8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -3, Over/Under: 43.5
With the Playoffs expanding to fourteen teams (and possibly sixteen according to reports), opportunities have been presented for teams residing on the fringes of the standings, which is were the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears reside as the latter plays host on Monday Night Football from Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. Stating that the Vikings (3-5, 3rd in NFC North) are residing on the fringes is being really quite generous for a team that up until two weeks ago looked like they could legitimately contend for the No. One Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. A year after reaching the Postseason and advancing to the NFC Division Round, Minnesota got off to their worst start under Mike Zimmer, losing five of their first six games to begin the campaign. Quite frankly, this team was a mess for a variety of reasons. The Offense clearly missed Pro Bowl Receiver, Stefon Diggs who was traded away in the Offseason, along with Offensive Coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, whose playcalling played a huge role in their success a year ago, ultimately leading to him becoming the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns. Defensively, the entire unit has underperformed following the departure of some key veterans and a rash of injuries, coupled with inexperience from the new faces. In his seventh season with the franchise, rumors out of Minneapolis hinted at Zimmer’s seat getting rather warm, with many around the league openly pondering if the 64-year old’s tenure was coming to an end. Fortunately for all involved, the Bye Week arrived presenting another opportunity for the Norsemen: to get healthy and rethink their approach on both sides of the football.
You see it every season, but it’s remarkable what a good week off can do for a team, both physically and mentally, and the Vikings are proving to be a prime example of this. Zimmer’s charges have won each of their two outings since their Bye, besting the division-leading Green Bay Packers (28-22) at Lambeau Field, before embarrassing the Detroit Lions (34-20) last weekend. So what has changed, you ask? Well, Minnesota has gotten healthier on the offensive side of the football, particularly in the trenches, allowing Offensive Coordinator, Gary Kubiak, to double down on the run game, which has been spearheaded by Dalvin Cook (144 CAR, 858 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 12 TD). The 25-year old has been dogged by injuries quite often throughout his young career, but when he’s healthy he is undoubtedly one of the finest players at his position; in seven outings this year he leads the league in rushing yards per game (122.6) and rushing touchdowns (12), nearly matching his total from 2019 (13). In the last two contests alone he has rushed for 369 yards and five scores, averaging a whopping 7.1 yards per carry, while also factoring into the passing attack with another 109 yards and a touchdown on four receptions. This of course has simplified the game for Quarterback, Kirk Cousins (65.6%, 1,855 YDS, 7.88 NY/A, 15 TD, 10 INT, 57.2 QBR), who was a turnover machine during their poor start; through the first six games, the two-time Pro-Bowler committed as many turnovers (11) as he had touchdowns, but over the last two victories he has played clean, efficient football, tossing four scores in comparison to zero turnovers. This has always been the story with Cousins, who despite being an accurate 66.8% thrower over the course of his career, who also throws a beautiful deep ball (7.32 NY/A), he has always been susceptible to making egregious mistakes; with a middling career record as a starter (49-50-2), he’s accounted for 105 touchdowns opposed to just twenty-two turnovers in victory, only to see the proverbial wheels come off the wagon in defeat, with seventy-four touchdowns and EIGHTY-THREE turnovers. Seriously, folks, that’s an average of 1.66 turnovers per loss. So with that said, is it any wonder that Zimmer has pressured Kubiak to keep it simple by handing the ball off to Cook, and then let Cousins take his shots downfield? Pro-Bowl Receiver, Adam Thielen (37 REC, 480 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 7 TD), continues to be a reliable option for him in the passing game, while Justin Jefferson (34 REC, 627 YDS, 18.6 Y/R, 3 TD), whom Minnesota selected 22nd Overall to replace Diggs, has slid into that role as a vertical threat, averaging 18.4 yards per reception. Now if only the Defense could turn things around then this team would really need to be taken seriously… It’s rather remarkable how this once loaded unit has eroded over the years, with Zimmer struggling to find answers. The Vikings have allowed 29.2 points per game (25th Overall) on 412.9 total yards (29th Overall), with their collective performance against the pass particularly troubling, yielding 287.9 yards (30th Overall) and nineteen touchdowns (30th Overall) through the air on 7.4 net yards per attempt (27th Overall). This is one of the youngest Secondaries in the league, with their top five Cornerbacks all 24-years old or younger, including a pair of Rookies. Zimmer had hoped that the Pass-Rush would help ease them into their roles, but that’s been another major weakness for the Defense; Pro-Bowler, Danielle Hunter (29.0 sacks over the last two years), hasn’t played at all in 2020 recovering from surgery to correct a herniated disc in his neck, while the team shipped out the Yannick Ngakoue (12 TKL, 5 TFL, 57 QBH, 5.0 SK, 2 FF in 6 games) shortly before the Trade Deadline, despite acquiring him via trade back in the Spring.
When we last saw the Vikings, they put together what was clearly their most impressive performance of the campaign thus far, battering the Lions in a 34-20 rout. In a game in which neither team had much trouble at all moving the football, the difference came down to mistakes, and as we stated earlier, Minnesota has played very clean football during their recent two-game winning streak. Despite relinquishing 421 total yards on thirty first downs, Zimmer’s troops picked off Detroit’s Quarterbacks on three occasions, all of which came in the second half. By comparison, Cousins was ideal, completing 13-of-20 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns, linking up with Tight End, Irv Smith (13 REC, 159 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 2 TD), for a pair of scores on as many catches. The star of the evening though was certainly Cook, who ran wild en route to a season-high 206 rushing yards and two touchdowns on twenty-two carries, ripping off a massive 70-yard score early in the Fourth Quarter to effectively ensure the victory. The only true blemish for the hosts was their performance on Special Teams, for they had not one, but two punts blocked by the visiting side, the latter which immediately parlayed into a Lions’ touchdown one play later. With consecutive victories against the division in their pocket, tonight’s meeting with the Bears should go a long way towards revealing just what this team will be moving forward. Can the Offense continue it’s prolific yet efficient streak against the Monsters of the Midway? Can they continue climbing back into the Playoff picture? We’ll have to wait and see…
Meanwhile, they may be 5-4 but the feeling around the Windy City is anything but encouraging for the Bears (5-4, 2nd in NFC North), who if the Playoffs began today, would find themselves on the outside looking in. That’s right, folks, Chicago currently sits percentage points out of the final Wild Card in the NFC, but if they Playoffs do in fact expand to accommodate eight teams per conference (which would only happen due to the cancellation of games courtesy of COIVD), then they would be in business. However, that’s far from the outlook that this team should have right now, for they have trended in the wrong direction over the past month, squandering a surprising 5-1 start with three consecutive losses on their ledger. With that said, is it really all that shocking that Matt Nagy’s charges have slumped in such a manner? Would even the most biased of the fanbase have bought into their hot start? At no point during the first six weeks of the season did it feel as if these guys were legitimate contenders, largely due to the fact that the manner in which they were winning games simply wasn’t sustainable. The schedule, with their first six opponents possessing a combined record of 21-30 (.411), was far from arduous and the Offense was dreadful, changing Quarterbacks midway through the third contest. Now, the schedule has gotten exponentially more difficult (17-8, .680 over the past three weeks), while the Offense has continued their downward spiral. With the Bye coming next week, and the schedule easing up afterward, now would be the time for the Bears to right the ship. At this point though, is that even possible?
Coming into the season, the biggest story swirling out of the Windy City was the status of Mitchell Trubisky (59.3%, 560 YDS, 5.40 NY/A, 6 TD, 3 INT, 55.8 QBR), who has generally underwhelmed after the club infamously traded up to select him No. Two Overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, ultimately passing on the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the former earning MVP honors in 2018 and the latter a two-time Pro-Bowler. Now in the final year of his initial rookie contract, the 26-year old has failed to take the requisite steps towards becoming a Franchise Quarterback in a city that has been starved for one for decades, ultimately being cast aside by a coach who can feel his seat getting hotter and hotter. Say what you will about Nagy, but he didn’t draft Trubisky, and likely came to the conclusion long ago that tethering his job to that of an underperforming signal-caller whom he inherited wouldn’t allow him to keep said job for very long. Well ladies and gentlemen, better the devil you know versus the devil you don’t, which is why Nagy insisted on acquiring veteran Quarterback, Nick Foles (65.6%, 1,746 YDS, 5.37 NY/A, 10 TD, 7 INT, 48.0 QBR), in the Offseason to push Trubisky. Nagy and Foles spent the 2016 season together in Kansas City, where the latter served as his Quarterbacks Coach. Being completely honest, it was never much of a competition between the two passers, for the former was benched midway through the third game of the schedule, while the latter rallied the Bears to an unlikely 30-26 comeback over the Atlanta Falcons. Trubisky has since resided on the bench due to a shoulder injury, with Foles for better or worse carrying the torch ever since, though it’s been more of a case of worse than better for the 31-year old. Simply put, the former Super Bowl MVP hasn’t been much better than his young predecessor, tossing ten touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions, averaging fewer net yards per attempt (5.37-5.40), and posting a lower QBR (48.0-55.8) along the way. Furthermore, the Offense continues to be one of the league’s worst, averaging just 17.3 points on 292.7 total yards, and committing eight turnovers for a disappointing differential of minus-3 over that period of time. With all that said, it’s hard to imagine many Quarterbacks being able to succeed given the circumstances within Chicago’s Offense, for this unit owns a dearth of talent. The Offensive Line has been littered with injuries, as four different starters have missed time throughout the campaign, failing to provide quality pass protection or holes in the trenches for the running game to thrive. And speaking of the run, Chicago has been the worst in the NFL in this regard, averaging a paltry 82.3 yards (32nd Overall) on the ground on just 3.7 yards per carry (30th Overall), with a scant TWO rushing touchdowns thus far (32nd Overall). The Backfield too has been ravaged by injuries, with versatile weapon, Tarik Cohen (20 TCH, 115 YDS, 5.8 Y/T, 0 TD), out for the season with a torn ACL, and David Montgomery (131 CAR, 472 YDS, 3.6 Y/A, 1 TD), in concussion protocol after exiting last weekend’s affair at Tennessee. As a result, this unit has found it increasingly more difficult to maintain possession of the football, converting a dismal 32.3% of third downs (31st Overall), and they haven’t been much better when they’ve gotten into the red zone, scoring a touchdown on only 50.0% of their opportunities (30th Overall). Neither Foles nor Trubisky has proven very effective without a running game to lean on, which is yet another reason why both passers have struggled mightily thus far in 2020. In an attempt to breathe some new life into the attack, Nagy relinquished playcalling duties to Offensive Coordinator, Bill Lazor, which is typically an indication that the end is near for the skipper.
When we last saw the Bears, it was more of the same offensive woes in a 24-17 at the Tennessee Titans. Chicago’s first nine drives of the game ended with zero points, setting the tone early by turning it over on downs on their first possession, succeeded by five consecutive punts, followed by another punt and a lost fumble to start the Second Half. In fact, they had just 157 yards to show for their efforts at that point, trailing 17-0 before Cairo Santos finally put them on the board with 22-yard field goal early in the final stanza. At that point, Foles & Co woke the @#$% up, following that 63-yard drive with a 75-yard series ending with a 6-yard touchdown from Foles to seldom-used Tailback, Ryan Nall (6 REC, 39 YDS, 6.5 Y/R, 1 TD). Unfortunately, the ensuing possession would end on the first play via fumble, before Foles drove back down the field and put another score on the board, finding veteran Tight End, Jimmy Graham (35 REC, 302 YDS, 8.6 Y/R, 1 TD), for an 8-yard touchdown to make the overall outcome look more respectable. In the end, the visitors established clear advantages over Tennessee in a slew of categories, including total yards (375-228), passing yards (335-158), first downs (22-11), and time of possession (33:54-26:06), but were killed by the two lost fumbles, and rarely managed to maintain drives, converting on a miserable 2-of-15 third downs, forcing four attempts on fourth, in which they converted on all but one. The ground game produced just fifty-six yards on twenty carries, while Foles finished with 36-of-52 completions for 335 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but was also sacked three times. Defensively, it was another excellent performance from the Bears that was ultimately squandered, relegating reigning rushing champion, Derrick Henry, to sixty-eight yards on twenty-one attempts.