The Lions Game Was A Microcosm Of Minnesota's Season

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago, Greg Joseph won the Minnesota Vikings’ whiteout game with a 61-yard field goal, the longest of his career. Kirk Cousins had connected with Justin Jefferson for 17 yards on third-and-11 with 19 seconds left to set Joseph up for the game-winning kick. That was Minnesota’s 11th and final one-score win in the regular season. “The Vikings found those extra edges,” read the Associated Press recap, “in the crucial moments once again.”

On Sunday, Nick Mullens connected with Jefferson for first down on third-and-27 with 1:26 left in the fourth quarter. After the game, K.J. Osborn said it was the same route and mechanics Jefferson used to secure his miracle catch in Buffalo last year. Mullens then hit Brandon Powell for 26 yards after spiking the ball, giving the Vikings first-and-ten on their 30-yard line. Jefferson got open near the end zone, and Mullens went to him again for the game-winning score, only to have Ifeatu Melifonwu pick him off to seal Detroit’s first division title since 1993.

“I could either have put it like further out or right on him,” Mullens said. “[I] tried to put it right on him and the ball didn’t come out exactly how I wanted it to.”

Minnesota has played 14 one-score games this year, tying the NFL record for most one-score games in NFL history. The Vikings also played 14 one-score games in 2021, Mike Zimmer’s final season, and went 6-8 in such games. Their one-score record this year? 6-8. Kevin O’Connell’s job isn’t in jeopardy. He’s in his second season, and Minnesota has suffered injuries at crucial moments. But their playoff hopes are in peril. The Lions won the division, and the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks held on to win and pass them in the standings.

The Vikings have been a bizarro version of the 2022 team this year. Everyone expected their one-score record to even out, but they’ve played in more one-score contests this season. Jefferson made a catch against Detroit like the one he had in Buffalo – only Minnesota lost the game. Mullens had a sneaky 400-yard passing game, like Cousins has had in the past. But he also threw four interceptions, the same number Joshua Dobbs had in his final start. The Vikings were driving down the field with a chance to win, only to come up short for the eighth time.

“Some critical plays to try to find a way to win the game there in the end, but ultimately fell a little bit short there,” O’Connell said. ‘You know, had our fourth turnover of the day, which we knew would be some tough sledding to try to overcome losing the turnover battle like that.”

Sunday’s game was a microcosm of Minnesota’s 2023 season. They haven’t had the situational mastery they had last year. Injuries continue to derail them. T.J. Hockenson, Jordan Addison, D.J. Wonnum, and Mekhi Blackmon left Sunday’s game with ailments. Mullens made mistakes that backups make, costing them at crucial times. “You have to be elite at all times,” Mullens said. “I’ve done a good job making plays and moving the offense. We’ve worked really hard collectively to move the offense. Just you have to avoid those mistakes.”

Ultimately, the Vikings will finish somewhere around .500 this season. They will probably re-sign Cousins, who was on the sidelines for the first time on Sunday, and hope to retain Brian Fores as their defensive coordinator. Minnesota will have a tough matchup if they make the playoffs, and they won’t get a good pick if they don’t.

“These guys continue to battle, continue to work,” said O’Connell. “I can tell by the look in their eyes they’re ready to go back to work and figure out where we have to overcome possibly some injury adversity and get back to work and prepare for another home game next week.”

Minnesota still has a chance to make the postseason, but they made things harder on themselves by losing winnable games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit in the past two weeks. Perhaps it’s better than beating the New York Giants in the regular season and losing to them as favorites in the playoffs three weeks later. But the Lions game was still disappointing because the Vikings were driving to come back and came up short again. It felt fitting in a season where they haven’t found the extra edges in crucial moments.

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