On Dec. 31, 2017, at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings held the Bears to one third-down conversion in 12 attempts and won 23-10 while setting an NFL single-season record for third-down defensive dominance at 25.2 percent.
Boy oh boy, what a difference 364 days can make.
Sunday, the two teams did a 180-degree role reversal. This time, the Bears won 24-10 while converting eight of 14 third downs — eight of 12 when the outcome still was in doubt — for a season-high 57 percent against a Vikings defense that went into the game ranked No. 1 on third downs at 28.4 percent.
“The way we played today, we don’t deserve to be in the playoffs,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “The game we played today, it’s not a playoff performance.”
Of course, it didn’t help that the Vikings’ offense almost matched the ’17 Bears’ season-finale futility by converting one of 11 third downs. Or started with four straight three-and-outs for the second straight week. Or fell behind in total yardage 195-2. Or didn’t pick up a first down until 6 minutes, 8 seconds were left in the first half.
A year ago, the Vikings defense was at full strength as it won its 13th game while handing John Fox a 5-11 record in his final game as Bears coach. This year, the Vikings were without cornerback Xavier Rhodes (groin) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (hamstring) as the Bears won their 12th game to deny the Vikings a third playoff spot in Zimmer’s five years.
Forced to play undrafted rookie corner Holton Hill and safety/corner Jayron Kearse more than they would have liked, the Vikings were vulnerable on third downs. Hill also left the field briefly before returning.
“They threw a long ball on Holton Hill one time,” Zimmer said of a 40-yard completion to the 1-yard line. “They threw another completion on him. And then, honestly, we kind of ran out of defensive backs today.”
Asked if he felt the Bears were picking on Hill, Zimmer said, simply, “Yes.”
The Vikings lost by two touchdowns in a game in which they didn’t turn the ball over and committed eight fewer penalties (three for 30 yards) than the Bears (11 for 102). The Bears came into the game with a takeaway in all but one game and league highs in takeaways (36), interceptions (27) and points off turnovers (109).
But the Vikings’ three penalties were massive. All three came on third down. Guard Mike Remmers negated a first-down run with a holding penalty in the second quarter, while defensive end Stephen Weatherly (roughing the passer) and Kearse (holding) extended touchdown drives.
Weatherly’s roughing call — which Zimmer called “ticky-tacky” — came on a deep-ball incompletion on third-and-6. The Bears seized the second chance and scored a touchdown to take a 13-0 lead.
Kearse’s penalty came on third-and-10 and negated a sack by Barr that would have forced a punt with 13 minutes left. Instead, the Bears scored the knockout touchdown eight plays later to take a 21-10 lead with 7:46 left.
That drive consumed 9 minutes and 5 seconds of game clock. Besides Kearse’s third-down penalty, the Bears went 4-for-4 on third down.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky escaped for 12 yards on third-and-5. He hit rookie receiver Javon Wims for 16 yards on third-and-6. He found tight end Trey Burton for 9 yards on third-and-6.
Then, after an illegal motion negated a first-down run by Jordan Howard on third-and-2, Trubisky hit Wims again for 9 yards on third-and-7.
“The key was winning first down and having manageable third downs,” said Bears coach Matt Nagy, referring to an average third-down distance needed of 4.9 yards. “This team has set world records on third down the past couple years.”
It helped that the Bears ran for 169 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries (4.6).
“I don’t think it’s a harsh reality that we lost,” safety Harrison Smith said. “I think it’s just reality. We didn’t do enough to win. That’s it. Period. It’s a production business.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org