One look at the out-of-town scoreboard might have told the Chicago Bears they had nothing for which to play. Their attempt to snag the No. 2 seed away from the Los Angeles Rams disappeared quickly as the Rams jumped out by 25 points in the first half over the San Francisco 49ers. The Bears wouldn’t be able to better their seed.
They could either rest their starters or knock a division rival out of the playoff hunt; they chose the latter.
At a time in the game when many might have expected the Bears to pack it in and rest their offensive and defensive stars, Chicago overpowered the Vikings to ice a 24-10 win, symbolically planting their flag as the new NFC North champions.
“We came in wanting to win and using this as a playoff game,” said Bears receiver Taylor Gabriel. “We worked all week and didn’t think about the Rams losing.”
The Bears will likely get a fight from the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, who they play next weekend. The Eagles salvaged their season when the Vikings couldn’t, winning their final three games to clinch a postseason berth. Perhaps the Bears didn’t want to tempt fate with a third matchup against the Vikings.
But Philadelphia will face an offense that scored 24 points in a building where opponents usually don’t escape the teens; an offense that converted four first downs and another via penalty on a clock-killing nine-minute marathon drive spanning the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth.
No opposing team had more than five third-down conversions at U.S. Bank Stadium this season. The Bears came into the hostile environment and went 8 of 14.
“They were getting separation and getting open,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “Sometimes it just isn’t your day.”
The Vikings had all the momentum when Chicago inherited the ball, leading 13-10, with 1:51 left in the third quarter. They quickly faced a 3rd and 5 at their own 30-yard line. Mitch Trubisky stepped up to elude a closing Danielle Hunter and beat the spying Barr to the sideline on a scramble for a first down.
Three plays later, another defensive opportunity presented itself on 3rd and 6. Trubisky got a clean pocket and fired to fifth-string receiver Javon Wims for a first down against Trae Waynes’ tight coverage. With Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Gabriel all banged up, Wims stepped up and made two big third-down catches on the drive — perhaps another eye-opener for the Vikings, who lacked receiver depth behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs once teams started focusing on them.
“It just shows our receiver depth,” said Wims. “We are that deep at the wide receiver position. Any one of us at any given moment can step up and fill a void for the team.”
The Vikings thought they had a stop three plays later as Barr sacked Trubisky on 3rd and 10, but Jayron Kearse’s holding call gave the Bears an automatic first down. Minnesota wouldn’t sack Trubisky at all Sunday afternoon after only sacking him once at Soldier Field.
“We didn’t play our best football all year,” said Kearse, who was forced to play more a higher number of snaps in the fourth quarter due to injuries. “We can’t do anything about it right now.”
Kearse was on the wrong end of Chicago’s next third-down conversion, a 3rd and 6 completion to tight end Trey Burton along the left sideline.
The Vikings had a final chance on a 3rd and 7 in the red zone, but Trubisky slung a pinpoint pass to Wims in the face of Harrison Smith’s safety blitz.
“Honestly, we kind of ran out of defensive backs today,” said head coach Mike Zimmer.
Tarik Cohen’s three-yard score eventually punctuated the 16-play march, a crushing blow considering that a third-down stop on any one of Chicago’s five chances could have given the ball back to Cousins down just one score.
“Kudos to their offense and defense,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who has never made the playoffs in a six-year career. “They came out to play and we didn’t.”
The prodigious drive was Chicago’s longest of the year. They added a two-point conversion and gave the Vikings ball back down 11 points with only half a quarter to play. On a day when the Vikings had eight of 10 drives that didn’t result in points, the outcome was virtually decided.
The Bears made sure of it with a pair of great plays from their secondary to turn the Vikings over on downs. Price Amukamara jumped the 1st and 10 pass to Aldrick Robinson and nearly recorded Chicago’s 28th interception of the season. Three plays later, Adrian Amos perfectly timed a pass breakup of Stefon Diggs’ crossing pattern on 4th and 2.
And that was that.
“It hurts, of course,” said Diggs of missing the postseason. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve got fighters on our team. “We’ve got guys who come to work every day fighting, and it’s definitely going to hurt, but we can’t do (expletive) about it right now.”
Chicago’s multi-phase manhandling of the Vikings in two separate games was an appropriate representation of Minnesota’s season: the Vikings finished 1-6 against teams who concluded with winning records, rarely looking like they belonged in the same category as the NFL’s elite despite myriad chances in high-profile games. The Vikings scored just 13.4 points per game in their last five games against winning teams.
The Vikings getting outplayed at the critical juncture of Sunday’s must-win game reinforced what many fans feared to be true: that Minnesota’s defense was prone to bending against sharp offenses, and conversely, their offense would stall against strong pass-rushers.
A playoff run for Minnesota would have been uncharacteristic after what they showed for 16 games. Chicago capitalized on that unevenness and finished the Vikings off, validating the public’s concerns in the process.
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