Not long after arguably the finest performance of his young NFL career, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater casually leaned on a lectern late Sunday afternoon as he tried to recall each of his throws that had hit the turf at TCF Bank Stadium.
There were only three of them, mind you, but his memory was letting him down.
Bridgewater started the game inauspiciously with incompletions on two of his first three throws on the opening drive. But he would then connect on 16 of his final 17 throws to finish with more touchdowns than incompletions as the Vikings rolled past Chicago 38-17.
“I think we had one batted ball at the line. Then the other two incompletions I don’t really remember,” Bridgewater said. “I think one went over Matt Asiata’s head.”
One could forgive the 23-year-old for instead having all those touchdowns in mind.
Bridgewater’s four touchdown passes were a career high. And he added a 12-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to become the first Vikings quarterback since Fran Tarkenton in 1961, the team’s inaugural season, to throw for four scores and rush for another in a game.
Bridgewater’s performance, the second-most efficient in team history, helped the Vikings overcome the absence of three key defenders and the loss of star running back Adrian Peterson for a quarter of action during the middle of the game.
Despite the victory, the Vikings have not clinched a playoff spot. But once they make it official, this imperfect team with a promising young core will need this caliber of play from Bridgewater if they want to make a deep playoff run ahead of schedule.
Bridgewater completed 17 of his 20 attempts for 231 yards. And his career-high passer rating of 154.4 trailed only Gus Frerotte in the franchise’s record books.
With 129 rushing yards, 63 of them from Peterson, the Vikings were balanced on offense. And the defense, which was again without safety Harrison Smith, outside linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph, always came up with a pivotal play, whether it was a sack or a takeaway, whenever it was needed.
But Bridgewater’s performance overshadowed a complete team effort as the Vikings snapped their two-game losing streak and improved to 9-5.
It’s not perfect all the time, but he is a winner,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
After the game, salty Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee contended that Bridgewater’s impressive statistics were mostly the result of shorter throws and poor tackling by the Bears. True, Bridgewater’s receivers piled up yards after the catch. But the second-year quarterback made a few big-time throws, too.
The sweetest was his 15-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs to finish off their opening drive. Bridgewater, who has been inconsistent on deeper throws throughout this season, floated a perfect pass to the back left corner of the end zone, where only Diggs could make a play on the ball.
“It was a front pocket [throw], as we call it,” Diggs said. “Everyone has a front pocket where you keep your pens and your notepads. But that is where he threw it, and it was a perfect place. You can’t ask for more as a receiver than [that].”
Bridgewater’s second touchdown pass came late in the first half. He dumped it off to second-year running back Jerick McKinnon, who took it from there for a 17-yard score. McKinnon’s first career touchdown put the Vikings up 17-7.
The Bears surprised the Vikings with an onside kick to open the second half. But three plays after the recovery, defensive end Brian Robison sacked and stripped Bears quarterback Jay Cutler then pounced on loose ball. Bridgewater would soon hit Diggs for the rookie’s second touchdown reception of the game.
“[Robison’s] play kind of changed the momentum back to our side,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Then the offense capitalized, which was huge.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, after reserve defensive end Justin Trattou intercepted Cutler, Bridgewater put the game away by scrambling for a 12-yard touchdown on 3rd and 9. As he approached the goal line, he tried to leap over Bears cornerback Tracy Porter and tumbled off him into the end zone.
“I love it. It was a great play. It’s great seeing Teddy make those kinds of plays,” guard Brandon Fusco said, adding that there was a “sigh of relief” when Bridgewater got up after crashing to the turf and landing on his throwing shoulder.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Bridgewater flipped his fourth touchdown pass to fullback Zach Line in the flat. Cheers of “Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!” then rained down from the spirited TCF Bank Stadium crowd.
With that touchdown pass, Bridgewater became the first Vikings quarterback since Brett Favre, his idol, in January 2010 to throw for four of them in a game.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “But it all points back to [offensive coordinator Norv] Turner calling a great game plan, allowing us to go out there and play fast today. But our guys did a great job of making them came down with the football, our offensive line did a great job in protection and it was just a great overall team win.”