The decision Mike Zimmer eventually reached, after a week of agonizing over what to do in the Vikings’ regular-season finale against the Bears, should send one of the NFL’s healthiest teams this season into the playoffs as close to full strength as it gets in January.
Resting starters, in a game that would not affect their playoff standing win or lose, made sense, but it came with side effects. They would send a majority of their established players into the postseason after a 23-10 loss to the Packers on Monday night, passing up a chance to reclaim some momentum against a Bears team they hadn’t beaten since 2017. They also would put something less than their best foot forward in a competition, which goes against the coach’s instinct.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I actually didn’t tell some of the guys until last night. I wanted them to prepare like they were getting ready to play. We obviously gave more guys reps during practice this week. I think you kind of just weigh the risk/reward. I like to win. Like I told everybody [this week], any time that scoreboard’s up there, my name’s attached to it. I just figured it’s better in the long run if we play these young guys and get a chance to evaluate them as well.”
On offense, the Vikings sat eight starters, pulling tight end Kyle Rudolph after one play to keep his 81-game starting streak alive and playing their three interior linemen (center Garrett Bradbury and guards Josh Kline and Pat Elflein) for three series. They sat 10 on defense, letting defensive end Danielle Hunter have one play to extend his 76-game starting streak and only using linebacker Eric Wilson after that (though defensive backs Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes played).
The cautious approach might have been the prudent one, as the Vikings prepare to hit the road for as long as their playoff journey lasts as the NFC’s No. 6 seed, starting at noon Sunday in New Orleans. They fell at home for the second time this season, losing 21-19 to the Bears after a 22-yard Eddy Pineiro field goal with 10 seconds left, but won’t spend much time lingering on the result with the playoffs here.
“Yeah, we’ll turn the page real quick,” Zimmer said.
Sunday’s game provided a showcase for the Vikings’ defensive line depth: Armon Watts, Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo combined for 2½ sacks, and Odenigbo’s fourth-quarter strip-sack of Mitchell Trubisky nearly resulted in his second touchdown in three weeks, before a replay review showed the defensive end’s knee hit the ground while recovering the fumble and returning it 23 yards for an eventually nullified TD. After falling behind 18-6 early in the third quarter, the Vikings allowed only 96 yards the rest of the way, as they pulled ahead of Chicago 19-18 with 4:53 left.
But their young players made some mistakes that typified their inexperience, while 32-year-old safety Andrew Sendejo earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing Tarik Cohen’s shoe into the sideline after the running back lost it on a second-and-18 play in the second quarter. The Bears went 71 yards on their final drive — gaining 32 on a Mitchell Trubisky fourth-and-9 pass to Riley Ridley after the receiver knocked Vikings cornerback Kris Boyd to the ground on his route — to set up the last of Pineiro’s four field goals.
“I thought the guys that went in there had really good effort, but we made too many mistakes,” Zimmer said. “We start the game, we have a long run, fumble the ball, then we have an interception. We get a safety on us. We get a penalty for having a guy’s shoe, throwing it in our bench. Then the fourth-down play, we fell down. We had chances to win the ballgame; we just didn’t quite get it done.”
Sean Mannion, starting in place of Kirk Cousins, completed 12 of his 21 passes for 126 yards in the loss, throwing his second interception of the day on a Hail Mary at the end of the game.
Mike Boone, who got his second consecutive start with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison injured, opened the game with a 59-yard run, but dropped a pitch from Mannion on the next play that the Bears recovered. On the Vikings’ next drive, Mannion’s first interception of the day came on a pass that went off Boone’s hands and into the mitts of linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, and the Bears turned the two turnovers into field goals to take a 6-0 lead.
After a Vikings field goal, Boone’s misadventures continued when linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski broke through the left side of the Vikings’ line and tackled him for a safety that put Chicago up 8-3. The teams traded field goals toward the end of the half, and the Bears led 11-6 at halftime.
But as Boone redeemed himself in the second half, the Vikings leaned on their impressive defensive line depth to rally.
The Vikings answered David Montgomery’s touchdown run with a score from Boone — who ended the day with 148 yards on 17 carries — and pulled within two on Bailey’s third field goal of the day. Odenigbo’s fumble recovery set up Bailey’s fourth field goal — securing his $1 million bonus for making 90% of his kicks this season — to put the Vikings up 19-18, before Chicago drove to set up Pineiro’s game winner.
“The main goal is to win, right?” Mannion said. “It hurts that we weren’t able to. At the same time, once you get a chance to step back, you watch the tape, we’ll see there was some good stuff that went on out there.”
After a regular season in which they didn’t beat a team with a winning record on the road, the Vikings will try to be the first team since the 2011 Patriots to reach a Super Bowl without doing so, and the first No. 6 seed to win it since the 2010 Packers.
“It’s been done before, so why not us?” Zimmer said.
They will hope their decision to play it safe on Sunday gives them the health to help them do it.