8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -3.5, Over/Under: 44.0
Week Fifteen concludes with a pair of bitter rivals clashing once more on primetime, as the Minnesota Vikings look to keep their postseason hopes alive at Soldier Field against the struggling Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. In a sport that has so frequently been described as a game of inches, the Vikings (6-7, 2nd in NFC North) have frustratingly come up short more times than not, with remarkably all but one of their thirteen games this season decided by one possession or less. However, (Head Coach) Mike Zimmer’s charges have managed a disappointing 5-7 record in those outings, with their seven losses coming by a combined TWENTY-EIGHT points. That was nearly the case once again when we last saw Minnesota, who were thankful to survive a furious rally from the Pittsburgh Steelers in an eventual 36-28 victory eleven days ago. This was a tale of two halves of football, folks, as the Vikings utterly DOMINATED the visiting side through the first thirty minutes of play, leading 23-0 at halftime before extending that lead to twenty-nine points midway through the third quarter on the strength of 153 rushing yards courtesy of (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Dalvin Cook (198 CAR, 978 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 6 TD), who was questionable to even participate in the affair due to a partially separated shoulder suffered four days beforehand. With that said, the momentum would suddenly shift towards Pittsburgh as the visitors ran off twenty-one unanswered points to cut the lead to 29-20 with over twelve minutes left in the fourth period, aided by an interception from (veteran Quarterback) Kirk Cousins (66.9%, 3,569 YDS, 6.95 NY/A, 27 TD, 5 INT, 54.5 QBR) on his own 25-yard line followed by a swift three and out on the ensuing possession. After the Steelers scored their third consecutive touchdown, Cousins struck back with a 62-yard bomb to (young Receiver) K.J. Osborn (38 REC, 495 YDS, 13.0 Y/R, 4 TD) to stop the bleeding momentarily, only to be intercepted once more on a short pass intended to Osborn on the next drive, which was returned forty-one yards setting up yet another Pittsburgh touchdown and two-point conversion. With their lead down to one possession, Minnesota would run off just over two minutes of game time before having to punt the football away to Ben Roethlisberger & Co, with the veteran Quarterback promptly driving his side downfield to the 12-yard line, where a potential touchdown was ripped out of his target’s hands by (Pro-Bowl Safety) Harrison Smith (83 TKL, 3 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 6 PD) as time expired sealing the victory. In the end, this contest perfectly encapsulated the season thus far for the Vikings, who despite manhandling their opponent for long stretches were nearly the architects of their own demise with turnovers (2), missed field goals (1), and penalties (11 for 102 yards) all playing a sizable role. Cook finished the night with a season-high 205 rushing yards and two touchdowns on twenty-seven carries despite playing through what was clearly an ailing shoulder, tearing off five runs of fifteen or more yards with all of them coming in the first half. Cousins, who has been very good this season, was a mixed bag in completing just 14-of-31 passes for 216 yards with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions apiece, with (Sophomore Receiver) Justin Jefferson (85 REC, 1,288 YDS, 15.2 Y/R, 8 TD) hauling in seven catches for seventy-nine yards and a touchdown, while the aforementioned Osborn logged eighty-three yards and that long score on three receptions. Defensively, Zimmer’s troops got after Roethlisberger throughout the night, pressuring him on eight occasions, hitting him seven times, and totaling five sacks, with (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Eric Kendricks (120 TKL, 7 TFL, 4 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD) leading the way with eleven tackles, two for loss and one of those sacks. The victory currently has this team on the fringe of obtaining one of the NFC’s three Wild Cards, with only a tiebreaker (conference win percentage) separating them from the Washington Football Team for the seventh seed. With that said, the road toto the playoffs for the just the second time since 2017 is going to be difficult for Zimmer’s charges, who apart from tonight’s affair with the Bears will face the division-leading Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams before the season finale at home against Chicago in three weeks. Since Zimmer took over back in 2014, Minnesota is 7-7 against the Bears, despite dropping five of their last six meetings, with their lone victory during that stretch coming on a Monday night last season at Soldier Field in which Cousins broke a 13-13 deadlock in the fourth quarter to earn a 19-13 victory on primetime. In fact, these two teams have been frequent adversaries on Monday Night Football of late, meeting on three occasions since 2016, with Zimmer & Co winning twice. Furthermore, in seven encounters Cousins is 3-4 versus the Bears, completing a stellar 68.2% of his passes for an average of 251.3 yards on 6.54 net yards per attempt with twelve total touchdowns and six turnovers. Having had eleven days of rest, the Vikings should be near full strength for tonight’s matchup, with (Defensive Ends) Danielle Hunter (38 TKL, 6 TFL, 10 QBH, 6.0 SK) and Everson Griffen (15 TKL, 4 TFL, 10 QB, 5.0 SK, 1 FF) likely to return after missing that outing with Pittsburgh, though it remains to be seen if (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Adam Thielen (64 REC, 686 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 10 TD) will give it a go after not practicing all week nursing a high ankle sprain.
Meanwhile, the end appears to be nigh for the Bears (4-9, 3rd in NFC North) who in losing all but one of their last eight games have sunk towards the bottom of the NFC where only the lowly Lions have been worse. Indeed, sneaking into the playoffs again as the seventh seed simply isn’t in the cards for Chicago with the winds of change on the verge of blowing through the aptly titled Windy City. Though we’ve already seen two Head Coaches bite the dust in 2021, all signs point towards the Matt Nagy era coming to an end soon, with the organization bracing themselves for a hard reset following the conclusion of this campaign. So, let’s take a dive into Nagy’s tenure to this point, shall we? After leading his charges to an NFC North title in 2018 (their first since 2010) and earning Coach of the Year honors along the way, the 43-year-old posted middling back-to-back 8-8 seasons before the current dumpster fire that has become the current season. With that said, he had been on the hot seat well before this mess began to compound itself, thanks in large part in how he has handled the most important position in the game: Quarterback. After initially receiving credit for the growth that (former No. 2 Overall Pick) Mitch Trubisky exhibited in their first year together, the relationship between the two would sour over the course of the next two seasons as Nagy openly attempted to remove/replace the Quarterback on a number of occasions, benching him following a 2-0 start last year in favor of (Super Bowl LII MVP) Nick Foles (whom he previously coached in Kansas City) only to return to Trubisky after Foles failed to inspire the offense. Following a listless 21-9 performance in the Wild Card against the Saints, Trubisky parted ways with the franchise, while both Nagy and (General Manager) Ryan Pace were granted a second chance in the 2021 NFL Draft, where they used the eleventh overall pick on Justin Fields (57.6%, 1,585 YDS, 5.12 NY/A, 6 TD, 10 INT, 27.4 QBR), whom they hoped would develop into the franchise Quarterback that club has long sought. Unfortunately, the rookie signal-caller has struggled mightily in his first foray into the National Football League, completing just 57.6% of his passes for an average of 144.1 yards per game on a miserable 5.12 net yards per attempt with a scant six touchdowns in comparison to ten interceptions, while suffering thirty-three sacks in eleven contests. Furthermore, he’s fumbled more times than anyone in the NFL, coughing up the football on ten occasions and losing four of them. So, what in the name of George Halas has happened in Chicago, you ask? Well, for all intents and purposes Nagy (who has served as primary offensive play caller throughout his tenure with the club) and Pace have done a terrible job of building a team that has only regressed with each year during their tenure together, and this been no clearer than on the offensive side of the football. Over the last four years, the Bears have ranked no better than twenty-first in total offense and over the last three seasons have finished twenty-ninth and twenty-second before currently checking in at twenty-eighth (17.8) this season in points scored. The Offensive Line has been nothing short of a disaster, while a dearth of weapons in the passing game have made it difficult for whomever has taken snaps at Quarterback. And then there have been the rash of injuries which have done nothing but further compound their issues; (All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Khalil Mack (19 TKL, 6 TFL, 7 QBH, 7.0 SK, 1 FR) has landed on injured reserve with a broken foot, while the aforementioned Fields missed nearly a month with fractured ribs suffered early in a 16-13 loss at home to the Baltimore Ravens. With reports that Nagy has lost the locker room and was intended to be fired following that performance against Baltimore (which was quickly debunked by Pace), the feeling is that the quicker that the Bears can move on the better for all sides involved. Last weekend’s 45-30 served as yet another brutal reminder to the fan base that change is coming as their beloved team once again received a beatdown on primetime against their bitter rivals, shedding further light on the disparity between the two historic sides. The highest scoring chapter of the NFL’s oldest rivalry started relatively slow, with the Bears taking a 3-0 lead into the second quarter where the affair turned into a track meet as the two combatants combined for a record FORTY-FIVE points with the visitors kicking another field goal shortly before halftime to lead 27-21 at intermission. HUGE plays characterized the period, as Chicago’s Jakeem Grant (9 REC, 139 YDS, 15.4 Y/R, 2 TD) took a short pass from Fields FORTY-SIX yards downfield for a touchdown before eventually returning a punt NINETY-SEVEN yards to the house later in the period. Fields also found Damiere Byrd (14 REC, 186 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 1 TD) for a FIFTY-FOUR touchdown strike, though found himself on the wrong side of the jackpot payout with an errant pass intercepted by (Packers Cornerback) Rasul Douglas returned FIFTY-FIVE yards for a score. Green Bay would add one more burst to their ledger with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams combining for an effortless thirty-eight yards score with forty-four seconds left in the half. Unfortunately, Nagy’s charges simply couldn’t keep pace with the hosts, who went on to outscore them 24-3 over the course of the second half as Fields & Co began the third quarter with a lost fumble and three consecutive punts en route to totaling a mere seven yards of total offense on those four drives. In the end, Fields was 18-of-33 passing for 224 yards and two touchdowns and interceptions apiece with that aforementioned lost fumble after halftime, though did rush for seventy-four yards on nine carries. Despite rushing for 137 yards as a team, it was the turnovers that ultimately did them in as they managed to possess the football for only 25:00 as the Packers proceeded to do whatever they wanted in what would end as their twenty-first victory over their bitter rivals in twenty-four games. Perhaps a date with the Vikings will help wash some of that bitter taste from their collective mouths, for if there is one thing that Nagy has done right in his time with the franchise it is easily prepping them to face Minnesota. Chicago have won five of six meetings since hiring him, with their last encounter ending in a 33-27 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium, a game in which the visitors rushed for 199 yards on forty-two carries, led by (young Tailback) David Montgomery’s (144 CAR, 608 YDS, 4.2 Y/A, 4 TD) season-high 146 yards.