The Vikings entered their bye week in a world of hurt, sitting in last place in the NFC North with a 1-5 record and having been blown out 40-23 by a Falcons team that had lost its first five games and fired its coach. Mike Zimmer might not have been on the verge of being dismissed after that lifeless performance but the Vikings’ season appeared to be finished.
Three weeks later, the feeling around TCO Performance Center is much different. The Vikings returned from their off week to upset the Packers (28-22) at Lambeau Field and followed that with an easy victory over the Lions (34-20) on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota remains two games under .500 (3-5) but with an extra team added to the playoffs in each conference, the Vikings are now a manageable two games back of the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Rams. Their chances of getting into the postseason for a second consecutive year will improve even more if the pandemic results in an eighth team being added because any meaningful regular-season games have to be cancelled.
All of this creates far more intrigue when it comes to the Vikings — that is unless you wanted them to continue losing to get a better draft pick — but just how seriously should we take a two-game winning streak that has been built around the outstanding performance of Dalvin Cook? Cook might be the NFL’s best running back when he’s healthy, but he has struggled to remain on the field during his career and already has missed a game-and-a-half this season.
We should get the answer on Monday night when the Vikings play the Bears at Soldier Field. A Vikings victory would go a long way toward signifying that something really did change during the bye week and, while this remains a flawed team, it is a club that can consistently compete with the high number of mediocre (or worse) teams that dot the NFL landscape.
The Bears will be the perfect team to judge the Vikings against for a few reasons. Despite jumping to a 5-1 start, Chicago isn’t very good and has dropped its past three games. That means the Bears only have a game-and-a-half lead on the Vikings in the NFC North. The Vikings are actually favored by 2.5 points, despite being the road team.
So why shouldn’t we simply assume that the Vikings will extend their winning streak? One, the game is in Soldier Field, and while the pandemic has limited or eliminated how many fans can be in attendance, this is a stadium in which the Vikings have frequently struggled. Zimmer is 2-4 at Soldier Field since taking the Vikings job in 2014 and he hasn’t won a game in Chicago since 2017. A year ago, a Vikings loss in Chicago was so ugly it caused wide receiver Stefon Diggs to skip out on the team for two days. Second, quarterback Kirk Cousins is a staggering 0-9 on Monday Night Football, the worst record in NFL history.
The Vikings have spent the past two games feeding the ball to Cook and keeping it out of Cousins’ hands as much as possible. Since Cousins threw three interceptions in the loss to the Falcons — bringing his season total to 10, or four more than he had all of last season — he has thrown four touchdowns and no picks but only 34 combined passes against the Packers and Lions. Cook, meanwhile, has rushed for 163 yards and a career-high 206 yards against the Packers and Lions, respectively, scoring six touchdowns and taking over the NFL rushing lead with 858 yards.
The Bears’ problem is that they are brutal on offense, scoring 19.8 points per game to rank 29th in the NFL. This should be good news for a Vikings defense that has shown improvement of late, but is still giving up 412.9 yards per game to also rank 29th in the league. Chicago isn’t a joke on defense and this is where we are going to find out plenty about the Vikings. Chicago is seventh in scoring defense (21.1 points per game), in the top 10 in total and passing defense and 14th against the run (116.9 yards per game).
It’s safe to say that Chicago defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is going to focus his game plan on stopping Cook and dare the Vikings to make Cousins the featured player in their offense. But will offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak give Cousins the keys to the car? The Vikings have capable receivers in Adam Thielen and rookie standout Justin Jefferson and tight end Irv Smith Jr., can be an important part of the passing game. But Thielen only has five receptions in the past two games and Jefferson has six.
The Packers couldn’t tackle when the Vikings beat them and Detroit looked like a defense that was doing its best to get coach Matt Patricia fired. The Bears’ Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith promise to make life far more difficult for Cook, Cousins and Co.
If the Vikings come away with a victory, it will prove they are making the type of in-season progress many thought was unattainable only a few weeks ago. If the Bears succeed in stopping Cook, however, and Cousins falls to 0-10 on Monday nights, it might be time to start lamenting just what type of draft position those wins against Green Bay and Detroit cost the Purple.