The Bears and Vikings played a surprisingly competitive game in Chicago earlier in the season, with the Vikings winning on a late field goal. Since then, rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has seen a few more NFL snaps Minnesota has emerged as one of the best teams in the sport.
Though these two teams are heading in opposite directions after the final whistle Sunday, there is still a certain intrigue to this game. Here are my three biggest questions for the final matchup of the 2017 regular season.
Will the Bears let their youngsters off the leash?
Though no fan heads into a season hopeful their team reaches just five wins, the truth is there are some things that the Bears have going for them. There has been some development from young players, namely Leonard Floyd, Adrian Amos and Kyle Fuller. Jordan Howard is still one of the NFL’s premier runners. Rookies Trubisky, Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson have flashed some star potential.
Under coach John Fox, there has been a clear initiative for Trubisky: Do not turn the ball over. As a result, Trubisky, and therefore the offense, has appeared tied down at times. When Trubisky, Cohen and rookie tight end Adam Shaheen have had the training wheels taken off, they have made plays. When the young players are allowed to play like young players, the offense has some identity.
But those moments have been few and far between. Too often, Fox’s and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains’ tentative game plans have taken all excitement out of the Chicago season. But now, the Bears are playing with house money. There is nothing at stake for them beyond pride and playing spoiler to the division rival Vikings. So theoretically, there is nothing to stop Loggains from giving Trubisky free range to play his game.
If that happens, chances are the Vikings defense will force a few turnovers, maybe get a few more sacks. But, at the very least, it should create a more compelling, albeit mismatched NFC North battle.
Can the Vikings regain their efficient third down offense?
Not too long ago, Minnesota had the number one third down conversion rate in all the NFL. To say it has taken a tumble would be an overreaction as they have only slipped to third. That being said, they have fallen off a bit from the team they were just three weeks ago. Overall, the Vikings have converted on 43.8 percent of third downs. But in the last two weeks, they have converted only 29.6 percent.
Part of this can be attributed to the offensive line’s struggles in pass protection the past few games. Case Keenum took 11 sacks in weeks 14 through 16 after taking just nine in the first 13. Minnesota averaged 3.8 yards per carry during the same stretch. While not an awful number, running for fewer than four yards per play puts the passing game behind the eight ball. As a result, the Vikings have been facing more third-and-longs, which needless to say, are harder to convert.
Tomorrow’s game will be a good opportunity for the Vikings to get back on track heading into the postseason. The Bears have some good players under the radar on their defense, particularly in the secondary. It will be a good test as to whether Minnesota’s newfound struggles on third down were temporary or if they remain a concern.
Are the Vikings going to play conservative in order to avoid further injuries?
Here is what the race for the second seed in the NFC looks like: The Vikings clinch if they win, the Panthers lose, the Rams win or the Saints win. They slip to the third seed if none of those things happen. So as it stands, it looks like Minnesota will be hosting a second round playoff game.
That being said, Mike Zimmer and company still have something to play for. Of the NFC playoff teams without locked-in seeds, the Vikings are the only team playing in the early slate. The Rams, Saints and Panthers all play at 3:25 central time. So nothing will be decided by the time the Vikings take the field and as a result, there will likely be no rested starters.
But the Vikings have some injury concerns: Shamar Stephen, Pat Elflein and Tramaine Brock will not play tomorrow and their status moving forward is in question. Nick Easton is already out for the season. Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, though they will play, have nagging injuries, themselves. Simply put, the Vikings are not healthy right now. And they need to come out of this game as healthy as possible. That may mean a conservative game plan on both sides of the ball, but coming away with a full roster will likely mean more to the coaching staff than coming away with a flashy win.
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