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Vikings head to offseason of uncertainty after 30-20 loss to Lions

DETROIT — The Vikings' regular-season finale in Detroit had a fleeting chance to be a postseason springboard, but a high likelihood of being a perfunctory task. The Lions began the day celebrating the first-ever NFC North title they'd clinched in Minneapolis two weeks before; the Vikings played without their best cornerback and two starting offensive linemen, losing 30-20 in a game that turned on big plays against their secondary and Detroit's persistent pressure of Nick Mullens.

Results elsewhere had extinguished the Vikings' faint playoff hopes before the score at Ford Field went final, and the prospect of a break after a grueling season numbed at least a bit of the disappointment in the visitors' locker room. The finality of the team's 2023 season, even with all its flaws and frustrations, hit two of the Vikings' captains a bit differently.

Justin Jefferson's emotions flared at various points of his 12-catch, 192-yard day, which tied his career high for receptions and followed his franchise-record 223-yard performance at Ford Field a year ago. He stewed during a first quarter where he wasn't targeted, left the field with exasperation on his face after a second-quarter sequence where he lost 12 yards on a reverse and the Vikings had to settle for a field goal after Mullens hit him for four yards on third-and-25. In the fourth quarter, after Jefferson had surpassed 1,000 yards in a season where a hamstring injury caused him to miss seven games, coach Kevin O'Connell told the receiver he was thinking about removing him for safety's sake with the Vikings down 10. Jefferson told O'Connell in no uncertain terms he didn't approve of the idea.

"You can't have it both ways, right?" O'Connell said. "You can't have a guy out there that's, whatever he went for, 192 [yards] and 12 catches on 14 targets, competing like crazy to win the game — the reason why that is, is the fire inside. The frustration's going to come sometimes when we don't execute. And that's all part of it. I would be a little worried if it wasn't like that, to be honest with you."

Jefferson has now finished four NFL seasons, having played fewer playoff games in that time than he did in three seasons at LSU. Harrison Smith, the safety who took his pads off at the end of his 176th regular-season game with the Vikings, has played in 13 career games after the regular season; six of them are Pro Bowls.

Nothing about the injuries that marred the Vikings' 2023 season, his 12th in Minnesota and perhaps the last of his career, made the end of it easier for Smith to absorb.

"If you ever get used to losing," he said after a pause to collect his emotions, "then you're a loser. It stinks."

Less than two months ago, the Vikings appeared in position to send both players back to the playoffs, with a 6-4 record that put them 1 1/2 games ahead of their closest competitors for a wild-card spot. They lost six times in seven games since then, in a season where quarterback changes, thinning defensive depth and pernicious turnovers repeatedly knocked them off course.

BOXSCORE: Detroit 30, Vikings 20

Some of those things were subplots in their loss to the Lions, when Detroit hit Mullens 15 times. Mullens threw for 396 yards, hitting Jefferson and Jordan Addison for touchdowns, but was hit as he floated his first interception with 3:15 left in the game and overshot Addison from a collapsing pocket on the second one a minute later.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff, who'd had three miserable performances against Brian Flores-coached teams when he was with the Rams, played his second turnover-free game against the Vikings in three weeks, completing 23 of his 32 passes for 320 yards while being hit just three times.

Goff tested the Vikings' secondary with deep strikes, like a first-quarter connection to Amon-Ra St. Brown that went for 34 yards and left Smith shaking his head after Akayleb Evans missed a tackle. Flores later pulled Evans for the second time in three weeks; the second-year corner was back in the game in the fourth quarter, when Goff exploited a miscommunication between Evans and Joejuan Williams for a 70-yard touchdown to St. Brown.

"From my sideline [view]," O'Connell said, "it looked like maybe we bit on the underneath route [from Josh Reynolds] and the integrity on the deep part of the field might not have been there. And Jared found it. It was a huge play, considering where the momentum was at in the game. We were just trying to hope to get one more [opportunity] to maybe see if we could tie it up."

The play made it 27-13 Lions with 14:45 to go; the Vikings scored three plays later, after Mullens hit Jefferson for 29 and Addison for a 42-yard touchdown on a play where the rookie released out of the backfield and beat Cam Sutton on a go ball. But the Lions regained a 10-point lead on Michael Badgley's field goal and sealed it by intercepting Mullens twice.

"There's a lot of plays in a football game and the goal is to have as many successful plays as you can," Mullens said. "I thought we had a lot of successful plays. Obviously, the two at the end you'd like to not have those — make it a game at the end. You never know how a game can turn out."

He, too, was emotional after the game ended the Vikings' season and ushered in an offseason of uncertainty. Kirk Cousins, who watched the game from the sideline in his home state, will be a free agent in two months. They enter the draft with the 11th overall pick and will have their highest draft choice since 2014 in a year that's expected to have multiple first-round quarterbacks. They'll have to decide whether to use their choice on a QB to either succeed or study under Cousins, while considering a long list of needs.

The Vikings face decisions on veteran linebacker Jordan Hicks (another captain), and would likely ask Smith to take a pay cut if he were to return. Danielle Hunter, the team's second longest-tenured player, will hit the open market in two months after a career-high 16½ sacks in his ninth season. The team will also try to finalize contract extensions for Jefferson and left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who are both scheduled to be free agents after 2024.

"Got to look inward and how did things transpire differently this year [than in a 13-4 season in 2022], whether it be the turnovers, the inconsistencies in some areas in our team and then ultimately, the injuries," O'Connell said. "I think we'll have the right formula. It's difficult to win in this league. We've got an offseason to continue to give ourselves the best chance to try to go be NFC North champs again."

The group they assemble for 2024 could look markedly different than the one that departed Ford Field on Sunday evening. Players like Jefferson will return with a bit of 2023's sting left over.

"Of course I want to be in the playoffs, compete for the Super Bowl. I want all of that," Jefferson said. "So to not be able to have a chance to be in the playoffs and fight an extra game is tough. It's a hard pill to swallow."