The Minnesota Vikings needed a road win to stay in the NFC playoff chase, and they did that with a 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions behind another record-setting performance from the defense.
Minnesota’s top-ranked rush defense held the Lions to minus-3 yards rushing – a record for both teams – on 10 attempts, while the rest of the defense intercepted Jon Kitna three times and recovered three fumbles.
The stifling rush defense, combined with running back Artose Pinner’s 125 yards rushing on 29 attempts, gave the Vikings a 175-yard advantage on the ground while Brad Johnson completed 14 of 22 passes for 159 yards and one interception. Johnson also ran five times for 10 yards, including a 3-yard run for a touchdown.
But Pinner, playing against the team that released him before the start of the regular season, was the story on offense, carrying the load in the absence of the injured Chester Taylor. Pinner got the touchdown on the game’s opening drive and rammed his way through the line for two more touchdowns before the game was complete. It gave the Vikings a distinct advantage in time of possession as well, controlling the ball for 35:31 of the game’s 60 minutes.
When the Lions became resigned to the passing game after falling behind 20-0 in the second quarter, it helped Minnesota come up with three interceptions and three sacks while giving up 294 yards in the air. But Detroit’s efforts were too little, too late, as the Vikings controlled much of the first half.
Johnson and the offense started hot, taking the opening drive 80 yards for a touchdown. In the passing game, it was mainly Marcus Robinson, who caught two passes for a combined 34 yards, including the game’s initial third-down conversion with a 25-yard pickup on a drag route. In the running game, Ciatrick Fason and Mewelde Moore each carried on the first drive, but Pinner was the workhorse. He carried five times for 17 yards, including the 3-yard touchdown run with 8:01 left in the first quarter.
The Lions drove to midfield with two first downs, but when Roy Williams had a step on former Texas Longhorns teammate Cedric Griffin, Williams fumbled the ball, Griffin picked it up and had 15 yards tacked onto his return when Kevin Jones came in for a late hit on Griffin. The combination of events gave the Vikings the ball at Detroit’s 45-yard line.
Minnesota stuck with what was working – the running game. Pinner got 6 yards, and Johnson picked up 5 on a scramble before he hit Troy Williamson for 9 yards. On third-and-1, Pinner started right and then cut back left for 21 yards to the 4-yard line. On the next play, Pinner finished the job with a 4-yard run for a touchdown.
The early assault continued when Dwight Smith intercepted Kitna’s overthrown pass on the third play of the ensuing drive and returned it 47 yards to the 22-yard line. After an 11-yard pickup on a stop route to Robinson, the Vikings were faced with first-and-10 at the 11-yard line. On third-and-2, Johnson rolled out right and headed for the end zone on a 3-yard run for a touchdown. However, the prosperity was too much, and the Vikings’ backslide started with a mishandled hold by Chris Kluwe and a pass the failed, leaving the Vikings with a 20-0 lead.
While the defense stayed strong, the offense started to revert to its turnover-prone ways.
On Minnesota’s next possession, Travis Taylor found a seam for a 30-yard reception and Johnson picked up another first down on a quarterback sneak, but shortly thereafter Johnson was under pressure and unloaded an ill-advised sideline pass that Jamar Fletcher intercepted and returned 88 yards for a touchdown.
The offense returned to the ground game with four consecutive runs for 31 yards across midfield. When Mewelde Moore converted third-and-13 on a screen pass, it appeared the offense was back on track, but two plays later Pinner fumbled at the end of a 7-yard run and Detroit safety Kenoy Kennedy recovered.
The Lions took advantage of the opportunity, as Mike Furrey and Kevin Jones each picked up a first down, and cornerback Fred Smoot helped with a pass interference penalty. But a chop block penalty stopped the Lions offense and forced a 53-yard Jason Hanson field goal to make it 20-10 with 1:30 to play in the first half, a score that held up until halftime.
Despite the Vikings dominating the first-half stats with 150 yards rushing (105 for Pinner) and holding the Lions to minus-12 yards rushing, the momentum was switching to the Detroit sidelines.
But Minnesota’s defenders continued to take matters – and the football – into their own hands.
On the third play of Detroit’s first possession in the second half, Darrion Scott sacked Kitna and knocked the ball out of his hands while Kevin Williams caught the floater to give the Vikings possession on the 18-yard line. Four plays into the drive, Ryan Longwell booted a 30-yard field goal to put the Vikings out in front, 23-10, with 2:27 elapsed in the second half.
The Lions countered with their own field goal drive, but they had to do it the hard way. Kitna caught fire and hit Bradford for back-to-back passes of 8 and 11 yards for back-to-back first downs. An illegal contact penalty on Ray Edwards gave the Lions another first down at the 25-yard line, but from there Detroit went backwards before Hanson kicked a 45-yard field goal to draw the Lions back within 10 points, 23-13, midway through the third quarter.
Minnesota’s fifth-ranked defense continued to create turnovers. After a three-and-out drive by the Vikings, cornerback Cedric Griffin knocked the ball away from receiver Mike Furrey and E.J. Henderson recovered. The offense couldn’t capitalize on that gift, but on Detroit’s next series, Griffin intercepted a tipped pass and gave the ball to the offense on the Lions 26-yard line.
Minnesota committed to the running game with Pinner. Besides Jeff Dugan’s 9-yard third-down reception, Pinner carried the load, rushing four times for 17 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown plunge to put his new team ahead of his old team, 30-13, with 13:46 left to play.
But, just like the Lions answered the Vikings’ field goal, they came back and answered their touchdown as well.
This time they stayed exclusively with the passing game. Roy Williams started it with an 11-yard reception and Furrey followed with an 18-yard pickup. After a Henderson sack and an incompletion, Williams converted third down with a 22-yard catch, and Jones finished it with a 23-yard catch and run to the end zone to cut the Vikings’ lead back to 10 points, 30-20, with 10:48 to play.
The Detroit defense snuffed out the Vikings’ rushing attach and put Kitna and Company back on the field for the game’s most crucial drive.
With 8:37 to play and needing 10 points, Kitna stuck with the passing game until the Lions were on the doorstep of the end zone. After an 11-yard completion to tight end Dan Campbell and an incompletion, Kitna completed five consecutive passes to move to the 1-yard line. But the Vikings’ incredible run defense stopped it from there. On second down, Kenechi Udeze and Scott stuffed Jones for no gain and knocked the feature running back out of the game with a foot injury. After Minnesota’s defense stopped Arlen Harris for no gain, Dwight Smith sacked Kitna on fourth down to give the ball back to Johnson, Pinner and the rest of the offense with 3:39 to play.
When three straight runs netted only 6 yards, the Vikings punted back to the Lions for a last-ditch drive. After Kitna completed three passes, safety Darren Sharper put the game on ice with an interception near the end zone to seal Minnesota’s 30-20 road win.
At 6-7, the Vikings remain one game behind the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants for two wild card playoff spots – with the Giants and Philadelphia each having a one-game advantage in the tie-breaking conference record, meaning Minnesota might need to win out in their remaining three games and have those teams lose at least one more NFC game.
But on this Sunday, at least, the Vikings took care of their own business, knocking off Detroit for the 10th straight time.