The Minnesota Vikings are clawing their way back into the NFC playoff picture after falling into a 1-5 hole to start the season. With wins against Green Bay and Detroit, the Vikings now stand at 3-5 and entered Sunday two games back of the final playoff spot.
This makes Monday night's game with Chicago an important one. The Bears enter with a 5-4 record, but have lost their last two games. Although their offense is severely depleted, they still have one of the best defenses in the league that has given Minnesota fits in recent years.
As always, we present five questions that should go a long way in determining if the Vikings can pull off the upset in Chicago.
Can Kirk Cousins get his first win on Monday Night Football?
Some players love playing on the big stage. Earlier this year, the Vikings saw that up close when Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a come-from-behind victory on Sunday Night Football. While some quarterbacks love the pressure of playing in primetime, Cousins is not one of them.
If you've been paying attention this week, Cousins 0-9 record on Monday Night Football has been plastered everywhere. While some of the instances in those games weren't Cousins' fault, the collective record is the worst in NFL history.
Playing against a dominant Bears defense at Soldier Field (more on this later) is not a recipe for success but there is some hope. With the Vikings taking more of a run-heavy approach, Cousins may not be asked to do as much. If the Vikings can establish Dalvin Cook, there is a chance Cousins can show the same clutch gene under the lights he showed in high school theater productions.
Will Dalvin Cook continue his hot streak?
Cook has been on fire the past two weeks, collecting 478 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. While Cook has been the MVP for the Vikings coming out of the bye, he faces a stiff test on Monday night with a Chicago front seven that has dominated the Vikings.
The Vikings were fortunate to avoid Akiem Hicks in 2019, but he terrorized the Vikings' offensive line in 2018. Hicks collected eight pressures and three sacks in the two meetings that year. Although he's struggled to grade 78th among qualifying interior defensive linemen per Pro Football Focus, he still presents a challenge for the Vikings' offensive line.
Minnesota will also have to deal with Khalil Mack, who has a highlight reel of his own against the Vikings. After an injury-plagued season in 2019, Mack has returned with a vengeance, ranking third among edge defenders in run defense grade this season.
Cook is the centerpiece of the offense as when he's on his game, the rest of the unit follows. If the Vikings can't get Cook going, they may have to lean on their air attack to get the job done.
Will the defense continue to play well (enough)?
Coming into the bye week, the Vikings defense was in shambles. With several cornerbacks underperforming or playing through injury, the Vikings allowed 32 points per game, but have allowed 21 points per game since the bye week.
A lot of the VIkings' adjustments have come with Zimmer deploying a Cover 2 scheme. With some of the younger players still learning the ropes, Zimmer has been able to simplify things to the point where they still allow yardage, but are more of a "bend but don't break" defense.
On Monday, they'll have the challenge of slowing down the Bears. Chicago will be without David Montgomery but has a trio of sneaky receivers in Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, and rookie Darnell Mooney. If the Vikings can continue to play well, it should take the strain off their offense.
Was last week a fluke for the special teams?
The Vikings special teams have been solid since Marwan Maalouf took over in 2018 but last week's win over the Lions invoked memories of the past. In addition to a missed extra point by Dan Bailey, the Vikings allowed two blocked punts.
While last week's troubles didn't cost them the game, the Vikings will have to shore things up this week in Chicago.
The good news is Austin Cutting was activated from the COVID-19/reserve list after being a close contact and nobody was listed as a close contact after Dru Samia tested positive on Sunday. With the battery intact, the Vikings should look for a better week from this unit.
Can the Vikings conquer their house of horrors?
October may be long gone but there are still some things on the schedule that should terrify Vikings fans. One of those is a trip to Soldier Field.
Since 1999, the Vikings have posted a 3-18 record went they travel to Chicago. More interesting is that the last time the Vikings played the Bears at Soldier Field, it was Chicago's last victory by double-digits which effectively ended the Stefon Diggs era.
Despite all the bad memories, these struggles make a potential victory seem more special. In the last two wins in Chicago (2015 and 2017), the Vikings used them as a springboard to NFC North titles. The chances of this team doing that are unlikely but a win over a Bears team in the thick of the playoff hunt could spawn momentum for a second-half run.