In 2003, it was a December loss that helped turn a 6-0 start into a missed playoff berth. In 2009, a Monday night defeat cost Brad Childress and Brett Favre a shot at home-field advantage.
Adrian Peterson missed the bus to the stadium before a blowout loss in 2012, and chaos reigned in the first of five last-minute losses for the 2013 team. A game clock malfunction led Teddy Bridgewater to throw an end-zone interception — on a pass he believed was a last-second Hail Mary — with 42 seconds left in 2014. Norv Turner resigned as offensive coordinator the day after the 2016 game, the groundwork for John DeFilippo’s ouster was laid in 2018, and Stefon Diggs skipped two days of practices and meetings after the Vikings scored six points last year.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, there have been few constants as pernicious for the Vikings as a L in the state of Illinois. The Vikings’ first road game of the new millennium — on Sept. 23, 2001 — was a loss at Soldier Field. When the Bears played home games at the University of Illinois in 2002 while their home stadium was under renovations, the Vikings lost there, too.
In the 18 games the Vikings have played this century in Soldier Field — a building where they’d won five in a row from 1996 to 2000 — they are 3-15.
In some ways, that makes Monday’s game between the resurgent Vikings and the reeling Bears a perfect opportunity to change all that.
The concept of home-field advantage had been diminished by oddsmakers in recent years by things such as more efficient travel, improved on-field communication through headsets and online ticket exchanges that make for bipartisan crowds — not to mention the NFL’s challenge system, which allows coaches to offset some of a vociferous fanbase’s effect on officials. Home teams won only 52% of the time last year, down from just over 60% in 2018 and the league’s lowest rate since 2006.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has effectively wiped out home-field advantage.
Road teams are 67-65-1 this season, winning at a higher rate than at any point since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002. With games either being played in empty stadiums or before a smattering of fans, road quarterbacks are able to effectively communicate and bait opposing defenses with hard counts (as the Vikings saw the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers do in Week 1). Defensive linemen have also lost the split-second advantage that might come from road offensive linemen hesitating slightly to make sure they hear the snap count, further creating a comfortable environment for offenses on the road.
“I think it’s changed tremendously, just because of the fact that the energy level typically isn’t the same without fans,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think that’s kind of why. When we played [Atlanta], it was dead in the stadium there. I think every team is kind of going through it, and they’re probably figuring it out a little better now after eight weeks. It’s different. It’s definitely different.”
The Vikings had turned U.S. Bank Stadium into one of the NFL’s most formidable environments before this season, winning their first six home games in 2019 before resting Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison in a Week 16 game against the Packers and many of their starters for a Week 17 game against the Bears.
This year, they lost their first three home games before beating the Lions on Sunday to avoid the first 0-4 home start in franchise history. While their second-half home schedule looks inviting — their playoff hopes hinge on a three-game homestand against Dallas, Carolina and Jacksonville — the Vikings announced this week they will finish the year with only a group of 250 team employees and family members at home games.
A Vikings team that has won at a .490 clip away from Minneapolis in six years under Mike Zimmer is 2—2 on the road this season. The Vikings came within a play of its first victory in Seattle since 2006 before ending a two-game winless streak against the Packers at Lambeau Field three weeks later.
The Vikings’ annual trip to Soldier Field — broadcast in prime time for the fourth time in five years — gives them a chance for a third consecutive NFC North victory and to make up ground on a team they’re chasing for a wild-card spot.
They will face a Bears club that has lost three in a row, and two of the past three at Soldier Field, after a 5-1 start. So is this the Vikings’ chance to end their long stretch of misery in Chicago?
“I wasn’t here for all of the struggles, I guess,” Zimmer said. “I think the biggest struggle is they’re really good. Their guys are really good. They’ve got good players and they’re coached well. That will be the biggest struggle for us, playing against a really good football team.”
Chicago is 4-0 against the Vikings since Matt Nagy took over as head coach in 2018, and hasn’t allowed Cook to run for more than 35 yards in a game. Its defense, the league’s best on third downs and in the red zone, will test Kirk Cousins and the Vikings’ offensive line progress more than perhaps any team before a trip to Tampa next month.
The Bears’ offense, though, has only scored 30 points in a game once this season. The Bears haven’t run for more than 100 yards in a game since Sept. 27, and running back David Montgomery is in the concussion protocol. DeFilippo is the Bears’ QB coach, reuniting with Nick Foles, the passer he helped lead to an NFC Championship Game victory over the Vikings in Jan. 2018.
It’s all there for these Vikings to win their third straight, keep themselves in the playoff picture and continue to build confidence before three home games. Plenty of their predecessors, though, have assuredly had their chances.
“We haven’t done it. Since I’ve been here in the backfield, we haven’t done it,” Cook said. “I think we always kind of like, I don’t want to say play at their pace, but we go in and ease our way into the game. I think this year, it’s about something different. It’s about us knowing our identity. Knowing who we is and going out there and playing football.”