Hard-to-figure Vikings still trudging ahead in playoff chase

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings remain a perplexing team to evaluate, now 14 games into this variety-pack season of late collapses, steely finishes and everything in between.

They’ve managed to both dominate and self-destruct in every facet of offense and defense over the course of the year, depending on the month or the week or even the quarter of a game.

Hard to figure out, but also hard to get rid of.

Despite an overall performance at Chicago on Monday night more befitting of a team bound for a high draft pick than a deep playoff run, the Vikings (7-7) pulled out a 17-9 victory to take at least temporary control of the final wild-card spot in the NFC.

They’ll wear that win over the rival Bears like an ugly Christmas sweater for now, before trying to find better outfits for their last three games.

“Nobody is standing out as the No. 1 team. Everybody is losing games that nobody expected them to lose. So a lot of stuff is happening this year, but we just have to worry about ourselves and keep playing our ball and finish this season with three more wins,” wide receiver Justin Jefferson said.

That’ll be a tough task, with the Los Angeles Rams up next. Then comes a trip to Green Bay and another game against Chicago.

“We’re probably going to need every one. There’s not a lot of room for error, and we’ve got to tighten the screws here and play our best football down the stretch,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had only 87 yards passing, his career low as a starter, and took a season-high four sacks.

The Bears crossed the goal line on the meaningless final play to make the final margin eight points, the 13th one-score game for the Vikings this year. The Bears beat them badly between the 20s, but two touchdown passes by Cousins on third down plays from the 12 and the 7 were the difference.

On the other side, the Vikings took full advantage of three lost fumbles, ill-timed penalties and conservative play-calling by the Bears. Any time a team keeps an opponent scoreless on three different possessions that end inside the 15-yard line, though, it’s doing something right.

“We just have to keep grinding on them, keep trying to get them better,” coach Mike Zimmer said.

WHAT’S WORKING

Defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce have only played together in seven games this season, but they’ve given the Vikings a boost in run support and the pass rush when they are on the field. Tomlinson blocked a field goal and Pierce had a tackle for loss on Monday.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Aside from the soft coverage on his touchdown catch in the first quarter, Jefferson predictably saw frequent double teams from a Bears secondary that was ravaged by COVID-19 cases.

“It was hard to ever get anything more than a few yards because of the way they were trying to keep everything in front of them,” Cousins said.

The absence of Adam Thielen was noticeable, and Cousins was under frequent pressure — inside and outside. Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and Cousins still needs to find a way to consistently pass the ball when Jefferson is bottled up.

“These teams that play these umbrella coverages against us, we’re going to have to dink and dunk it a little bit,” Zimmer said.

STOCK UP

Defensive end D.J. Wonnum had a career-high three sacks against the Bears and has five sacks in the four games since Everson Griffen went on hiatus for mental health treatment.

“I put the work in in the offseason, and each and every week I’ve gotten better,” Wonnum said. “Three sacks, it was just the beginning. I’m ready to get better, and I’m looking forward.”

STOCK DOWN

Right guard has been a problem spot for several years, no more troubling than the way Akiem Hicks manhandled Mason Cole on Monday.

With Rams star Aaron Donald up next and a rematch with Hicks and the Bears in less than three weeks the Vikings could be tempted to put the oft-penalized Oli Udoh back in. He’s more than 20 pounds heavier than Cole, who is the ninth player to start at least one game at right guard since Cousins arrived in 2018.

KEY NUMBER

61 — The Vikings netted just 61 passing yards, when sacks are factored in, their lowest total in nine years. The only other time in the past 25 seasons that they’ve won a game with under 75 net passing yards, according to Sportradar data, was a 21-14 victory over Arizona in 2012 (43).

INJURY REPORT

The Vikings are as close to full strength as any team in the NFL this late in the season. Thielen missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle, but he was listed as questionable to play and ought to be a good bet to be ready for the Rams with more time to heal and rest.

NEXT STEPS

Keeping the roster as virus-free as possible down the stretch will be just as integral toward their success as any specific improvement as cases continue to spike across the league.

The Vikings have three players on the COVID-19 reserve list, all backups: running back Alexander Mattison and wide receivers Dede Westbrook and Dan Chisena. The Rams peaked with 25 players on the list, with 14 players still out as of Tuesday morning.

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