As he spoke to his players this week about the importance of their game with the Chicago Bears, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer came with a statistic to drive his point home.
“The last five years in the NFC, one of the two teams that had the bye represented the NFC in the Super Bowl,” he said in his postgame news conference on Sunday afternoon, before turning to executive public relations director Bob Hagan with a sly smile and saying, “How’d you like that one?
“I didn’t know if I should say it or not. I used it with the team the other night.”
These Vikings are approaching those ineffable places, the realms rarely spoken of in the NFL for fear of sounding presumptuous. They head into the playoffs as just the second team in franchise history to win at least 13 games, after a 23-10 win over the Bears on Sunday. The Vikings will open the playoffs in two weeks as the NFC’s No. 2 seed, just two games from being the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. And they head into the playoffs believing decades of January heartbreak have no bearing on them.
“I don’t know,” Zimmer said on Sunday. “I don’t think there’s any curse.”
The Vikings played like they would leave nothing to chance on Sunday afternoon, playing all their healthy starters in an effort to lock up the NFC’s No. 2 seed before any of the games that could help them clinch a bye even with a loss. They built a 14-0 lead on the Bears in the first half, stringing together two drives of at least 70 yards against a team that had allowed the third-fewest plays of 20 yards or more in the NFL.
Minnesota bulked up its front, using rookie tackle Aviante Collins as a second or third tight end and rushing for 147 yards while holding the ball for 35 minutes, 55 seconds. And the Vikings defense, which finished the year ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both points and yards per game, allowed Chicago to gain just 201 yards.
“They’ve got this little edge on them right now that they don’t want to give an inch,” Zimmer said.
Chicago went 1-for-12 on third down; the Vikings, who allowed opponents to convert just 25.2 percent of their third downs this season, finished with the NFL’s best single-season defensive percentage on third downs since the league began tracking the statistic in 1991.
The Bears’ six first-half rushing attempts netted a total of minus-1 yard. Their first play in Vikings territory didn’t come until the 13:52 mark in the fourth quarter.
“It has to be up there for sure,” cornerback Terence Newman said. “I have played on some really good defenses. My rookie year [in 2003], we led the league in total defense with Coach Zimmer [as the defensive coordinator in Dallas]. This one is as good as any other I have been on.”
The Vikings, who took a shutout into the fourth quarter two weeks ago against the Bengals and blanked the Packers at Lambeau Field on Dec. 23, might have taken another zero into the fourth quarter if not for the Bears’ second TD off punt-team trickery against the Vikings this season.
As Ryan Quigley lined up to punt in the second quarter, the Bears put Tarik Cohen back to return the kick but stashed Bryce Callahan along the left sideline. The Vikings’ punt coverage team followed the Bears’ blockers toward Cohen, leaving Callahan alone to field Quigley’s punt toward the sideline and return it 59 yards for a touchdown.
The score followed Pat O’Donnell’s fake-punt TD pass in Week 5, and marked one more moment of special teams ingenuity in what figured to be John Fox’s final game as the Bears’ head coach. The Bears, however, could not pair an offensive touchdown with it.
The defense controlled the game on a day when the Vikings had to bide their time on offense. Two of the Vikings’ longest three plays came on Chicago pass interference penalties of 25 and 27 yards.
They avoided the kind of self-inflicted wound that might have opened the door for a Bears comeback, though, finishing without a turnover and ending all three of their red zone trips with touchdowns.
“[It’s] playing smart football, playing complementary football and knowing when to take shots, when to check it down, and even knowing when to eat it sometimes and take a sack,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “If you end every drive with a kick, whether it’s a field goal, extra point, or punt, you’re doing pretty good.”
Those words might trigger some flashbacks for Vikings fans headed into the playoffs, where drives ending in kicks have caused some of the team’s most harrowing moments in recent years.
But when the Vikings open the playoffs at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Saints, Rams or Panthers, they seem unlikely to be afraid of what’s at stake.
“We are going to give this thing everything we’ve got,” Keenum said. “We’re excited to play at home. This place is crazy hard for teams to come in and play, especially with our defense. I’m excited. I think this place is going to be rocking. I think all of Minnesota is pretty excited, too.”