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Vikings improving, but need to play better in division

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer likes the direction his team is heading, with or without a win so far in the NFC North. "I know people are going to be on my butt about that, not winning division games," Zimmer said Monday, a day after th...

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(USA TODAY Sports) Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata, middle, gets tackled by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, left, defensive end Darryl Tapp, back, and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy during the third quarter Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer likes the direction his team is heading, with or without a win so far in the NFC North.

“I know people are going to be on my butt about that, not winning division games,” Zimmer said Monday, a day after the Vikings lost a 14-0 first-half lead in a 16-14 loss to the Lions at Ford Field. “But if we keep playing this way, with the kind of grit and preparation and things we do, we will win division games.”

The Vikings are 6-8 overall and 0-5 within the division. They need to beat the Bears in the season finale in two weeks in order to avoid becoming just the second team in franchise history not to win a division game.

No one at Winter Park is asking for moral victories, but plenty are pointing to the progress the Vikings have made since their first two division games, when they lost to the Packers 42-10 and the Lions 17-3. In a Week 11 loss to the Bears, they were competitive to the end of a 21-13 loss despite some decided defensive mismatches that exposed short cornerback Josh Robinson against Chicago’s tall receivers.

A week later, in the rematch against the Packers, the Vikings contained a Green Bay scoring machine that was coming off a franchise-record back-to-back games of 50-plus points. A 24-21 loss certainly signaled progress, as did Sunday’s two-point loss in front of the loudest Ford Field crowd the Vikings have ever experienced.

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“I think I’m learning this division better, but I’d rather learn with a win than that,” Zimmer said. “We’ve tried to improve each week and each time. I’m just learning more about personnel and how to play guys. Things like that.”

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner caught the Lions off-guard early with a heavy dose of five-wide, shotgun sets that enabled rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to negate Detroit’s fierce pass rush with quick slants and screens and rollout passes against a spread-out Lions defense. Meanwhile, defensively, Zimmer’s decision to have big corner Xavier Rhodes shadow Calvin Johnson everywhere but the slot was a pivotal coaching decision that held Johnson to just four catches for 53 yards and quarterback Matthew Stafford to a season-low 153 yards passing.

The Vikings led 14-0 on two long touchdown drives before Detroit notched a first down. But interceptions on back-to-back Bridgewater throws handed the Lions 10 second-quarter points and allowed the Lions and the crowd to get back into the game.

“As I told the team, we’re going to stick with it, keep working on getting better,” Zimmer said. “Because we’ve got something here to build on for the future.”

Notes

* Oh, what could have been with a little lower throw or a little taller receiver.

Trailing by only two points with 45 seconds left, Bridgewater had Jarius Wright open about 20 yards downfield on first-and-10 from the Vikings’ 30-yard line. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the throw was a little too high and incomplete.

“It was like slow motion, just slowly sailing over my head,” Wright said. “You never know. If I catch it, I might score.”

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Bridgewater was thinking field-goal range at a minimum.

“This,” he said, “is a game of inches.”

* Left guard Charlie Johnson’s absence hurt more at right guard.

Johnson, who missed his first game of the season because of a knee injury, also plays right guard on the team’s field-goal unit. Without him, the team had to activate and play offensive tackle J’Marcus Webb in that role on the field-goal unit.

Webb hadn’t played a game since last season and had just signed with the Vikings three weeks ago. Clearly, he wasn’t ready for the Lions’ physical front.

“Their inside guys come pretty hard,” Webb said. “It’s definitely the toughest two seconds in football.”

Lions defensive lineman Jason Jones said he sensed on a 53-yard miss early in the game that Webb was soft in his blocking. On his next opportunity, he unleashed a great push on Webb and blocked a 26-yard field-goal attempt midway through the fourth quarter.

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