Detroit — The stage was set for an all-too-familiar collapse, but the Detroit Lions finally did something they had failed to do all season long — they finished off an opponent.
After coughing up a 14-point halftime lead to the Minnesota Vikings in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game at Ford Field, the Lions took over with 1:50 remaining, no timeouts and managed to drive the length of the field.
And with one final chance, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for an 11-yard touchdown to put the Lions ahead as time expired, 29-27, sending the home crowd into a frenzy and capping an emotional Sunday where both teams honored the community of Oxford following this week’s school shooting.
“Yeah, it was crazy,” St. Brown said. “…We work that play all the time in practice. We’ve been working it since camp and it finally showed up.”
Goff orchestrated a 14-play, 75-yard drive capped by the winner to St. Brown, who found a soft spot in the Vikings’ zone as time expired, setting off a celebration in which teammates stormed the field to celebrate.
“I was trying to get down to the sideline, but guys were high-fiving, hitting each other,” outside linebacker Charles Harris said. “I was just getting hit. It was just a tornado going on. I was just standing there yelling at the top of my lungs, that’s why I have a sore voice right now. But just elated, really elated after the win.”
In the first half, the Lions looked nothing like a team that had failed to win any of their previous 11 games, building that 14-point advantage. The defense was coming up with stops, Goff was squeezing perfect passes into tight windows and the Lions even caught a critical break from officiating.
Things started slowly for the Lions. After forcing the Vikings to punt on the game’s opening possession, coach Dan Campbell made a bold call to go for it on fourth down in his own territory only to see Goff’s sneak stuffed inches short of extending Detroit’s first series.
Taking over at the Lions’ 42-yard line, the Vikings capitalized on the gift, turning the favorable field position into three points when Greg Joseph converted a 41-yard field goal.
Minnesota extended their early advantage to six with another field goal. Opening the drive with a 34-yard completion to Jefferson, running back Alexander Mattison followed up with a trio of carries runs netting 17 yards. But Detroit’s defense tightened in the red zone, limiting the damage to a 31-yard Joseph field goal.
The Lions snatched the lead early the second quarter with a quick-hitting, five-play, 69-yard touchdown drive.
On the opening play of the quarter, Goff riffled a pass into a tight window between two defenders to tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 25-yard game, supplemented by a 15-yard penalty against the Vikings for hitting Hockenson in the head and neck area while defenseless.
Two plays later, Goff thread another needle to Hockenson between the coverage of cornerback Bashaud Breeland and Harrison Smith for a 9-yard score.
Minnesota responded with a 44-yard kickoff return by Kene Nwangwu, and a 10-yard run by Mattison moved the Vikings into field-goal range. But the defense tightened again as Harris broke into the pocket and knocked the ball free from Cousins. The loose ball was scooped by teammate Julian Okwara, ending the threat.
In an interesting twist for a franchise often bit by officiating errors, replays showed the Lions caught a break on the fumble. Before Harris knocked it loose, Cousins had his face mask grabbed by defensive tackle Alim McNeill, but the officials missed it.
The Lions needed just three plays to capitalize and get back into the end zone. Goff connected on a short throw to Josh Reynolds to open the drive. From there, the receiver broke a tackle turning it into a 28-yard gain.
Following a short run by Jamaal Williams, Goff faked a handoff to the back before finding tight end Brock Wright down the seam for a 23-yard touchdown to extend Detroit’s lead, 14-6.
“It was a perfect throw by Jared,” Wright said.
After Detroit’s defense forced another punt, which pinned the Lions at their own 10-yard line, the offense methodically worked to midfield before Goff found Reynolds on a crossing pattern out of play action for a 27-yard field goal. That set up a 31-yard Riley Patterson field goal, making it 17-6.
The 11-point lead marked the largest of the season for the Lions, but was topped minutes later after the defense forced a turnover on downs near midfield. A 24-yard completion from Goff to Kalif Raymond in the closing seconds of the half led to a 41-yard Patterson field goal, giving the Lions a 20-6 lead at the break.
It marked the first time the Lions had scored 20 points in a game since the season-opener, a 41-33 loss to San Francisco.
Of course, nothing comes easy with this team and the Lions looked every bit like that previously winless squad as they squandered the lead with self-inflicted wounds and questionable coaching decisions.
Things started to unravel when the offense proved unable to carry their momentum into the third quarter, going three-and-out with each of their first two possession of the second half.
That opened the door for the Vikings to cut into the lead. With their first crack, the opposition was forced to settle for a 31-yard Joseph field goal after tight end Ty Conklin failed to get his second foot down in bounds in the end zone on third down from Detroit’s 12-yard line.
Minnesota then got back within one score on their next possession. Jefferson came up big again, getting behind Detroit’s defense for a 48-yard reception to kickstart that possession and Mattison finished it with an 8-yard touchdown romp. A failed two-point conversion attempt left the Lions ahead, 20-15, with a little more than six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Lions were able to slow the bleeding thanks to a 17-yard pass interference penalty against the Vikings on a sideline shot to Hockenson keyed a 44-yard drive that ended with a 49-yard Patterson field goal. That kick put the Lions back up eight heading into the final quarter.
The reprieve was short-lived as the Vikings ate the Lions up through the air with gains of 16, 16, 14 and 21 yards, the last of which converted a third-and-11. On third-and-goal from the 5, Cousins found receiver and Ypsilanti native K.J. Osborn in the back end zone for a diving grab, beating the coverage of Will Harris with 11:57 remaining.
But again Detroit prevented the two-point conversion when rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes stood up Mattison short of the goal line, preserving the Lions’ narrow lead, 23-21.
“You have to make big-time plays in critical situations like that,” Barnes said. “Right before the play, I told myself, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I make this stop?'”
The Lions looked poised to respond, driving to the fringes of field goal range, but on third down, Goff tried to force a ball into double coverage to Hockenson that was intercepted by cornerback Cameron Dantzler.
“(The) corner squeezed down, made a play,” Goff said. “Would have loved to throw it to Saint (St. Brown) there, I believe he was open. One I’d like to have back.”
Two quick catches by Jefferson brought Minnesota to midfield before a holding penalty and a false start stalled the drive and forced the Vikings to punt it back to the Lions with under six minutes remaining.
Mimicking the daring decision from the first half, the Lions once again opted to go for fourth-and-1 in their own territory, this time the 28-yard line. After taking a timeout, the team tried to run a play-action pass to Williams, but the Vikings sniffed it out. With nowhere else to go with the ball, Goff was sacked, giving Minnesota the ball at the 19 with 4:01 remaining.
“I felt like I needed to be aggressive a little bit today just knowing the nature of their offense,” Campbell explained. “I felt like we could get that. It didn’t work out and yeah, at least we’re guaranteed to get the ball back knowing we were already up.”
That set up a short, six-play drive with two third-down conversions and a 3-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Jefferson that put the Vikings ahead.
The score capped a monster day for Jefferson, who caught 11 passes for 182 yards to go with the touchdown.