Jared Allen amended his stance from a couple weeks ago almost-must-win games to no-doubter must-wins the rest of the way. The Vikings even flew in a big-wig from the East Coast – owner Zygi Wilf – Friday to talk to the team to stress the importance of Sunday's showdown with the Chicago Bears.
"(Wilf) talked to the guys about the atmosphere that they were going to face this weekend and just encouraging them in their efforts," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "I think that conversation, along with what we had done throughout the week, kind of brought things into focus for our football team."
Wilf has made post-game speeches and given away his tie for big performances before, but Friday's visit to Winter Park to attend practice and then the team meeting might have been a first. It was definitely the first time he attended a team meeting this year, according to Frazier.
"He just came in and expressed his desire and his passion that he has for this team, just: ‘I'm here to back you guys up through thick and thin,'" said Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 154 yards in the win. "We've been through a lot, taking a shot with Percy (Harvin) going down and not being with this team for the remainder of the season. The guys responded in a positive way. He came in and he talked to us and the focus just continued through the week from everyone."
The Vikings' 21-14 win put them at 7-6 and keeps them in the hunt for the playoffs, although they may still need help even if they do win out, Jared Allen acknowledged. They are seeded ninth in the six-team NFC playoff format and they will have to win on the road – where they are 1-5 this season – over the next two weeks.
Still, as Frazier pointed out, they at least have something to play for in December this year.
"It's huge. We're, for a lot of our players, in uncharted territory," Frazier said. "To be playing games in December when every game has major implications, there weren't a lot of people when we were in Mankato thinking that would be the case, so for our players to be at the point where they are, I'm extremely, extremely proud of them."
INURIES INFLUENCE DECISION
The Bears entered the game without MLB Brian Urlacher, CB Tim Jennings and NT Stephen Paea on defense, along with WR Earl Bennett on offense. The defensive injuries played a factor in how the Vikings approached the opening series.
The Vikings won the toss and elected to receive the ball when they have deferred in the past.
"In this case, we actually discussed whether we were going to take (the ball) or not and one of the things that tipped it for us today was the injuries they had on defense," Frazier said. "That probably tipped it for us. Once we saw who was up and who was down, we made a decision that, you know what, we have to get after them early from an offensive standpoint and we were able to do that."
On the first play from scrimmage, Peterson rattled off a 51-yard run.
The Bears' injuries only increased as the game went on.
DT Harry Melton left with a shoulder injury, DE Shea McClellin suffered a knee injury and S Craig Steltz had a chest injury. The Vikings were still outgained 438-248 in total net yards, but Peterson averaged 5.0 yards on 31 carries.
PRODUCTION STILL DOWN FOR PONDER
Christian Ponder only had 91 yards passing, but Frazier stressed the importance of the Vikings winning the turnover battle.
"Christian did a great job of leading our offense, very efficient in what he did in the passing game," Frazier said. "(Ponder) executed the game plan just like we wanted and things worked out the way we had all hoped it would throughout the week."
Ponder took only one sack and threw an interception at the end of the first half on a deep ball for Jarius Wright that Frazier figured was about as good as a punt, but with only 11 completions in 17 attempts, 91 yards and no touchdown passes, Ponder ended up with a rating of only 53.8.
Still, the Vikings avoided the crippling early turnover that titled the field in a hurry in Chicago two weeks previously. Peterson fumbled early in that game and Ponder threw an interception in the first half. Both of those turnovers led to Bears touchdowns that helped them build a 25-3 halftime lead.
"When we played them a couple of weeks ago, we came away from that game believing that if we didn't turn the ball over we had a very good chance of being able to run the ball effectively," Frazier said. "We went into that game thinking that as well, but things happened the way they did so we couldn't do some things we wanted to do from an offensive standpoint."
The Bears are usually winning the turnover battle. They entered the game plus-14 on the turnover differential (34 takeaways, 20 giveaways), second in the NFL. Minnesota was tied for 22nd at minus-6 (15 takeaways, 21 giveaways).
However, the Vikings intercepted Jay Cutler twice – leading to 14 of their 21 points – and won the turnover margin 2-1, all on interceptions.
"If we cannot turn the ball over, we have a chance to win, we think, every game that we play," Frazier said. "Turnovers, they make it hard for us. We're not at the point right now where we can overcome a minus when it comes to the turnover ratio."
Ponder said he had the coverage he wanted on the interception he threw, but he threw off his back foot and underthrew Wright.
"We had it. We had the look we wanted. I took too long to get the ball out," Ponder said. "I had a flat to the left that I probably should have taken. Jarius beat the guy and it just wasn't far enough."
RUDOLPH SHUT OUT
With Percy Harvin out for the season, TE Kyle Rudolph entered the game as the leading active receiver on the roster.
He didn't add to that lead Sunday, as he was targeted twice but was held without a reception.
"We wanted to get it to him. They did a good job of mixing some of their coverages. Although they don't do a lot of things coverage-wise, they did a good job in their man coverage and we weren't able to connect," Frazier said. "We tried a couple different times and didn't have success. It wasn't like we weren't looking for him. They did a good job of covering him."
When the Vikings played at Soldier Field, Rudolph was targeted nine times and had five receptions for 55 yards. Entering the game, Rudolph was targeted 30 times more than any other receiver on the active roster.
"Kyle's been a big part of our pass offense throughout the season and we won today without him having any catches. If you had told me that would be the case, I would have said, ‘That's not going to happen because we're going to target him and he's going to have catches,'" Frazier said. "But credit to our offense and credit to our team being able to overcome that. Kyle's been instrumental to our passing offense."
The only time Rudolph got his hands on the ball was hauling in the Bears' onside kick at the end of the game to allow Ponder to kneel on the ball and preserve the win.
Once again, Brandon Marshall accounted for a big chunk of Chicago's passing game.
The 6-foot-5 receiver had 12 catches for 92 yards on 17 targets two weeks ago against the Vikings and improved on those numbers at Mall of America Field, where he was targeted 19 times, catching 10 of them, for 160 yards.
"In my eyes, he's the best receiver in the game. I put him up there with Calvin Johnson," Vikings CB Antoine Winfield said. "That guy is a problem. He and (Bears QB Jay) Cutler are always on the same page. Cutler is going to give him the opportunities to make plays, and he made a few today."
Marshall made several catches with coverage right on him, but his size and catch radius kept defensive backs Antoine Winfield, A.J. Jefferson and Josh Robinson from getting to the ball when it was near Marshall.
"Doesn't matter if he's double covered or triple covered, (Cutler's) going to throw the ball up to (Marshall)," Winfield said. "Marshall is 6-5 with great hands and long reach – I'd take my chances, too."
Even with that height and reach, Cutler overthrew Marshall late in the third quarter on a pass that Harrison Smith intercepted and returned 56 yards to put the Vikings ahead 21-7.
It was one of two interceptions that Cutler threw, the other coming when Alshon Jeffery fell on a route and Josh Robison returned the interception 44 yards to the 5-yard line, leading to the second Vikings touchdown.
"We got the coverage we wanted on both of them. I got tangled up and fell, which was an easy pick for them," Cutler said. "In the second one, we couldn't really follow through. We got the coverage we wanted, trying to get across the middle. It wasn't anything we were doing, it just happens sometimes."
In their first meeting with the Bears, the Vikings converted 38 percent of their third-down tries, still slightly better than their 35.4 average for the season. On Sunday, they improved to 43 percent.
Michael Jenkins accounted for half of their six third-down conversions with critical catches.
"It feels more like the way our offense should be running," Jenkins said. "With the way Adrian is playing, we should be able to make plays down the field in the passing game. To have that balance, it's going to be big for us down the stretch."
Despite Cutler throwing for 260 yards and Marshall accounting for 160 of those, it was far from a perfect day for the Bears receivers. They dropped at least three passes, including back-to-back drops on third and fourth down by Devin Hester and Marshall, respectively, in the fourth quarter to end a Chicago drive on downs at the Minnesota 23-yard line.
"We all let the team down. I dropped that third down. I have to make that play – that was a momentum play," Marshall said. "If we move the chains the game is probably different. I have to do better. I let my teammates down today. I have to make those plays. There was a few plays, that fourth down, Jay (Cutler) put it on me, right on the money and I dropped it."
After Marshall's drop, Hester realized how big his drop on the previous pass was. He slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration but wasn't penalized.
"It's just frustrating. I let a play go. I let a play go that I can't get back," he said after the game.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.