Turning point: Third-down conversions

The Vikings had more than a dozen chances to thwart Bears drives, but the worst team in the league at converting third downs looked all-pro in their efforts Sunday.

Coming into Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears, one of the biggest advantages that the Vikings had was that Chicago had been absolutely dismal on third down. But the Bears' ability to convert on third down created the turning point.

Entering Sunday's games, only two teams in the NFL had converted less than 30 percent of their third-down opportunities. With a league average at 38.4 percent conversion rate, the Bears were the worst in the league – converting less than 23 percent of their third-down chances (22 of 96). But against the Vikings, they looked like the league's best instead of the league's worst.

The Bears converted 11 of 19 third downs in a game in which the Vikings converted just one of nine chances and almost all of the Bears conversions were critical. They came early. They came late. They came often.

Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, the Vikings had a chance to get Jay Cutler and the Bears off the field with a third-and-11 situation. The Vikings got a pass rush on Cutler, who rolled away from the pressure and delivered a 29-yard pass to Johnny Knox. Two plays later, Cutler converted another third down on an 11-yard pass to Knox to continue the drive. Two plays later, after having a touchdown negated by a holding penalty on center Olin Kreutz, Cutler faced third-and-14 from the 17-yard line. Given time to throw, he threaded a pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a touchdown and a 7-3 Bears lead.

Trailing 10-7 with 3:17 to play in the half, a short kickoff was returned to midfield and gave Cutler a short field to work with. He faced a third-and-6 from the Vikings 45 and slid out of the pocket to deliver a 10-yard pass to Knox to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, inside a minute to play in the half, he faced a third-and-3 from the 28-yard line and converted on a 9-yard pass to Chester Taylor. Two plays later, Cutler would find Devin Hester for a 19-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 14-10 halftime lead.

After the Vikings kicked a field goal midway through the third quarter to cut the Bears lead to 17-13, a 68-yard kickoff return by Hester set the Bears up on the Vikings 34-yard line. However, the defense stuffed a pair of runs to set up a third-and-7 situation. Cutler again avoided a pass rush, bought time with his feet, and completed a 9-yard pass to Devin Aromashodu to move the chains. The defense would stand tall from there, but the Bears were close enough to cash in with a 37-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to give them a 20-13 lead.

With the score still 20-13, the Vikings defense needed a stand. Faced with a third-and-6 from the Vikings 40, Cutler found a wide open Rashied Davis for a 12-yard gain to the Vikings 28. Two plays later, the Bears needed one yard to convert another third down. The Vikings crashed the line expecting a run and Cutler flipped a 19-yard touchdown pass to give Chicago a 27-13 lead.

In case the Vikings had any hopes of another miracle comeback, Cutler converted a third-and-4 on a 10-yard pass to Olsen to allow Chicago to kill the clock and end the game.

The Vikings defense was put into bad situations throughout the game – six Chicago drives started in Vikings territory. They made enough plays to keep the team in the game until the fourth quarter, but their inability to get off the field at critical times allowed the Bears to keep drives alive and, despite having the worst third-down conversion rate in the league, that was the difference in a self-destructive turning point.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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.

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