It began with tantalizing possibilities, after a team coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance paid $84 million for free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins and added defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson the next day.
It ended Sunday with 164 yards of total offense, a heated sideline exchange between Cousins and his top target and a 16-play, 75-yard drive on which a Bears team — at that point with little chance at a first-round bye — exerted its will over the Vikings’ vaunted defense.
And for the second time in calendar year 2018, the Vikings went home, preparing to watch the Philadelphia Eagles in a game they believed they should have been playing.
The Vikings’ 2018 season ended with a stultifying thud at home on Sunday when they fell 24-10 to a Bears team that played to win despite the fact it needed a victory and a Rams loss to claim a bye.
The Bears, instead, will play the Eagles at home in the NFC wild-card round after Philadelphia beat Washington 24-0 on Sunday to vault past the Vikings for the conference’s final playoff spot.
Nothing the Eagles did Sunday would have mattered if the Vikings had been able to handle the Bears for the seventh consecutive season at home. But while the U.S. Bank Stadium video board showed flashy “Win and In” graphics packages, the Vikings spotted their opponents an early lead for the fourth time in five games, with their offensive incoherence turning pregame electricity to halftime boos and fourth-quarter resignation as fans streamed out early.
“Didn’t play good enough to win, really,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We didn’t get a first down until midway through the second quarter. Had four three-and-outs to start the game on offense and they had a big run [when Jordan Howard gained 42 yards on the Bears’ first drive]. Defensively, we missed a gap. And so not good enough to win.”
Cousins threw for only 132 yards, as the quarterback dealt with a Bears pass rush that both Zimmer and he conceded was a major factor in the game. When Cousins missed Adam Thielen on a downfield throw late in the first half, the receiver had an animated exchange with Cousins on the sideline, before a similarly lively back-and-forth with interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell.
“Just trying to say if you do that [on your route], I don’t have time to wait on that usually,” Cousins said. “And I don’t know you’re doing that. And so it just — again those are conversations he and I have. To talk about it now, it’s going to get misconstrued and misinterpreted. Adam’s my guy. He’s the best. I want to have more of those conversations. I actually liked the passion back and forth. I want to do more of that. I want to let us both be who we are and have those discussions, because he’s the kind of guy we can do that with going forward.”
The Vikings converted only one of their 11 third-down attempts, running the ball only once more than they did in a Nov. 18 loss to the Bears. The first matchup with Chicago led Zimmer to go public with his desire to run the ball more often; the second one showed the Vikings’ struggles to find an offensive identity had, in fact, continued after the Dec. 11 firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
After posting only 5 yards on their first four drives against the Lions, the Vikings gained only 2 on their first four Sunday as the Bears raced out to a 13-0 lead with the help of what Zimmer called a “ticky-tacky” roughing-the-passer penalty on Stephen Weatherly that kept Chicago’s second drive alive.
“We had plenty of chances to make plays, and we were put in position to do so,” running back Latavius Murray said. “However, I feel poor execution stopped us. We have shown what we can do when we do execute, but when we don’t, it can look really bad.”
An offseason the Vikings didn’t expect to arrive so early is here, and with it will come plenty of questions. Multiple sources have told the Star Tribune that the contracts of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman expire after the 2019 season, meaning the Vikings could have to decide this offseason whether to give contract extensions to both or pursue a different course of action. In an interview on Dec. 20, co-owner Mark Wilf said Vikings ownership has “all the confidence” in Zimmer and Spielman, though both Zygi and Mark Wilf declined to comment as they exited the team’s locker room on Sunday.
Zimmer — who has compiled a 48-31-1 record in five years, while going 1-2 in the playoffs after a pair of NFC North division titles — will also have to make a decision about Stefanski, whose contract expires 10 days after the season. The Vikings’ offensive line issues will remain a pervading offseason topic, and Cousins — who ended his first season in Minnesota with 4,298 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions — will be scrutinized for his performance in the Vikings’ biggest games.
“It’s frustrating, because these 53 guys will never play together again,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “This team will never play together again, and there was so much potential on this team. We felt like we had a real good shot to do some real damage and possibly win it all. I don’t think anyone thought on Friday that that was going to be our last practice of the year.”
In a season where promise turned to puzzlement for the Vikings, perhaps it’s fitting the denouement few saw coming was the one they actually received.