwing into traffic for Hockenson. Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye dropped an interception on a drive that led to a Vikings field goal. And Detroit coach Dan Campbell got conservative in the second half, calling runs on second and long, playing for a field goal with a third-and-10 run in the third quarter and running Jamaal Williams up the middle on a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter before Goff was stripped of the ball on a fourth-down bootleg from the Lions' own 28.
For much of the first half, Detroit had been the aggressor. The Lions, who hadn't scored 20 points in a game since Week 1, had that many by halftime.
Goff, who posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating against the Vikings in 2018 (the year he took the Rams to the Super Bowl), matched that at one point in the first half, and finished the first two quarters 13-for-17 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
The quarterback found plenty of room to throw over the middle of a Vikings defense that was without injured linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. He hit Josh Reynolds for 28 yards on a play where cornerback Bashaud Breeland missed a tackle, and found Reynolds for another 27 on a deep over route where he beat Breeland across the field and caught the ball behind linebacker Troy Dye, who'd gotten sucked in by a play fake.
Minnesota managed only six first-half points, and gave the Lions a chance to kick a second field goal before halftime when Zimmer kept the offense on the field for a fourth-and-10 from the Detroit 42 and Cousins was sacked.
Zimmer would later say he regretted the decision. He also said he didn't like the play calls on two of the Vikings' three failed two-point conversions, when they were stuffed on runs into the middle of the line. Taken together, the choices cost the Vikings points they badly needed.
But their defense was still on the field at the end of the game, one stop away from a victory that would get them back to .500.
They didn't get it. And their latest lapse turned into their most humiliating defeat.
"It started with slowing the run game down and playing well on third down," Smith said. "We did for much of the second half, but kind of the two-minute and end-of-half area, it's our Achilles' heel right now."