CHICAGO — Soldier Field offered up its usual platter of occurrences that take place annually when the Minnesota Vikings play the Chicago Bears: lackluster quarterbacking, penalties, turnovers and brutal all-around play.
Fortunately for Minnesota, the Vikings had fewer mistakes than the Bears and got back to .500 for a third time this season with a 17-9 win.
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The Vikings’ seventh win of the season confirmed what many already knew, that this group tends to play down to its level of competition, in this case a Bears team that was eliminated from the postseason on Monday night. Chicago’s own level of ineptitude was more costly to the Bears — who have now committed at least three turnovers in three straight games — than Minnesota’s ability to establish its dominance over a team that was without its starting secondary and had 14 players along with its offensive and special-teams coordinators on the COVID-19/reserve list.
On top of that, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields turned in a terrible performance — part of which falls on Fields’ development, the rest of which can be credited to the Vikings’ defense. Chicago walked away with just one touchdown after five trips inside the red zone, the result of the final play of the fourth quarter when Fields threw up a deep ball to Jesper Horsted for a 19-yard score.
The game was over by that point, but Minnesota has now had 11 straight games decided by one score. This team still needs to learn how to close out opponents far sooner than the last play of the game.
“We had some moments where it wasn’t very good, but they fought,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I was very, very hard on them this past week. Very demanding. I’m not saying that’s the reason why, but these guys have a lot of pride too. We just have to keep grinding on them, keep trying to get them better, keep working on the things that they need to improve on. But that’s the important thing, is that we try to get better these last three weeks. Not just show up and roll the balls out. Let’s get better.”
With the win, Minnesota increased its chances of making the postseason to 31%, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), and it is back in the NFC playoff picture as the No. 7 seed. The Vikings will stay there if Washington loses to Philadelphia on Tuesday night.
QB breakdown: Kirk Cousins’ trend of not playing well in Chicago continued in his fourth trip to Soldier Field as a Viking. His 87 passing yards were his fewest in 118 career starts. He threw two touchdowns in the win but completed 50% of his passes and took a season-high four sacks. Minnesota’s offensive line contributed to Cousins’ struggles and led to the quarterback looking rushed and throwing shy of the sticks on a handful of third-and-longs. (The Vikings were 5-of-16 on third down.) After the first quarter, in which he went 2-of-3 for a touchdown on passes traveling at least 10 air yards, Cousins went 1-of-8 with an interception on such throws. He also threw five straight incompletions to Justin Jefferson until late in the fourth quarter, after opening the game 3-of-3 with a touchdown when targeting his top receiver.
Biggest hole in the game plan: All four of Chicago’s starting defensive backs were ruled inactive for Week 15, and the Vikings didn’t seem to want to take advantage. “We probably threw the ball too much, to be honest, early,” Zimmer said after Cousins was 9-of-16 for 60 yards, a TD and an INT in the first half. “I thought we were running the ball well early in the game, and we tried to throw it a little bit too much, tried to get some shots over the top of them, and they did a good job back there. And when [Cousins] had to pull the ball down, he got too much pressure and got sacked.” The Bears played a lot of two-deep coverage to make assignments easier for the inexperienced DBs they fielded on Monday. That made it difficult for Minnesota to do anything other than dink and dunk their way down the field, at times. But even when Cousins did have time and windows to throw, the quarterback often sent targets everywhere but Jefferson’s direction. The Vikings had a prime opportunity to attack a weakened secondary and leave nothing in doubt. Instead, Minnesota leaned on its run game to keep the clock moving against Chicago, rushing for 132 yards.
Pivotal play: The Vikings stumbled into halftime after amassing just 5 yards on 13 plays in the second quarter. The offense looked sordid and needed a boost, which it got in the form of 30 yards of penalties from Chicago’s defense on Minnesota’s opening drive of the third quarter. Dalvin Cook took a delayed handoff on third-and-18 and went 5 yards, but Teez Tabor was flagged for a low block that gave the Vikings a fresh set of downs. Five plays later, Bears linebacker Trevis Gipson was penalized for unnecessary roughness, which moved Minnesota inside the red zone. The Bears’ defense was frustrated and flustered, which led to defensive back Kindle Vildor being out of position on Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 7-yard touchdown reception that gave the Vikings a double-digit lead for good. “That was very big for us, pretty much went down the whole field, so, them not being as disciplined and us just playing football, and letting them run their mouth, we’ll take the penalties,” Jefferson said.