Minneapolis — It happened again, unbelievably and also believably, the same outcome by the exact same score, with almost the exact same finish. It happened again in excruciating fashion for the Lions, this time to the point of despair and tears.
Every time it happens, you rightly wonder — how and when can the Lions make it stop happening? Dan Campbell’s eyes were red and tears streamed down his face as he did his best to explain the defensive strategy at the end, the two-point conversion, all the moments that led to a result arguably more painful than the last.
This was a 19-17 loss to the Vikings on Greg Joseph’s 54-yard field goal on the final play Sunday. Two weeks earlier, the Ravens beat the Lions 19-17 on an NFL record 66-yarder by Justin Tucker on the final play. You could chalk that one up to a historic kicker. This one had more layers, and was more difficult to bear.
“That’s a heartbreaker,” Campbell said. “It’s tough to be 0-5, it’s tough to lose like that again, but I was proud of them, man. We just once again made one more mistake than the other team and it cost us.”
Twice, Campbell turned away from the podium to wipe his eyes, his emotions as raw and real as ever.
It took a few minutes, but when he shifted to the tactical realities, he made no excuses.
There’s a bit of disconnect in Campbell’s aggressive mentality and it was evident again. Going for two after scoring a touchdown to take a 17-16 lead with 37 seconds left? Extremely bold.
But then the defense that had been bold backed off, and on the final pass of Minnesota’s drive, the Lions rushed only three guys. Adam Thielen got wide open in the middle for a 19-yard catch from Kirk Cousins. The Vikings then spiked the ball and lined up for the kick, and by my modest estimation, 95% of Lions fans knew it would be good.
You can call it punishment for letting down, after Detroit’s defense scrapped hard the entire game. You can call it a sinister fate that only befalls the Lions. You’d probably be right on both counts. But for every tear Campbell shed, he found a drop of hope, and here comes the ultimate patronizing pronouncement — the Lions are a distinctly competitive 0-5 team.
That’s extremely small consolation, of course, because this is the NFL and extremely small margins are the norm. When you’re a young, rebuilding, injury-wracked team like the Lions, mistakes are magnified.
Jared Goff lost a fumble at Minnesota’s 38 and later threw an interception. He was sacked four times. He blamed himself for poor ball security but on the interception he said, “I’m gonna keep letting it fly. I can’t play afraid to make a mistake.”
Ah, and there’s the fine line. A week ago, Campbell was heavily scrutinized for his aggressiveness on fourth-down gambles that failed in a loss to the Bears. It’s a back-and-forth game that Campbell can’t win, until he wins. If he doesn’t gamble, he lacks faith in his players. If he does gamble, he’s pushing them beyond their talent level.
“We all feel the same way he does,” Goff said. “It’s hard to give everything you got all week and have moments where you feel you won the game, and have it snatched from you. It’s as hard as it gets.”
The Lions had taken the lead after a great defensive play, a fumble snatched by linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Then came clutch offensive plays, a 10-yard pass from Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown and a 7-yard touchdown run by D’Andre Swift. Then came the moment that might have defined Campbell in his first season here. Trailing 16-15, he opted to go for two, a decision made before the drive. Goff fired a strike to little-used KhaDarel Hodge and the Lions led 17-16, a victory seemingly imminent.
Except there was too much time left. Except the Vikings had two timeouts and great receivers. Except these are the Lions, who make more mistakes than they learn from.
Cousins needed only three completions to drive the Vikings 46 yards into field goal range. Could the Lions have killed more time before Swift scored? Maybe a few seconds, but at that stage, you take a touchdown when you can get it. Could they have played tighter defense on the final drive? Sure, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — who called a solid game with a decimated roster — is mindful of protecting the young secondary.
“It was not a soft cover,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “We were trying to break up the passes. I’ve been in these situations before. It’s the NFL, I can’t explain it enough. The margin for winning or losing is that small, you have to come up with the plays at the end.”
The Lions did come up with plays, sacking Cousins twice and intercepting him once. Goff came up with plays, but his turnovers are an issue that can’t keep happening.
The Lions appeared to come up with enough plays to win on the road against a division rival, and instead watched a long kick sail easily through the uprights. It was their eighth straight loss to the Vikings and 14th in their past 15 NFC North games. But if you’re counting, no, the Lions don’t look like an 0-17 team.
In both last-second losses, the defense kept them in the game, until it buckled. This one dropped Detroit to 0-5 and lifted Minnesota to 2-3, momentarily calming fuming Vikings fans. The Lions are the NFL’s resuscitators. They gave the Bears and rookie quarterback Justin Fields a boost last week. They did the same for the Ravens. They did the same for the Packers, who were under attack until the Lions came to town.
“We’re this close,” Campbell said, holding a finger and thumb less than an inch apart. “We haven’t quite gotten over the hump. I do think in the long run, this is going to pay dividends for us, as ugly as it is right now and hard to swallow.”
Campbell again paused to compose himself. Reviewing the game tape will be brutal because he’ll find all the mistakes. It will be tough bouncing back when Cincinnati visits next Sunday, but few really thought they’d bounce back in Minnesota.
Receiver Quintez Cephus left with an apparently serious shoulder injury, so the offense will be further depleted. Jamaal Williams kept pounding and Swift kept flashing his skill and the Lions were there at the end, until they weren’t.
“Here’s what I just try to keep picturing in my head because I know it’s coming,” Campbell said. “We’re gonna be on the winning side of these before long. Hopefully sooner than later. I don’t know when, but it’s coming. When you play that way and fight that way and clean up these mishaps, our days on being on the winning side of that are coming.”
Coming closer and closer, each more painful than the last. After the game ended, Lions’ officials piled into the press box elevator. Before the doors closed, GM Brad Holmes was seen with his head down, chomping furiously on gum. No one looked up. No one said anything.
No words accurately capture the odds this franchise continuously defies. The Lions will beat the odds eventually, presumably, right? Sure. As long as they don’t let it come down to one final mistake, or one final kick.