CHICAGO - Three hundred and sixty-five days before the Vikings took the field in Chicago on Monday night, Kirk Cousins boosted his bona fides with one of the most dramatic comebacks in Vikings history, electrifying a capacity crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium with a 20-point second half rally in a game where the Broncos’ first half had all but eliminated the run game as an option.
There would be no crowd of Bears fans at Soldier Field for the quarterback to silence Monday night, but the Vikings’ annual trip to their own personal theater of the absurd would come with its own frights: a Chicago defense that could contain NFL rushing leader Dalvin Cook, a continuing series of special teams gaffes and new installments in the series of miscues that only seem to happen here.
Cousins had only thrown 34 passes in the Vikings’ previous two games, but he wasn’t getting out of this one quietly. His oft-discussed 0-9 record on “Monday Night Football,” and the Vikings’ 3-15 record in this building during the 21st century, would have to go down the hard way.
The quarterback proved equal to the formidable challenge, never more than when the game got tough. He connected on 10 of his 11 third-down throws, amassing 149 yards and hitting Adam Thielen for a pair of third-down TDs, as the Vikings overcame the Bears 19-13 and continued their charge back into the NFC playoff race with a third consecutive division victory.
Cousins outdueled Nick Foles, his former teammate at Michigan State, by completing 25 of 36 passes, solving a Bears defense that wouldn’t give him many deep shots and keeping Chicago’s pass rush at bay with a series of quick throws. He was sacked only once, on a play where he blamed himself for holding the ball too long, and connected with seven different receivers.
“We got a lot of split safety tonight, very soft in coverage,” Cousins said. “It didn’t lend itself to taking shots. … When you’re a top defense, it’s likely because you’re not giving up many explosive plays, and I’m sure that’s part of the reason they’ve been so good this year.”
Cook, who’d never carried the ball more than 14 times at Soldier Field, had reached that number by the end of the first half, as the Vikings stuck with the run in a building where their former offensive coordinator — John DeFilippo, fired two years ago in part for his philosophical differences with coach Mike Zimmer over the run game — stood on the home sideline as the Bears’ QB coach.
The Vikings gave Cook the ball 30 times, but those carries netted him a modest 96 yards, with many of them coming after Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks left because of an injury. A victory would require much of Cousins, whose first two trips to Soldier Field as the Vikings QB had been disastrous.
He ended this one by kneeling out the clock and walking off the field with the game ball.
“It’s a team game and whatever, they’re always going to find some sort of stats and some sort of weakness and whatever,” said safety Harrison Smith, who had a first-quarter interception. “It’s good to get a win on Monday night for him.”
On Cousins’ first TD pass, the Vikings’ play design had Thielen in a bunched set with Justin Jefferson, who ran a crossing route from Thielen’s left to create something of a natural pick for him as he got a clean release against Buster Skrine. Cousins beat Skrine — the cornerback the Vikings targeted for much of the first half — with a precise throw to Thielen, who caught the ball with one hand as he was going to the ground, somehow flipping it in the crook of his arm to put it in a more secure position as he went to the ground.
But the Vikings’ 7-6 halftime lead was precarious, thanks to a couple of the only-in-Chicago moments that seem to befall them every year.
On the Vikings’ first offensive possession, Kyle Rudolph lost a fumble for the first time since 2014, when Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan punched the ball out just as the tight end’s right knee was going to the ground. But the Vikings got the ball back two plays later after Foles’ throw was late and high to Anthony Miller, bouncing off the receiver’s hands into the waiting arms of Harrison Smith.
Dan Chisena cost the Vikings 20 yards when he stepped into the end zone while fielding a punt at the Bears’ goal line, and as Cousins threw for Thielen late in the first half, the receiver tried to catch the ball with his body as Khalil Mack approached. Mack took the ball out of Thielen’s hands for an interception that set up a Bears field goal to make it 7-6 at halftime.
The first play of the second half brought more issues for the Vikings’ special teams, courtesy of a thunderbolt from their past.
Cordarrelle Patterson’s first career touchdown came at Soldier Field on a 105-yard kickoff return in Week 2 of the 2013 season against the Bears. From four yards deep in the end zone where he scored in 2013, Patterson took the second half kickoff 104 yards, feinting his way past Chisena and making Dan Bailey miss along the right sideline. The return man for whom the Vikings traded three picks in the 2013 draft was able to celebrate from 20 yards out, flashing a peace sign as he strutted into the end zone.
It came a week after the Vikings had two punts blocked against the Lions, and raised a new series of questions about a special teams group that coach Mike Zimmer has already called out this season. Asked Monday night if the group’s play was aging him right now, Zimmer simply said, “Yes.”
The Vikings, though, got the benefit of the Bears’ own special teams mistake in the third quarter, when a Dwayne Harris muffed punt — after a Vikings three-and-out — set up a Dan Bailey field goal that closed the gap to 13-10.
Minnesota tied the game in the third quarter on another Bailey kick; a holding penalty on Rudolph wiped out a big run from Cook, but Cousins connected on a 54-yard catch-and-run to Justin Jefferson, who surpassed 100 receiving yards for the fourth time as a rookie and helped the Vikings convert a third-and-11 that had the quarterback fired up after the play.
Cousins found Kyle Rudolph for 22 yards on first-and-20 (after a Tyler Conklin holding penalty) and Jefferson for 14 yards to reach the red zone, where he went to work on Skrine again for a six-yard score to Thielen. A bad snap from Austin Cutting waylaid the Vikings’ extra point attempt and made it 19-13.
The Bears finished with only 149 yards of offense and did not manage a first down in the second half until the game’s final minutes, and after Foles was carted off the field because of an apparent right leg injury following an Ifeadi Odenigbo hit, Tyler Bray had to finish the game.
“I think it’s been three games here, the last three games, where the other team has had the ball with a chance to win the game and we’ve been able to put the fire out,” Zimmer said. “The more times you do that the more times you believe that you can do it. And secondly I think they’re starting to understand what we’re trying to do conceptually with the calls and things like that as well."