Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings: An opportunity to define themselves declined

Both the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions had the opportunity to define themselves in Sunday's matchup, but neither team stepped up to do so.

Nominally, the Minnesota Vikings won 28-24 against the Detroit Lions. On paper, the Vikings have grabbed the division lead with multiple tiebreakers in hand while the Lions and Packers are close behind. The reality is far more confusing.

Vikings and Lions remain unknowns

In what could have been a corrective for Minnesota or a coming out party for Detroit, fans were left with neither — we couldn’t answer whether the Vikings were a good team that faltered against the Eagles or a bad team that happened to catch the Packers early. We don’t know if the Lions — who took those same Eagles to the wire — are a genuine threat in the NFC North or if they happened to catch a lucky string of games.

Given a perfect opportunity to learn more about both teams, we’ve come away knowing less about either of them than we did before the game.

A series of baffling decisions by Detroit in the fourth quarter — particularly a pair of fourth-down decisions that seem wholly unnecessary — let Minnesota back into the game, while a rattled Kirk Cousins and unspectacular Justin Jefferson did the least they could to march down the field.

In essence, both teams played as caricatures of themselves.

Cousins launched bad balls off his back foot under pressure, was overfocused on his primary receiver, and managed to mishandle an end-of-half drive by throwing the ball over the middle with the clock winding down, resulting in more empty yards.

The Lions were relentless in establishing their toughness, even to the detriment of smarter football play. Mashing the ball to run it 35 times in a close game, Detroit chose to go for it on fourth down in nearly every opportunity, even when field position would have helped more than points. Their aggressive blitzing and rough man coverage resulted in constant pressure and seven penalties.

At other moments, high school football trickery backfired for the Lions, as they attempted to goad the Vikings into thinking they were going for a fourth-down conversion on two separate occasions where it would have been preposterous to attempt a try.

Instead, they ran their special-teams units onto the field at the last moment in order to catch Minnesota off-guard. The result? A delay of game penalty on the punt and a missed field goal on the kick.

Both teams finally managed to go against type in the final moments of the game. One of the only times the Lions didn’t choose a short fourth-down conversion was on their final fourth-down attempt, where a first down would have won the game, and a made field goal would have turned a one-score affair into a slightly different one-score affair. Karmically, they missed that field goal.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell recognized that and, after the game, said, “I freakin’ regret my decision there at the end. I regret that decision 100 percent. I really do. I hate it. I do feel like I cost our team. I really do, man.”

While the Lions surprisingly abandoned their identity in the final moments of the game, the Vikings seemingly found a new one on their final drive. Cousins led a comeback under pressure with three consecutive throws to K.J. Osborn.

After the first throw, an incompletion, he threaded a tight-window effort to the third-year receiver for 28 yards and followed it up with a moonball to a wide-open Osborn for the game-winning touchdown, also 28 yards down the field.

In between those two final plays, the Lions called a puzzling timeout with 50 seconds to go.

Vikings and Lions have the talent to be better but demonstrate the proclivity to be worse

Neither the Vikings nor the Lions are caught in the grips of a coaching crisis, but both have a lot of work to do from that standpoint. Game management was a disaster, and players weren’t put in positions to succeed. We are perhaps one or two games away from asking if Cousins might be a better quarterback under Mike Zimmer than alleged quarterback whisperer Kevin O’Connell.

Cousins has been better under pressure, better against the blitz, and better at finding open receivers in the past than he was in these last two weeks, and it’s developing into a real problem.

It would be a tremendous shame for the Vikings to have hired an offensive head coach — one who helped engineer a Super Bowl-winning team — just to squander their offensive potential.

With Jefferson locked up for most of the game, it was appropriate to see other receivers — namely Adam Thielen and Osborn — take up the mantle. But too many times, Cousins saw Jefferson well-covered before panicking and throwing off balance or out of bounds.

Still, a receiver as good as Jefferson should not be taken away that easily. As O’Connell said after the game, “I have to do a better job giving Justin different aspects of lining up in different spots, different personnel groupings, whatever I need to do to help him because he’s an ultra-competitor, and we’ll get him going.”

At the same time, Detroit’s talent in the trenches and the culture they’ve developed have been extraordinary, and coaches should generally be praised for aggressive fourth-down decisions.

They’ve developed an offensive and defensive system around the types of talent that they have, and both offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have been showcasing enough chops that they should be considered as head coach candidates in the years to come.

But that needs to be tempered with better decision-making – not just in-game, either. The Lions have been somewhat traditional in their player load management, except when giving consideration to running back D’Andre Swift.

They lost the third-most player games to injury last year and seem to be on track for something similar in 2022, having significant injuries across multiple position groups early in the season.

Few teams are “one player away” from being competitive, but the Lions aren’t far from that status. A quarterback — admittedly, not easy to find — and a cornerback could launch this team into contention quickly. But until then, they are squeaking out efficient games from Jared Goff and finding ways to create explosive plays.

There’s never much time in an NFL season for teams to correct the narratives they’ve written for themselves — a 17-game season doesn’t leave much room for error. But the Vikings and Lions both have an opportunity in front of them to fix what’s broken, and they have a world of potential to unlock if they do.

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