From malfunctioning game clocks to last-second plays to a scratched eyeball, something weird always seems to happen when the Vikings travel to Soldier Field in Chicago to play the Bears.
The Vikings will make their earliest trip to their personal house of horrors under coach Mike Zimmer on Sunday, and it comes with a twist.
“We’re wearing purple there,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said, “which we’ve never done before.”
The Bears will don white 1936 throwback uniforms, giving the visiting team a rare chance to play in home colors.
Rudolph has just about seen it all in this rivalry. The Vikings are 2-6 in eight road games during his career, and he didn’t win at Chicago until 2015, his fifth NFL season.
The Vikings are 3-14 at Soldier Field since 2001, including a twist-and-turn-filled 2-3 under Zimmer.
“Each game is different in itself, but at the same time, just look historically,” Rudolph said. “Look at this team — most of these guys have been together the last six years; we’re 2-3 in those last five, so it’s a place we haven’t done very well at.”
Zimmer spoke against the Vikings’ difficult history in Chicago this week.
“That’s what everybody told me when I got here, then we won some games,” Zimmer said. “I guess if you turn the ball over and you create penalties and you do dumb things, it’s a pretty hard place to play. I think they’ve lost their last two at home.”
Not much tops Zimmer’s first trip. In 2014, the game clocks at Soldier Field malfunctioned for significant stretches of a mostly one-score affair. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, then a rookie, trailed by eight points with no timeouts when he led a hurry-up drive without seeing how many seconds remained.
Officials announced game time over the public address system and to players on the field, but Bridgewater said he thought he was running out of time when throwing a deep interception with 42 seconds left on second down to seal the Bears’ 21-13 victory.
“One clock was wrong. The two in the end zones were wrong all day. The one across on the 50-yard line was accurate,” Zimmer said after the game. “It was musical clocks.”
It was one of four Vikings-Bears games in Chicago decided by last-minute drives since 2013, which was not safety Harrison Smith’s favorite trip.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw a game-winning, 16-yard touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett with 16 seconds left. Smith was directed by former Vikings coaches to cheat toward Bears receiver Brandon Marshall’s side of the formation. He did, leaving cornerback Chris Cook without help on Bennett.
“I was too young to realize just play this one out,” Smith said.
The two recent victorious road trips — 2015 and 2017 — required heroic quarterbacking. A year after the clocks went dark, Bridgewater returned and led two scoring drives in the final three minutes, with the Vikings winning 23-20 after a 35-yard pass to Charles Johnson set up Blair Walsh’s 36-yard field goal as time expired.
In 2017, the Vikings beat the Bears 20-17 to spark a run of eight consecutive victories for quarterback Case Keenum, who jogged onto Soldier Field just before halftime to replace an injured Sam Bradford.
“I remember Sam just battling the whole first half, just laying it on the line for his teammates,” Rudolph said. “Finally, the staff making the decision he was in too much pain, we had to put Case in the game.”
Keenum led a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive out of halftime. Smith intercepted Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to set up Kai Forbath’s game-winning 26-yard field goal.
But Smith also remembers the losses — 2016, specifically.
That’s when Zimmer scratched his cornea, telling head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman on the sideline his vision was impeded by a “spider web.” Zimmer had been examined the night before at the team hotel after complaining of issues with his right eye.
Players didn’t know about Zimmer’s right eye, which has since undergone eight surgeries, until reporting to the Vikings’ facility that Monday morning. They also learned former offensive coordinator Norv Turner quit just hours after the loss in Chicago.
Smith could only recall Cutler “balling out” against his defense, which fell into a 20-3 hole by the third quarter of a 20-10 loss.
It was a rare game for the Zimmer-era Vikings in Chicago, only because the winner was decided early.
“When we’re at Soldier Field,” Smith said, “it’s a typical NFC North, grind-it-out, whoever makes plays at the end normally wins.”