The Minnesota Vikings have been in prime position to grab a playoff spot with a strong finish down this closing stretch of daunting games.
In their first test, they dropped the ball.
The Vikings (6-5) emerged from an ugly 28-10 loss at Chicago still tied with Seattle and Tampa Bay for the second NFC wild card spot, but they've lost to both of those teams and thus must finish ahead of them. The loss to the Bears (8-3) on Sunday put a big dent in Minnesota's goal of becoming the surprise winner of the NFC North, too, leaving the Vikings in third place with little margin for error remaining.
They play at Green Bay (7-4) this Sunday and host Chicago again the week after that, with top-level performances required to win. And if they can't catch Christian Ponder's passes, well, the production by the rest of the team might not even matter.
Drops aren't an official NFL statistic, but anyone who watched the Bears game could've conservatively credited their receivers with at least six, including three for Jerome Simpson.
"The number of dropped passes we had yesterday was really unacceptable in our league," said coach Leslie Frazier, whose criticism of his players is usually limited and muted. "It's hard to continue drives when you don't catch the football, and that's a part of what you have to be able to do as a wide receiver in our league.
"The drops were not good. They hurt our continuity, our ability to move the football. So we have a lot of work to do. A lot to get done. I have a lot to do to get our team back, refocused on the task at hand for this next ball game."
Ponder had his share of erratic throws, including one that sailed past Devin Aromashodu for an interception that Chicago followed with a touchdown on the next play. Ponder finished 22 for 43 and again had little success with the deep ball. But his receivers did him no favors, with star Percy Harvin back in Minnesota still healing from a sprained left ankle.
"It's tough. You want to see everybody making plays and contributing," wide receiver Michael Jenkins said. "Nobody wants to drop a ball or have a bad play. Guys just have to bounce back and make the next one."
Frazier said he couldn't recall a game with so many drops by his team.
"We'll go back and do some drills and do some different things to try to help our guys to hold on to the football," he said, adding: "When your teammates see those opportunities disappear, it affects the entire team. It affects the guys on the field, affects the guys on the sideline."
Adrian Peterson lost a fumble, too, that directly led to a Chicago touchdown, and the defense can't escape blame, either. The first half was a collective failure, with a nonexistent pass rush and too many productive runs by the Bears on third-and-short. For the afternoon, they converted 11 of 19 third downs.
Chicago was coming off a 32-7 loss at San Francisco last Monday. But with a short week of preparation, the sting of that nationally televised shellacking and a slew of injuries on their offense despite the return of quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears weren't deterred.
The Vikings will face a Packers team this Sunday under similar circumstances. Aaron Rodgers has taken more sacks than any other quarterback in the NFL, and they're coming off a 38-10 loss to the New York Giants.
"It's pretty simple. The Bears played better than we did. The things that went wrong are totally correctable. The Bears game is behind us now. The tape's done," center John Sullivan said. "We're focused on going out and beating the Packers."
Vikings dropped the ball (often) vs. Bears
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