On Wednesday night, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins sat back in a recliner and thanked his wife, Julie, for all she’d done with their family’s Christmas celebration and her work to make it special for their two young sons.
“She said, ‘Well, thank you for faking it and not being a crab all day,’ ” Cousins recounted Thursday. “I said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t feel like it was a great Christmas, but I tried to put a smile on.’ Sometimes, you fake it until you make it.”
The decision facing Vikings coach Mike Zimmer this week is whether to let Cousins, and the rest of his starters, end the regular season with a better performance than the one they gave in Monday’s 23-10 loss to the Packers, or to rest them for the first round of the playoffs by keeping them out of a Week 17 game against the Bears that means nothing.
The Vikings are locked in to the NFC’s No. 6 seed, which means backups such as quarterback Sean Mannion might see extensive playing time. No matter what happens against Chicago, the Vikings playoff position can’t improve and they might not learn which of the four teams they’ll visit in the first round of the playoffs until after Sunday night’s regular-season finale between the Seahawks and 49ers.
The chance to enter the playoffs reasonably healthy (for a team whose injury fortunes this season have been as good as any team in the NFL, according to man-games lost) is appealing. But at least for some players, so is the chance to use the Bears game as a springboard into the postseason.
“In January, momentum is everything,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “You go back and look at wild-card teams that have won the Super Bowl, played in the Super Bowl, they usually have momentum at the end of the season. We’ve talked about it around here a lot, and you hear it a lot in this league: It’s just about playing your best football in January and getting hot at the right time. So Sunday’s a great opportunity for us to get back on the right foot.”
Further complicating matters for the Vikings is their recent struggles against their opponent.
They’ve lost three in a row against the Bears, having posted just 36 points in those games. Chicago coach Matt Nagy said the 7-8 Bears will play to win Sunday, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility of resting some starters. For a seventh-ranked offense that posted just 139 yards on Monday night, Sunday’s matchup against the Bears could be a difficult test, an opportunity to produce against a strong defense, an exercise against players with little at stake or anything in between.
And while he said he’s talked with some players about what they want to do, Zimmer said the decision will be his. And he’s thinking about all the factors involved.
“For instance, one player wants to play — then maybe I need to play a bunch of players so it’s effective around him,” Zimmer said. “Anthony Barr, for instance; let’s say him. If he wants to play, and I play him, then OK, do I need to make sure that LJ [Linval Joseph] is in there, and Shamar [Stephen], so that something doesn’t happen to one of them? It’s not just about one player. It’s about the group, really.”
Running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison were limited participants in practice Thursday, but likely will sit out Sunday to get ready for the postseason.
Should the Vikings decide to sit their starters, Sunday could be a good opportunity for Mannion, who’s heading into free agency this winter after only being on the field for five kneel-downs this season.
“You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get in this league, and you never know what it may look like when you get them, what the circumstances may be,” Mannion said. “No matter what the staff or anybody decides to do, nothing’s changed for me. You always prepare as if you’re going to go in and play — and just go out there and enjoy it. If you’re not having fun doing it, it’s going to be a grind.”
The 27-year-old Mannion was a backup to Jared Goff on the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl team last season, but started only one game in his three seasons with the Rams and has thrown only 53 passes (three interceptions, no TDs) in parts of five NFL seasons.
Whether the Vikings give Mannion the entire game, part of the game or none of it is still unknown. They’ll try to win with whoever is on the field; it’s just harder than normal to determine exactly who that will be.
“That’s probably the biggest part of it: Do you look at the entire season and look at how well the offense has played throughout the course of the year, or do you look at a one-game situation?” Zimmer said. “That’s kind of what I’m weighing right now: Do I go with the belief they’ve been really good all year long, or do we go in and, because we didn’t play very well the other night, try to get going again?”