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Zulgad: Hollow victory over Lions leaves plenty of questions about Vikings and Zimmer’s future

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Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer walks on the field before an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

A kicker of all people might have saved Mike Zimmer’s job.

Greg Joseph’s 54-yard field goal — his fourth of the day — as time expired gave the Vikings a 19-17 victory Sunday over the woeful Detroit Lions. This was after the Lions had recovered an Alexander Mattison fumble in Vikings’ territory and two plays later pulled within a point on D’Andre Swift’s 7-yard touchdown. Lions coach Dan Campbell followed with a gutsy and successful two-point conversion call that gave the Lions a one-point lead.

The meltdown left the Vikings and quarterback Kirk Cousins only 37 seconds to drive down the field and try to win it. A loss would have dropped the Vikings to 1-4, been an enormous embarrassment before a surly crowd of 66,538 at U.S. Bank Stadium and might have resulted in a coaching change on Monday. That shakeup won’t take place because the Vikings got very fortunate they were facing the Lions.

But you have to wonder if owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have seen enough to realize that Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota has run its course. The Vikings took an all-in approach to this season by revamping their defense and acting as if a 7-9 record in 2020 was a speed bump.

One smart Vikings podcast dubbed this the “no excuses” season. Only once the season began, the excuses started to flow like Zimmer’s favorite wine. An ugly loss at Cincinnati in Week 1 was blamed on a questionable call (and decision made after a replay review) in overtime on a Dalvin Cook fumble.

The focus of the Vikings’ one-point loss to Arizona in Week 2 was that Joseph missed a last-second field goal attempt and not the mistakes that came before it. After a convincing victory over Seattle at U.S. Bank Stadium, Zimmer expressed confidence that he had a good team following a 14-7 loss to Cleveland in which Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had a terrible day and still won.

Sunday’s game against the Lions was the Vikings’ opportunity to prove that they are a good team, and that there should be hope when they return from the bye week to face Dallas (4-1), Baltimore (3-1), the Chargers (4-1) and Green Bay (4-1). If the Vikings were a good team they would have won going away against the now 0-5 Lions. Detroit had trailed by 18 or more points in three of its first four games and remain perhaps the most inept franchise in all of sport.

The Vikings, though, appeared intent on self-destructing. Because the Lions are the Lions, they refused to take this generosity but how can anyone who works for the Vikings, plays for the Vikings, or watches the Vikings have any faith in this team?

How do you show up this unprepared from the coach on down for a must-win game against a mostly-awful team? There were moments when guys made big plays, including Everson Griffen and Eric Kendricks on defense and Justin Jefferson and Mattison on offense, but far too many guys wearing purple appeared to think that they could win by simply showing up.

That proved to be the case — but that’s not exactly what a team bordering on irrelevance wants or needs.

Most baffling was the approach taken by offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who we are going to assume took plenty of advice from Zimmer when putting together his game plan. Two weeks after scoring 30 points on a bad Seattle defense, the Vikings faced a Lions defense that had injury issues and was 29th in the NFL in points surrendered. Just like in the Seahawks game, running back Dalvin Cook (sprained ankle) sat out and Mattison moved into the starting role.

Even a conservative coach like Zimmer should have seen this as an opportunity to allow quarterback Kirk Cousins to put on an aerial display, utilizing wide receivers Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn. But after Jefferson had five receptions on six targets for 104 yards in the opening half, including a nice 37-yard grab, he only was targeted twice in the final two quarters and ended up with seven catches for 124 yards.

Osborn caught three passes for 14 yards, and Thielen was a forgotten man with two catches for 40 yards. Both of those came on the winning drive. Thielen did have a 20-yard reception in the second quarter wiped out by a holding call, but the official stats had him with three targets.

The offense was so predictable, and conservative, that the boos from the home fans started in the first half when the Vikings got the ball at their own 19-yard line up by seven with 41 seconds left. Instead of trying to get down the field for a quick field goal, Mattison ran twice for 6 yards and Vikings headed for the locker room with fans expressing their dissatisfaction. Those boos intensified in the second half as the Vikings insisted on running when they should have passed.

So why did Zimmer not want to empower an offense with plenty of quality at the skill positions near the end of the first half? “We screwed up a couple of plays at the end of the first half this year, right?” Zimmer said. “Because we ran out of bounds and did some things. So the plan was to run the ball the first play, see how much yards we get, and go from there. If we get a first down, we’ll get on the ball and move, but we got like no yards, so that was that.”

That’s called playing scared and when you have a guy like Jefferson on your side that’s a silly approach. Despite his statistical output on Sunday, Jefferson had to know there was the potential to have a monster day. And if Jefferson was taken out of the game by the Lions, which is hard to believe, doesn’t that mean that either Thielen or Osborn are open?

The Vikings will now spend this week trying to convince everyone that a win is a win and that a victory at Carolina would put them at 3-3 heading into their off week and keep them very much alive in the NFC North.

The two people who shouldn’t fall for this are the Wilf brothers. They own a team that nearly lost to the Detroit Lions and hasn’t come close to living up to expectations in 2021. Because of that, it wouldn’t be surprising if they begin quietly shopping for a new coach while the current one breathes a sigh of relief that he will still have a job come Monday morning.