As a new year started Sunday, the Vikings resembled the dominant team that rolled through their first five opponents this season, giving themselves and their long-suffering fans hope that 2016 might finally be their year.
Sure, a lot of that had to do with their visitors at U.S Bank Stadium, a bad Chicago Bears team that gave the ball away on their first two possessions and five times overall. Matt Barkley, their third-string quarterback at the start of the season, threw a pair of interceptions and coughed up a fumble.
But tight end Kyle Rudolph had a career game and quarterback Sam Bradford clinched the NFL’s single-season record for completion percentage with another sharp performance as the Vikings cruised to a 38-10 win over the disinterested Bears in the season finale, finishing with an 8-8 record.
“It’s a good win, but it’s tough that it’s the end of it,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We did things today like we did early in the year. We had turnovers. We played physical. We just didn’t do it enough [late in the season].”
In the end, the only banner hung at the stadium in its first year of use was the one unfurled during the game by a pair of daredevil protesters.
Early in the second quarter, two protesters were spotted dangling from the rafters next to their large banner, which urged U.S. Bank to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline. The game continued on as the protesters, one wearing a Brett Favre jersey, twirled above the crowd past the final whistle.
The protest provided more drama than what took place on the field, as the Vikings took advantage of early Bears turnovers to score on their first three possessions and take a 17-0 lead 20 minutes into the game.
On the game’s opening drive, Bradford completed a 39-yard strike deep down the right sideline to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Running back Jerick McKinnon then caught a swing pass from Bradford, ran 16 yards and sprawled out to smack the pylon with the football.
The Bears threatened to answer with a touchdown of their own, but Barkley carelessly lobbed a throw into double coverage and it was easily picked off in the end zone by cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“We knew that he was going to throw us some balls,” outside linebacker Anthony Barr said of Barkley, who threw five interceptions last week.
After safety Anthony Harris recovered a fumble by Bears running back Jeremy Langford inside Bears territory, Bradford’s second touchdown pass, a 22-yarder to Rudolph, made it a 17-0 laugher early in the second quarter.
It was Rudolph’s 29th career touchdown, the most ever by a Vikings tight end. He also caught 11 passes Sunday, giving him 83 receptions on the season, which set the single-season franchise mark for the position.
“When I first got here, it seemed like we clicked immediately,” Bradford said. “If you put it in his area, he’s usually going to come down with it.”
The Bears got on the scoreboard with a trick play late in the second quarter. Langford took a direct snap and pitched the ball to wide receiver Cameron Meredith, who threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Barkley.
But the Bears gave the ball away again when Bralon Addison muffed a punt. The Vikings cashed in the third Bears turnover of the half for another touchdown, with wide receiver Jarius Wright scoring for the first time this season.
During the first half, Bradford was 17-for-22 for 188 yards and three scores. Bradford finished the game with 250 yards on 25-for-33 passing, giving him a record-setting completion percentage of 71.6 on the season.
“I would trade that for wins any day,” Bradford said. “But the fact that we were able to go out there and accomplish that as a group … it’s pretty cool.”
In the third quarter, the bad-news Bears picked up where they left off. Another Barkley interception, this one to cornerback Trae Waynes, ended another drive that had entered Vikings territory.
After the Vikings defense stuffed Bears running back Jordan Howard, who had 135 rushing yards Sunday, on fourth-and-1, the Vikings put the game away with a 10-yard touchdown run by McKinnon out of the Wildcat.
Defensive end Everson Griffen scooped up a Barkley fumble, after Barr batted the loose ball toward the end zone and was not penalized, and returned it 20 yards for a score that made it 38-10 in the fourth quarter.
“We haven’t got a lot of bounces this year,” Barr said. “So we’ll take it.”
The win was only the Vikings’ third in their final 11 games as they became the sixth team since 1990 to not make the playoffs after starting 5-0.
It was a bittersweet ending to a weird 2016 season that started with so much promise but was derailed by injuries and turmoil on and off the field.
“It’s going to be one we look back on [at] missed opportunities,” Rudolph said. “I also think there are a lot of positive things for us to take out of this season. Dealing with adversity, battling through it, sticking together and persevering in the end are things that will help this young team in the future.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org