Same Story with Highs and Lows in Season-Ending Loss at DET + Playoff Preview

David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports.

It was more of the same against the Lions for the Vikings as the frustrating 2023 season ended with a 30-20 loss at Detroit. The offense started slow, then exploded with big plays in the second half, with Justin Jefferson having another huge day before Nick Mullens’ two late interceptions ended the Vikings’ upset chance.

Same Story with Highs and Lows in Season-Ending Loss at DET + Playoff Preview

The defense continued its late-season meltdown in pass defense that was so costly in the last four games (all losses) with little pass rush and too many coverage busts (especially by Akayleb Evans). The Vikings D allowed 30 points per game over the last four weeks.

The injury factor was too prevalent this season, making it essential that the Vikings improve their quality depth in all areas and keep their stars healthy in 2024.

Same Story
Detroit Lions Cam Sutton waves goodbye after intercepting a pass from Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. © David Rodriguez Munoz / USA TODAY NETWORK.

The offseason to-do list is long for GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell, starting with the quarterback position and whether to re-sign Kirk Cousins, draft a QB in the first round from a talented QB rookie class, or do both (which I definitely endorse).

The only good news with the loss at Detroit was since the Vikings had already been eliminated from the playoffs when Tampa Bay and New Orleans won (and as it turned out, so did Green Bay and Seattle, who were part of the equation), the Vikings moved up from No. 12 to No. 11 in the 2024 draft’s first round. That will give them a better shot at a top quarterback or an excellent prospect at another position of need, such as cornerback or edge rusher.

I’ll save my further to-do list analysis and suggestions for next week as we first wrap up the season with my reactions to the Lions game. For now, it’s safe to say the Vikings would be preparing for a wild card round game this week if Cousins hadn’t torn his Achilles, as they needed two more wins to earn a spot. That was very doable with quality play at QB that Cousins would’ve provided in close losses hampered by costly interceptions against the Broncos, Bears, Bengals, and in both Lions games.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings season finale:

Mullens continued his erratic play: he threw for 396 yards and made a couple of terrific deep TD passes in the second half to Jefferson (38 yards) and Addison (42 yards). But he was not clutch on third down (2 of 13) and reverted to holding the ball and getting sacked (except for a couple of times he had no chance) and inaccurate passing, leading to game-ending interceptions with two poorly thrown balls in the final four minutes.

The Vikings need to sign a better veteran backup QB next season who will protect the football as opposed to how Mullens and Josh Dobbs performed down the stretch. Better yet, re-sign Cousins and draft a first-round QB with their 11th overall pick next April (or trade up a spot or two if necessary for the right prospect) and then sign a good vet to backup (like Joe Flacco has been for the Browns) until the rookie is ready for the No. 2 spot and eventually the starting role.

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

2. Lousy pass protection: it would’ve helped the gutsy Mullens if he had better protection as he was heavily pressured. With Brian O’Neill and Ed Ingram out (replaced by David Quessenberry and Blake Brandel) and Garrett Bradbury, Dalton Risner, and Christian Darrisaw struggling at times, Mullens was sacked four times and hit 15 times. Quessenberry needed more double-team help at right tackle against Pro Bowl DE Aidan Hutchinson, who had two sacks, five QB hits, and three tackles for loss. Risner was beaten on the play when Mullens was hit as he threw on the first interception.  

3. Jefferson amazes: I think the Lions’ porous secondary will be their playoff downfall, probably next week in the wild card round against the Rams’ Matthew Stafford and his two great receivers—Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua.

Jefferson roared past the thousand-yard mark for the fourth straight year with 12 catches (several of which were difficult catches, low or behind him) for 192 yards, giving him 1,074 receiving yards in only 10 games played due to his hamstring injury. He repeatedly beat the Lions’ double coverage. He’s shown again in a little over half a season that he’s the NFL’s best receiver.

4. Chandler has earned the starting running back job in 2024: the Lions finished the regular season as the league’s second-ranked run defense, yet Chandler averaged 5.8 yards per carry (vs. the Lions’ 3.7 average allowed for the season) with 69 rushing yards on 12 carries.

Alexander Mattison ran seven times for only 24 yards (3.4-yard average), so it was more about Chandler’s quickness and overall ability than the run blocking. Chandler should be a 20-carry per game player next season, plus he’s a better receiving back than Mattison, who still would be a good No. 2 back.

5. Credit the Vikings for playing hard and not packing it in: they made too many mistakes this season and in Detroit with turnovers (finishing with 34, second-worst in the league) and penalty-wise late in the season (8 for 77 yards on Sunday with several of the penalties and the four sacks leading to too many 3rd-and-longs on offense). But they never quit despite being seriously undermanned after so many key injuries.

Jefferson and Danielle Hunter have huge new contracts looming, but they played with passion, not to protect themselves in Detroit. O’Connell said he approached Jefferson late in the game and wanted to take him out to keep him healthy for the offseason, but Jefferson wanted to stay in the game, and he didn’t accept the offer of an early exit.

Sack Master
Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports.

Hunter had a sack (to reach a career-high with 16.5, fifth best in the league), two tackles-for-loss (to finish the season tied with Maxx Crosby for the league lead with 23), and six tackles. DC Brian Flores should’ve lined him up more often over weaker left tackle Taylor Decker instead of vs. Pro Bowl right tackle Penei Sewell, who Hunter rushed against most of the first half before moving to the other side more often in the second half.

6. Run D was better than last time against the Lions: the Vikings held David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs to 70 yards rushing on 23 carries (3.0 average), although they did each have a short TD run. It was a better performance (against one of the NFL’s best O-lines and top rushing teams—fifth-ranked) compared to the last game against Detroit when they had 143 yards on the ground.

7. Goff again beat Flores’ blitzing D: Jared Goff passed for 320  yards and two TDs with no turnovers, as the Vikings only sacked him once and had only three QB hits. The Vikings’ defense did hold Goff and the Lions to 1 of 9 on third down, but they were 2 of 2 on fourth down conversions.  

8. The Vikings secondary played poorly over the season-ending four-game losing streak, including in the season finale: it didn’t help that the pass rush was weakened after D.J. Wonnum’s Week 16 quad injury and the team’s best corner—Byron Murphy—missed the last three games with a knee injury.

But Akayleb Evans regressed as the season went on to the point he was pulled a couple of times in recent games. He looked clueless too often in coverage, such as on Amon-Ra St. Brown’s 70-yard TD reception on the first play of the fourth quarter that quickly restored the Lions’ 14-point lead. It came on the first play after Jefferson had scored to cut the lead to 20-13. Evans has been beaten regularly over the past month and needs a lot of coaching up if he is going to remain a starter.

Mekhi Blackmon also missed the game, and his late-season play was shaky after a good beginning to the season. The Vikings were forced to use Joejuan Williams (a preseason cut), who committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up a TD. Last year’s second-round pick, Andrew Booth, started but made no significant plays, as has been his history over his first two seasons.

It was not a good game for the Vikings’ safeties in terms of helping the beleaguered corners. Josh Metellus made a couple of good plays but was beaten in coverage several times. 2022 first-round safety Lewis Cine still can’t break into the lineup on defense and plays only on special teams (while Kyle Hamilton is playing great for the Ravens and just made the Pro Bowl; the Vikings passed on him in the first round when they traded down to take Cine).

If six-time Pro Bowler Harrison Smith ends his tremendous career and retires (as he hinted at post-game), then Cine will likely have an opportunity to step up, or he’ll continue on the path to first-round bust.

Lewis Cine Pitched a Shutout vs. Lions. And Not in a Good Way.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

9. Greg Joseph had a strong finish to the season: he made two field goals in Detroit and went 5 for 5 on field goals and 9 for 9 on PATs over the last four games. His kickoffs almost always were deep enough not to be returned. Joseph is a free agent in March and is worth re-signing. Punter Ryan Wright is talented but was not as consistent as last year as a rookie, so he needs to improve in 2024, especially with his inside the 20 numbers.

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. Jordan Love continued his excellent recent play in the Packers’ playoff-clinching 17-9 win over the Bears. Love completed 27 of 32 passes for 316 yards and two TDs, while the Green Bay defense pressured Justin Fields on 50% of his dropbacks and sacked him five times (the Bears were missing two starting offensive linemen).

The Packers went 6-2 over the last eight games, with Love throwing 18 TD passes and only one interception. The Bears also are on the upswing as they won four of their last six games to finish with the same 7-10 record as the Vikings. I think the NFC North will be one of the best divisions in the league next season. And I think Love and the Packers will give the Cowboys a tough game on Sunday in the wild-card round at Dallas, but the Cowboys are unbeaten at home, and I pick them to win a close game.

2. Dallas claimed the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a dominant win at Washington, while the Eagles continued their struggles in a blowout loss at the Giants. Philly was down 24-0 in the first half when they pulled Jalen Hurts and many other starters. Tampa Bay hosts the Eagles on Monday night, with the Bucs winning five of six (to win the NFC South) while the Eagles faded with losses in five of their last six games. It’s hard to believe how poorly they are playing, especially on defense, but I’ll pick them to beat the Bucs before they get knocked out in the next round.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni in the first half as the Philadelphia Eagles came to East Rutherford, NJ, and defeated their division rivals, the New York Giants, 48-22 on December 11, 2022. Philadelphia Eagles Came To East Rutherford, NJ, And Defeat Their Division Rivals, The New York Giants, On December 11, 2022. © Chris Pedota, / USA TODAY NETWORK.

3. The Rams are a team to watch in the postseason after winning their last four games and seven of the final eight. As I said earlier, I’m picking Stafford to beat the Lions, who drafted him first overall in 2009, and he was their starter for 12 years before the trade to the Rams with Goff and several high draft picks headed Detroit’s way to jumpstart their recent surge. But Stafford, of course, led the Rams to a Super Bowl win in the 2021 season. That Sunday night matchup with the Stafford/Goff sub-plot looks to be the highlight game of wild card weekend.

4. On the AFC side, Josh Allen overcame three turnovers to lead a second-half Bills rally that was fueled by a 96-yard punt return TD (by Deonte Harty) in a 21-14 win in Miami to claim the AFC East title for the fourth straight year. Buffalo won their last five games (including victories over the Chiefs and Cowboys). I think the Bills are the biggest threat to the Ravens in the AFC, and they should handle the surprising Steelers in Buffalo this Sunday afternoon.

Miami at Kansas City is also an intriguing matchup on Saturday night, with the Dolphins’ No. 1-ranked offense against the Chiefs’ second-ranked defense. I like Patrick Mahomes and the K.C. defense to make enough plays to win this game at home despite going 4-4 over the last eight games. The Dolphins also limped in with three losses in their last five games.

Likely Coach of the Year and former Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski takes his Browns team to Houston and will face star rookie QB C.J. Stroud and the upstart Texans, who won the AFC South when they beat the Colts while the Jaguars fell to the Titans. Cleveland is led on offense by vet QB Joe Flacco (the fourth starting QB for the team this year, same as the Vikings but with better results due to Flacco’s fine play overall). I’m picking the Browns to get the win with their top-ranked D forcing a couple of turnovers.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl