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Sinking feeling: Vikings’ playoff hopes are nearly gone after failure to rally against Bears

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) fumbles as he is hit by Chicago Bears linebacker Robert Quinn, left, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

As poorly as the Vikings’ defense had performed Sunday afternoon against Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium, the depleted unit (with some help from Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky) gave Minnesota a chance to win a game it had to have if there was to be a realistic path to a playoff berth.

The opportunity came with the Bears up by three when Trubisky’s poorly thrown pass for tight end J.P. Holtz was picked off by cornerback Cameron Dantzler in the end zone on third-and-goal. The Vikings’ defense had had a miserable day, but that could have been forgotten, if an offense that had opened the second half with a touchdown, field goal and another touchdown could continue to do its job.

The Vikings had the ball at their own 20, 2 minutes, 57 seconds left on the clock and two timeouts. Kirk Cousins, who had guided the Vikings to a late victory over Carolina in Week 12 and an overtime win against Jacksonville in Week 13, was in an excellent situation facing a Chicago secondary that was down several regulars. He had wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, running back Dalvin Cook and, suddenly valuable tight end Tyler Conklin, at his disposal.

Cook ran up the middle for a 3-yard gain on the first play. The Vikings went no-huddle as Cousins connected with Cook for a 6-yard gain and then hurriedly got back to the line of scrimmage before the 2-minute warning hit. That resulted in Cook being stopped at the Vikings’ 29 for no gain. For the second time in the game, the Vikings were facing a fourth-and-1 in their own territory.

The first time Cook had been stopped for no gain from his own 34, as he attempted to run up the middle and was met by the Bears defensive linemen Bilal Nichols and John Jenkins. This time Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak attempted to get more creative, maybe too creative. A bootleg was called but Cousins came under immediate pressure from Bears defensive end Brent Urban. Cousins ended up throwing a weak pass in the direction of Conklin that fell incomplete.

Kicker Cairo Santos’ fourth field goal of the game — a 42-yarder with 56 seconds remaining — gave the Bears a six-point lead, and they held on when Cousins’ 33-yard Hail Mary pass was picked off in the end zone by safety Sherrick McManis as time expired.

The Vikings’ 33-27 loss dropped them to 6-8 and was their second consecutive setback after winning five of their first six games out of the bye. Minnesota has two games remaining — it will face New Orleans on Friday and Detroit on Jan. 3 — and there is still a chance for coach Mike Zimmer’s team to grab the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. But two weeks after holding that position, the Vikings now will need victories and plenty of help to have any chance of extending its season.

“We’re disappointed,” Zimmer said.

The Vikings’ third win coming out of their bye was a Monday night victory over the Bears. That marked Cousins’ first-ever Monday night win (1-9) and featured an impressive defensive performance by Zimmer’s team. Chicago had only 149 yards of offense in the 19-13 loss, failed to score an offensive touchdown and rushed for 41 yards as a team. Nick Foles looked lost at quarterback and top running back David Montgomery was out because of injury.

One month and four days later, with Trubisky at quarterback and Montgomery at running back, the Bears had three touchdowns (two rushing and one passing) and generated 397 yards of offense, including 199 on the ground. Complaints about Zimmer’s defense are fair considering that is his area of expertise, but there is no denying how shorthanded that unit has become. Standout defensive end Danielle Hunter never played this season because of neck surgery. Nose tackle Michael Pierce was the Vikings’ big free-agent signing but opted out because of concerns about COVID-19.

Linebacker Anthony Barr was lost early in the season and Eric Kendricks, one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, hasn’t played in three weeks because of a calf injury. The Vikings lost another linebacker on Sunday when Troy Dye had to leave in the third quarter after suffering a possible concussion in a collision with safety Harrison Smith. Dantzler also limped off in the fourth quarter before returning.

Zimmer would never say this but it was up to the Vikings’ offense to outscore the Bears, if Minnesota was going to win. The issue was consistency. The Vikings had 10 points and 10 first downs on their first five drives. That was followed by 17 points and 14 first downs on the next three drives, opening the second half.

Cook’s workload remained significant as he had 132 yards rushing on 24 carries with a touchdown and five receptions for 27 yards. But Jefferson had only three catches for 41 yards in the opening half before finishing the day with eight receptions for 104 yards. Thielen, meanwhile, has become a forgotten man the past two weeks. He had three receptions for 39 yards in the loss at Tampa Bay and two receptions for 11 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Thielen was targeted only once in the second half and did not catch a pass.

It didn’t help that the Vikings’ offensive line had a third consecutive rough game in pass protection. Cousins was sacked three times and hit on 11 occasions, bringing the totals to 13 sacks and 37 hits combined against Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Chicago.

“It’s certainly not where we wanted to be,” Cousins said of likely being out of the playoffs for the second time in his three seasons in Minnesota. “You look back and you think about some really tough losses, one play here or there throughout the season, that you know you’re so close. … Every game is back-and-forth, and then it tests you, and this season is just another reminder of that.”

The Vikings’ failure to pass the test on Sunday, likely means their offseason is only two weeks away.