With their struggles over the last three months after starting the 2016 season with the 5-0 record, the Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears for the first time knowing that they have no chance of making the playoffs. Although the deck was stacked against them for the last month, there was still the “chip-and-a-chair” statistical chance that the Vikings could make the playoffs. That chance went bust last Saturday in Green Bay.
Some of the Vikings’ woes started Halloween night at Chicago. Coming off their first loss of the season, Minnesota was expected to right the ship against the Bears, but it was Chicago who set the tempo and put the aggressive Vikings defense on its heels.
“They came out and played well,” safety Harrison Smith said. “We just didn’t play well enough to win that one.”
One of the keys to the Bears getting momentum on their side and keeping it was an early 69-yard run by then-relative unknown running back Jordan Howard that got Chicago on the scoreboard early and started the momentum snowball rolling in their favor.
The Vikings got out of their gap integrity on the play and Smith said that a player with Howard’s talent will make you pay for mistakes like that.
“That was one play that we didn’t do well enough and let him get a long run,” Smith said. “He’s had a good year. He’s a very good young running back. Stopping the run is always No. 1 for us.”
Much of the onus for stopping a running back who makes his living between the tackles will fall on middle linebacker Eric Kendricks. In the first meeting, the Bears mauled the Vikings defense thanks in large part to Howard dominating on the ground.
While his 69-yard burst was the highlight-film play of the game, it wasn’t anywhere close to the full damage he did that night in October. He finished the game with 26 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown – the most rushing yards surrendered to an opponent by the Vikings defense all season.
Kendricks knows he will have to come up big to keep Howard from repeating that type of performance on Sunday.
“He’s good,” Kendricks said. “He’s big. He’s physical. He’s always runs forward. It’s a good challenge for me. We need to stop the run and get off (the field) on third down. That’s our goal. If we do that, we’ll be alright.”
The Vikings are looking for a little redemption coming off a streak in which they’ve lost eight of their last 10 games – the last two being lopsided defeats in which they fell behind early and things just got worse from there.
It’s not to say that the Vikings defense has turned into a horrible group that can’t stop anybody. It’s just their margin for error has been slim and they’ve been taking more risks, often undermining a solid outing with two or three bad plays that flip a game on its head.
“We haven’t made enough plays,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s been something where we came back (from the bye) and were terrible. We’ve still done a lot of good things. We just haven’t done enough to win.”
The Vikings are looking to end their 2016 season on a positive note, salvaging a .500 season that seemed impossible when the team was dominating in the first month of the season.
The Vikings are hanging their heads. While disappointed, they’re not going to throw in the towel and call it a season just yet. There’s one more game to play and that’s the only thing that matters right now.
“Things happen,” Kendricks said. “All we can do is control what we do now. That’s what I’m going to do – I’m going to work hard all week and play hard like I always do.”
The common theme among the Vikings’ struggles has been that it’s not so much that the Vikings have been dominated by their opponents – the last couple of game excepted – but they’ve been causing their own misery.
Shooting themselves in the foot has become commonplace and what the Vikings have learned this season is that you can’t continue to sabotage your own game plan and still expect to win games in the NFL with any regularity.
“This is a tough league, no matter what the others teams’ records are,” Smith said. “No matter what, if you don’t bring your ‘A’ game every week, you’re going to get beat.”