On Oct. 18, the same day the Vikings' most perplexing effort of the season against the winless Atlanta Falcons sent them into their bye week with a 1-5 record, the Bears were in Charlotte, finishing off a 23-16 win over the Carolina Panthers to move to 5-1. Hours later, the Packers were throttled 38-10 in Tampa, falling to 4-1 after their bye week and ceding first place in the NFC North to the Bears.
A snapshot of the division standings then, or prognostications about where the season would go from that point forward, were quickly rendered worthless in this surreal NFL season in which home stadiums are empty, leads are elastic and, thanks to the league's expansion of the playoff field, postseason hopes are not easily extinguished.
A Vikings team that surrendered double-digit leads twice in three weeks won five of its next six, capping the stretch with double-digit comebacks at home against Carolina and Jacksonville. The Bears didn't win between Oct. 18 and Dec. 13, with a Monday night loss to the Vikings on Nov. 16 coming in the middle of a six-game losing streak. The Packers clinched the division title last Sunday in Detroit, and while a second NFC North playoff spot is no guarantee, it's now equally likely for the Vikings as the Bears.
The final game at U.S. Bank Stadium this season will be a Sunday afternoon matchup between two 6-7 teams clinging to a shot at the NFC's new No. 7 playoff spot, introduced to give wild-card weekend a more robust TV slate (and December games more intrigue).
Were this a six-team playoff field, the Vikings would be all but eliminated, two games behind the Buccaneers team they lost to last Sunday. Instead, they need only to win Sunday and have the Cardinals lose in Philadelphia to be back in command of their postseason fate.
"It's early playoffs for us, and that's how I'm looking at it," safety Harrison Smith said.
If the Vikings finish tied with the Cardinals for the NFC's seventh spot, they'd also finish with the same conference record as Arizona. In that case, they'd advance to the postseason on the second tiebreaker — a better record against common opponents — and, in a twist that would undoubtedly make Vikings play-by-play man Paul Allen happy, knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs.
The first step is for the Vikings to shake off the irritated feeling that accompanied last Sunday's loss in Tampa and register a second victory over an NFC North opponent they haven't swept since 2017.
"I think we've been in that situation for what, seven weeks now?" wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "So that's kind of been the mentality of this team, and we need to have that mentality obviously going into this week and play our butts off and give it everything we got to go out there and get a 'W.'"
Bears re-establish offense
If the Bears have reason for optimism, it's perhaps because they've emerged from an offensive dry spell by returning to a familiar offensive identity. They reinstalled Mitchell Trubisky as their starting quarterback after their bye week, following the Monday night loss to the Vikings in which Nick Foles was carted off because of a hip injury.
Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft who might be on his last chance as the Bears starter, has helped spark an offense that managed only 149 yards and didn't score an offensive touchdown in the loss to the Vikings in Week 10. He's completed 74.3% of his passes for 534 yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, while resorting to his scrambling ability less frequently.
"He's trying to stay in the pocket and go from his first read to his second read to his third read and deliver the ball," co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "Whereas before if his first read was covered, he was going to pull it down and look for a place to get out."
The Bears' success on the ground has instead come through the return of David Montgomery from a concussion. A team that had run for just 368 yards in a seven-game stretch, ending with the loss to the Vikings, has rushed for 430 in the past three. In two of those games, Montgomery has needed just 11 carries to surpass 100 yards.
"I think we go back to those weeks during the middle of the season; for a lot of different reasons, we were struggling in a lot of different areas," Bears coach Matt Nagy said. "We think that we found something that's fitting. We think we found something that, offensively, you feel good about."
Hicks a challenge for Cook
After a series of frustrating attempts to get Dalvin Cook going against the Bears at Soldier Field in November, the Vikings finally were able to do so once defensive tackle Akiem Hicks left because of a right hamstring injury late in the third quarter.
Cook gained 57 of his 96 yards that night on 11 fourth-quarter carries. Now that he's back, Cook could be in for more of his customary challenge against the Bears.
"When you run the football, you have to have a feeling for what he's doing and where he's at," Cook said of Hicks. "I've been playing him for a couple years and I pretty much have a feel for some of the things. He's a great player so every play I'm not going to figure him out, but I try to at least. I think he does a great job of not giving his hand up too early and not showing what he's going to do. You pretty much have to be smarter than him and outsmart him and make a play."
A win, and the Vikings head to New Orleans for a Christmas Day game with a decent playoff shot. A loss, and they're all but mathematically eliminated at 6-8.
"We know, so there's nothing to overhype about it," Cook said. "We just know what's at stake. … Last week's score doesn't show how hard we played on the field, but I'm tremendously proud of the guys, so if we come with that same effort even better this week, I think we'll walk out of there with the outcome that we want."