Two things can be true about Sunday’s stunning 29–27 Lions victory over the Vikings.
The first is that it’s somewhat unbelievable, after a season spent stomaching close, heartbreaking losses alternated by the occasional, demoralizing beatdown, that the Lions still had enough emotional equity remaining to cull together a last-second touchdown drive to beat the second-best team in their division 11 games into a winless season. We have seen countless teams fall off the rails, implode and, once the season goes south, fail to come away with a victory to legitimize the arduous process of getting back on the field each Sunday. Detroit, to the team’s credit, has been a potential landmine for each opponent it’s faced.
The second is that it’s somewhat unbelievable, after having momentary possession of the seventh seed gifted to them through rampant inconsistency at the bottom of the NFC, that the Vikings would continue an early-season trend of playing down to their opponents and lose a game that may ultimately signal the closing of an era in Minnesota. A team that may need not only to make the playoffs, but have some success in the postseason, to have a chance of remaining intact for 2022 played as if it wasn’t completely in love with that idea.
Dan Campbell’s first victory as a head coach (excluding his time leading the Dolphins with the interim tag) has far more reaching consequences than some meme-able benchmark for an animated sideline presence who promised to come into the league biting kneecaps and ended up losing 10 of his first 11 games. While there was likely no pressure on him to succeed this season, very few coaches can survive the optics of a winless year no matter how threadbare the roster. Campbell was hurtling toward that dubious feat at great speed, but miraculously followed two straight, gutting losses (by a combined five points) with one of the most efficient game-winning drives of the season. Without timeouts, without having successfully converted a third down all game, Jared Goff threaded a handful of balls into a soft, largely pressureless defense with a barely professional-grade receiving corps to win the game.
Mike Zimmer’s most brutal loss of the season also could have some consequences. The defeat dropped their playoff chances below 30% (through the early window of Sunday’s games), according to FiveThirtyEight. Zimmer had a timeout remaining and an opportunity to talk to all of his defensive players before the final snap. As a defensive head coach, it must be an incredibly difficult moment to explain to anyone who wasn’t in those small huddles. Here is a punchless offense simply trying to get creative enough to find space for its best pass-catching weapon, T.J. Hockenson. Instead, the Lions sat one of their receivers just below the perimeter of the Vikings’ goal-line zone and sniped a well-timed pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown before both of the defenders in coverage could converge on the ball.
While we’re not suggesting Zimmer should be fired, or saying he will be fired (and, honestly don’t like bringing it up this time of year before the coaching carousel starts), it’s a stinging moment toward the end of a bitter season. The Vikings continue to enjoy above-average quarterback play. They have a pretty good offensive line and arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFL. Each week is dotted with incredible, balletic performances from Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, most of which have gone to waste juxtaposed against an oft-injured and talent-depleted defense that, at the end of the season, will probably finish middle of the pack in most all-encompassing analytical rankings. At what point are you forced to accept that the team is not just historically unlucky, the byproduct of famous missed field goals and poorly bounced balls? At what point do you have to accept that the record reflects a good bit of reality and wonder why this team isn’t better than it currently is? This is especially true given the absolute ruin at the bottom of the NFC North this year.
Since the Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings have been back to the playoffs once, in 2019. That run came with a stunning overtime victory over the powerhouse Saints was followed by a flattening at the hands of the eventual conference champion 49ers, a moment that seems to tidily sum up the last few years. Some great, some not so great. Seasons that sometimes last a little bit longer than they should, but not long enough to remember.
Rarely can we draw so much from a game that was shoved into the NFL’s back corner amid a weekend of premier matchups. And while the Lions will not make their ultimate determination of the Campbell era based on this Vikings game, there were so many moments that will resonate. There was the way Jared Goff sprinted off the field and bro-hugged his coach like Campbell was the first human he’d seen after years of isolation on a desert island. There was the dogpile on St. Brown as he tried to make it to the sideline. And, on the Vikings’ sideline, there was that familiar bewilderment. Players scattered, eyes agape, trying to figure out how it happened this time.
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