All the shortfalls, high points, frustrations and excitements of the 2018 season come down to one game Sunday. If the Vikings hold serve at home against the Bears, they are in the playoffs. If they lose, they are likely on the outside looking in. Does not get much simpler an ask for an NFL team.
Dalvin Cook vs. Roquan Smith
The Vikings’ offensive resurgence the last two weeks has gone as Dalvin Cook goes. Kevin Stefanski has incorporated the zone running game early and often, and Cook is averaging just shy of six yards per carry during this stretch. He is not seeing quite as many targets in the passing game, but those targets he has seen are going for big yardage. Chicago’s star rookie linebacker has been as good as anyone this year at defending running backs. Roquan Smith is remarkably disciplined in his contain, yet has the speed to flow sideline to sideline with ease. Cook is going to get to know Smith really well Sunday.
Danielle Hunter vs. Bobby Massie
Danielle Hunter’s matchup has been a part of these segments virtually all season, but this week it has a different element. Bobby Massie is a solid, but occasionally inconsistent tackle who Hunter should be able to get pressure against. The bigger question, however, is how Hunter handles contain both in the run and pass game. Tarik Cohen can bounce runs outside in an instant, turning nothing plays into chunk yardage. Mitchell Trubisky tortured the Vikings’ defense in the first matchup with his scrambling ability. Those plays will simply have to go the Vikings’ way more often than they did before.
Kevin Stefanski vs. Khalil Mack
Khalil Mack did not have quite the dominating performance in week 11 that he has at times this year. Still, he came away with a sack and forced fumble. By any measure, Mack is a top-three Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Just the threat of his pressure forced Cousins into a quick trigger, usually for checkdowns but occasionally into ill-advised throws. Hence, the two interceptions, one for a touchdown six weeks ago. Mack matched up primarily with Riley Reiff before, but he will move around quite a bit. It will be up to Stefanski to formulate a plan to keeping the offense flowing with Mack looming. That could mean a lot of chips, a lot of quick passing and a healthy dose of play-action.
Minnesota is again facing some key injuries, though most of their starters will be healthy Sunday. Eric Kendricks will miss again, likely meaning Eric Wilson starts at Mike in nickel defense and at Will in base. Fullback C.J. Ham, returner Marcus Sherels and receiver Chad Beebe will also miss. Beebe’s absence could mean Laquon Treadwell will return to action after being a healthy scratch last week. Aside from those officially out, Xavier Rhodes and Tom Compton are questionable.
The Bears are not dealing with quite as many injuries, but those they do have involve some of their best players. Star safety Eddie Jackson and receiver Allen Robinson are both doubtful for Sunday, while key rotation players Aaron Lynch and Bilal Nichols may also both miss.
Clayton Brooks: Minnesota 24, Chicago 14
Both the Bears and Vikings have something to play for to close out the year: the Bears first round bye, the Vikings the final playoff slot. Their last confrontation was more one-sided than the end score would indicate because the Bears controlled that game. However, some things have changed since, at on Minnesota’s side.
The Vikings have changed offensive coordinators and have re-established their ground game in the two weeks since. They’ve also gotten the tight ends more involved in the passing game over that same period as the top receivers have been from that position in each week.
As good as Chicago has been in 2018, they haven’t been as good on the road, and that’s where they’ll be to close out the regular season. Pair that with the Rams having there finale versus an injury-depleted 49ers team, and it seems more likely the Bears won’t play their starters the whole way either. I’ll take Minnesota at home here.
– Clayton Brooks writes for Full Press Coverage and covers the Vikings. Follow him @ClaytonRBrooks2.
Sam Smith: Minnesota 20, Chicago 17
The Bears are supposedly throwing their whole squad out to vie for the bye on Sunday. That is not the best news for the Vikings, as the Bears’ defense was the main catalyst of their late-season offensive woes. But under Stefanski, Minnesota has found some better footing, while the Bears are coming off a disappointingly close win against the 49ers. With Chicago’s relatively weaker play on the road, as well as some significant players ailing, I like the Vikings to have enough to pull out a narrow win. Which would, of course, set up the rematch in the Wild Card round.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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