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MURPHY: Vikings take two steps forward, one knee back

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum (7) reacts after the game with the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Oct. 1, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Reese Strickland / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Two steps forward, one knee back.

Emotional investment in these Vikings is a dizzying endeavor fraught with wild mood swings from euphoria to despair, the dominance of two revealing victories countered by the sloppiness of two revolting losses and the health drama that stalks this franchise like a dark passenger.

The 14-7 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday, Oct. 1, at U.S. Bank Stadium recast expectations again. Minnesota limped past the season's quarter poll with more questions about their identity and ominous news from the infirmary.

The murkiness of Sam Bradford's wonky knee takes a back seat to the sudden and dispiriting loss of rookie running back sensation Dalvin Cook to a third-quarter knee injury, which has coach Mike Zimmer bracing for a season-ending verdict on a torn ACL.

Since quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's knee exploded 13 months ago, the Vikings have been forced to navigate injuries to pivotal players. From their offensive tackles and former running back Adrian Peterson collapsing with last year's 5-0 start to Bradford being sidelined for three games after his season-opening breakout against New Orleans, the roster adversity has been relentless.

Now it is Cook, whose rapid ascension to the running, catching, blocking dynamo the Vikings always wished for in Peterson crumpled with his left knee—a non-contact demise that resulted in one of three fumbles on this gloomy day.

There is only so much steely next-man-up resolve to go around.

"Unfortunately," Zimmer lamented, "I'm getting used to it."

This was no way to start an essential three-game NFC North Division stretch, which has Minnesota sitting 2-2 and a game behind first-place Detroit and Green Bay. The Lions were most responsible for ruining the Vikings last year with two gut-punch wins that helped secure the wild-card berth Minnesota failed to grab.

Sure, it is only October. But this was the kind of mistake-fueled defeat that can linger, and Cook's dire prognosis casts an even heavier pall.

We saw what backup quarterback Case Keenum could do with superior pass protection and soft coverage when he carved up Tampa Bay last week.

The downfield shots he converted against the Bucs just weren't there this week. The Lions made him much more uncomfortable with a pair of sacks and steady edge pressure that left Keenum flinging dangerous passes around as if the ball were radioactive.

So spooked was Keenum on a crucial third-and-goal from the 3, with the Vikings were driving for the potential tying touchdown, that he called out the wrong protection, which freed unchecked defensive end Anthony Zettel to run downhill and bury him for an 11-yard sack.

"I thought I saw something and got fooled," Keenum admitted.

But the Vikings were not doomed. Not yet anyway.

They got the ball back with 1:51 remaining. Typically sure-handed receiver Adam Thielen caught a Keenum dart across midfield but was stripped and branded with the Vikings' final turnover.

The efficiency Minnesota demonstrated in all three phases in convincing victories over the Saints and Buccaneers vanished, reminding everyone of its Week 2 pratfall in Pittsburgh. It was lifeless game that had the caffeine flowing heavier in the seats than the booze.

Kicker Kai Forbath clanked an upright on a 39-yard attempt, his first missed field goal as a Viking to go along with a pair of botched extra points this season.

Linebacker Eric Kendricks looked like he was trying to tackle greased pigs.

Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander had potential interceptions bounce off or slip through their hands.

Shaming the defense as a whole is misguided after the unit allowed just two touchdowns while sacking Lions gunslinger Matthew Stafford six times.

"Our defense played their tails off all game, to only give up 14 points, the situations we put them in," said tight end Kyle Rudolph.

The Vikings put themselves in a familiar situation of having to lick their wounds while fretting about lost opportunities. Fickle is the NFL with its weekly build-'em-up, tear-'em-down narratives.

Been there, done that is not a sexy marketing mantra to paste onto T-shirts and locker room walls. But it perfectly describes the Vikings as they find themselves at another watershed moment.

Strap in for another turbulent ride.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.