8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Vikings -3, Over/Under: 43.5
Week Twelve comes to its conclusion tonight in Minneapolis, as the Minnesota Vikings look to keep their postseason hopes alive in the second leg of their annual series with the Chicago Bears, who only have the role of spoiler to play at this stage of the campaign. With eleven games in the books, it is safe to say that this is NOT how this season was supposed to play out for the Bears (3-8, Last in NFC North), who were expected by many to make a sizeable leap in pursuit of a division that appeared to be up for grabs. After all, despite finishing with the worst record in the NFL last Fall, this is a team that had shown signs of growth under the new regime, which obviously felt the same way in making a wealth of moves during the Draft and Free Agency to bolster both sides of the football. While we doubt anyone thought that Chicago was a legitimate playoff contender by any means, improving to around .500 didn’t appear to be a lot to ask for. Unfortunately for everyone involved in what has become one of the biggest messes in the league, that has NOT been the case in the Windy City, where their beloved Bears have once again experienced a failure to launch. So, what in the name of Mike Ditka is going on, you ask? Well, there have been a number of factors that have hurt this club, the first being the lack of progression by (third-year Quarterback) Justin Fields. After a miserable rookie campaign, Fields (pictured below) showed signs of promise, particularly as a rusher, within (Offensive Coordinator) Luke Getsy’s scheme, and with the addition of (underrated Wideout) D.J. Moore was expected to take some serious steps towards being the Franchise QB that he was tabbed to be when he was drafted eleventh overall back in 2021. However, while injuries along the Offensive Line certainly didn’t help, it appeared that there was a disconnect between QB and OC from kickoff of the opener, and just when it felt like there was progress being made, injuries to his shoulder and throwing thumb sidelined him for a month. Remember, (Head Coach) Matt Eberflus and (General Manager) Ryan Poles ultimately chose to trade out of the first overall pick in last Spring’s NFL Draft because of their faith in the 24-year-old, whom neither drafted, which could prove to be a fatal mistake for both men. On the season, Chicago ranks eighteenth in points (20.9), nineteenth in total offense (342.1), twenty-fifth in passing (202.6) and twenty-third in net yards per attempt (5.6), and twenty-fourth in turnovers (19). In a QB-driven league, this is a team that has rarely received plus play from the position, though that hasn’t been the only issue that has plagued them this Fall. Defensively, Eberflus’ outfit has once again struggled, even after spending a sizeable amount of money in free agency to fix the worst defense in franchise history. With (former Defensive Coordinator) Alan Williams resigning just a few weeks into the regular season, Eberflus took over play calling duties on this side of the football, with the results barely changing; the Bears have yielded the fourth-most points in the NFL (26.0) despite being middle-of-the-pack in total defense (325.4), thanks in large part to a pass defense that has shipped 245.9 yards (24th Overall) on 6.5 net yards per attempt (24th Overall). With that being said, where this unit has really struggled is from a situational standpoint, languishing at rock bottom in both third down defense (47.6%) and red zone defense (75.0%). These flaws ultimately kept them from earning what could have been a statement victory over the (NFC North leading) Lions last weekend, who rallied back to best them in a wild 26-31 affair. Chicago held three different leads in the first half and managed to establish a 26-14 advantage midway through the fourth quarter, only to collapse defensively as the hosts scored back-to-back touchdowns inside the final four minutes of the game. On a day in which Eberflus’ defense forced FOUR turnovers, allowing the offense hold possession for over FORTY minutes of action, Fields & Co simply couldn’t put Detroit away when they had the chance, settling for a pair of Cairo Santos field goals despite driving deep into their opponent’s territory. In the end, the ground game accounted for 183 of the visitors’ 334 total yards, with Fields churning out 104 yards of his own, but a late safety on the final play of the afternoon put an exclamation point on an affair that should have been theirs by all accounts. The QB completed 16-of-23 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown, with Moore hauling in that score to go along with ninety-six yards on seven catches. (Veteran Linebackers) T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds, who headlined that incoming class of free agents, each picked off Jared Goff, while combining for sixteen tackles.
From a betting perspective, the Bears may be 3-8 straight-up thus far, but they have been marginally more rewarding (or less costly) for those who have wagered on them, posting a 4-5-2 mark against the spread. With that being said, they have managed to alternate covers and non-covers over the last seven weeks, with their most recent effort being a narrow cover at the Lions (-8) last weekend. Under the leadership of Eberflus, this has been one of the worst bets in the NFL, posting a dismal 9-16-3 mark versus the spread, including a 5-9 record in that regard when playing away from the friendly confines of Soldier Field. Looking at this particular matchup, Chicago has really struggled of late in this series, dropping six of the last seven encounters outright, while covering just two of them along the way. Coincidentally, the aforementioned Fields has never beaten Minnesota in three tries, completing 67.1% of his passes for an average of 183.7 yards on 6.97 net yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another 42.7 yards per game on a healthy 7.7 yards per carry. However, his most recent meeting with the Northmen did NOT go as planned; Fields was forced to leave the gridiron early in the second half of a 13-19 affair in the Windy City due to a dislocated shoulder and thumb that would keep him out of action for the next four contests. Eberflus’ troops were pretty dismal offensively in this one, folks, amassing just 275 total yards on eighteen first downs, with three turnovers and the loss of Fields, who completed 6-of-10 passes for fifty-eight yards and an interception before suffering injury on his fourth sack of the day, before (Undrafted Rookie) Tyson Bagent replaced him. Bagent, who would show tepid signs of promise in the coming weeks, completed 10-of-14 passes for eighty-three yards and an interception, while losing a costly fumble that was returned for six, though did rush for a score to keep the hosts in it until the end. On the injury front, the Bears will be without (veteran Tailback) D’Onta Foreman due to a sprained ankle, while (young Right Tackle) Larry Borom will also be sidelined due to an unspecified illness. As for the defense, (young Linebacker) Noah Sewell and (Backup Cornerback) Tyrique Stevenson will miss this division battle as well, thanks to respective knee and ankle maladies. Looking ahead, Chicago will be one of the last teams to enjoy their bye week, which should give them an opportunity to get healthier ahead of a rematch with Detroit, followed by a trip to Cleveland, before wrapping their home slate against Arizona and Atlanta.
Meanwhile, as more and more things seem to go wrong for their opponent tonight, the Vikings (6-5, 2nd in NFC North) have seen their momentum shift towards the positive end of the spectrum despite having every reason not to. After getting off to a disappointing 1-4 start in which they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with an untenable minus-9 turnover differential, Minnesota has miraculously turned things around, winning FIVE of their last six outings, with the fact that they’ve been doing so without the services of the two most prominent members of the team making it all the more remarkable. First, (Head Coach) Kevin O’Connell’s troops lost (All-Pro Receiver) Justin Jefferson to a strained hamstring back in Week Five, only to then lose (Pro-Bowl) Quarterback) Kirk Cousins for the rest of the season due to a torn Achilles. On paper, losing the most prolific pass-catcher in the NFL AND the man responsible for getting him the football should have been a proverbial death blow to these Northmen; Jefferson and Cousins had combined for a whopping 360 receptions on 529 targets, 5,396 yards, and TWENTY-EIGHT touchdowns since teaming up back in 2020. However, with adversity mounted against them, here the Vikings are firmly entrenched in the playoff race. So, what in the name of Bud Grant has gotten into this team, you ask? Well, first and foremost, this is a group that believes that they can win, which may sound simple, but is nonetheless instrumental during this run. Then again, when you have gone a staggering 16-6 in games decided by one possession over the last two seasons, you’re never going to feel like you are out of things. Second, (Defensive Coordinator) Brian Flores has done an AMAZING job with a unit that was downright dreadful last Fall, ranking next-to-last in total defense (388.7). In his first season in Minneapolis, Flores has these Northmen ranked thirteenth in points allowed (20.9), twelfth in total defense (320.6), and seventh against the run (94.0) on just 3.7 yards per carry (4th Overall). Blitzing has been the key, for no team has brought the heat more so than these guys, who have blitzed on nearly HALF (47.6%) of their defensive snaps, which is 10.7 percentage points higher than the next closest team. While their twenty-nine sacks (17th Overall) rank in the middle of the league, it has helped to change the culture on this side of the football. Lastly, the addition of (veteran journeyman) Josh Dobbs has helped keep the attack afloat without the injured Cousins. It really has been remarkable that Dobbs (pictured below) has been able to come in and take command of O’Connell’s scheme so quickly, but credit to the 28-year-old, who has only been with the team for less than a month, for acclimating himself in such a manner. Then again, we saw him do this in Arizona at the beginning of the year, so it stands to reason that he would be able to perform even better with a stronger supporting cast. In three games, he has completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 215.7 yards on 6.44 net yards per attempt, with four touchdowns in comparison to just one interception, while logging another 43.7 yards on the ground with three touchdowns. To put this into perspective, his passing numbers dwarf those of the QB he is playing against tonight. With that being said, his perfect run with the Vikings came to an end in last weekend’s trip to Mile High, where a late rally from the Broncos culminated in a 21-20 affair. Make no mistake, Minnesota was the stronger side through much of this one, folks, though a pair of late turnovers from Dobbs sapped the momentum of the visiting side. The signal-caller completed 20-of-32 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and three fumbles (one lost), while rushing for twenty-one yards and another score on eight carries. In fact, this was the most successful rushing game of the season for the Vikings, who have really become a more balanced attack with the “Passtronaut” under center; Minnesota has averaged 148.7 yards per game on the ground, with 175 yards against Denver, after logging a mere 73.2 through the first eight outings. Being able to run like that allows O’Connell to really open up the playbook, which should come in handy tonight against a Chicago defense that has been vastly improved against the run, though very generous versus the pass.
From a betting perspective, the Vikings have also been moderately better against the spread thus far, posting 7-3-1 record in that regard opposed to a 6-5 mark straight-up. It has been a tale of two seasons for Minnesota, who after covering just one of their first games (1-3-1 ATS), have inexplicably become one of the best bets in the NFL, covering each of their last SIX contests, including last weekend’s trip to Mile High, in which they narrowly lost outright. Under the leadership of O’Connell, this is a team that is a middling 14-14-2 against the spread dating back to last Fall, including 7-8 in that regard at U.S. Bank Stadium and 9-7-1 when favored by the oddsmakers. Looking at this particular matchup, the Northmen have OWNED the series of late, winning FIVE consecutive encounters outright and covering all but one of them along the way. When they last crossed paths, the two sides exchange field goals throughout the first half until the aforementioned Cousins hit (Rookie Receiver) Jordan Addison for a 10-yard touchdown just before halftime to head into intermission with a 12-6 lead. However, it became academic once the hosts lost their starting QB, as the visitors produced a 42-yard fumble return to extend their lead to thirteen points late in the third period. Though Chicago would strike back late in the final stanza, their last desperate attempt to win the game went awry, as (young Cornerback) Byron Murphy picked off Bagent at the 35-yard line, ending the game for good. When it was all said and done, the Vikings had amassed just 220 total yards on twelve first downs, rushed for a scant forty-six yards despite twenty-two carries, and converted 2-of-13 third downs on the afternoon, though nonetheless came out on top on the strength of their defense, which would have been unheard of last Fall. Not only did Murphy (who has proven to be a stellar signing from the Cardinals) make a huge play on defense, but (veteran Linebacker) Jordan Hicks made TWO of them, picking off Fields before coming up with Bagent’s fumble and taking it to the house. As for Cousins, he completed 21-of-31 passes for 181 yards, a touchdown, and a lost fumble, while (Pro-Bowl Tight End) T.J. Hockenson led the way in the passing game with fifty receiving yards on six receptions. However, as we know, Cousins will not be playing tonight, as Dobbs is set to make his fourth consecutive start for the second team that he has played for this season. The journeyman has never seen actually action against the Bears, despite his team (in this case, the Steelers) facing them twice in his career. On the injury front, Hicks will miss the second leg of this series after being sent to injured reserve with a lower leg malady, while all the speculation has been about the inevitable return of the aforementioned Jefferson, who has been recalled from IR, though has yet to be formerly activated due to a tender hamstring that has kept him out of action for the last six weeks. From our understanding, he is listed as questionable and will thus be a game-time decision to participate in this primetime matchup. Looking ahead, Minnesota will also finally enjoy their bye week after twelve consecutive weeks of action, which should give them an opportunity to get Jefferson back on the field and acclimated to his new Quarterback for the coming playoff push. O’Connell & Co will travel to Las Vegas and Cincinnati in successive weeks before closing out their schedule with three outings against NFC North rivals, including two crucial clashes with Detroit.