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Coller: Chicago offers a true test for emerging Vikings

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
Mike Zimmer

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

For some reason, Soldier Field has been cursed for the Minnesota Vikings.

For a piece at PurpleInsider.com (subscribe!), we looked into whether the Vikings were really haunted in Chicago or if their struggles were coincidental. The answer: They are definitely jinxed by a mythical power.

Since 2000, the Vikings are 4-16 on the road against the Bears despite being favored 10 times. The Bears have beaten the spread 16 of 20 times. Along the way, the Vikings have come up short to the following Bears quarterbacks: Jim Miller, Rex Grossman, Chad Hutchinson, Kyle Orton, Jay Cutler, Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel. Not exactly a Hall of Fame crop.

If you suggest that the past has nothing to do with the present matchup coming on Monday Night Football, that may be true but even the most recent history points toward the Vikings struggling against the Monsters of the Midway. Since Matt Nagy was hired by the Bears, Mike Zimmer has not beaten Chicago.

Kirk Cousins against the Bears in 2018 went 0-2 with 197 yards per game, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 77.7 quarterback rating. In 2019 he matched up against them once, in a game in which the Vikings scored six points and receiver Stefon Diggs was so upset he skipped practice the following day.

Dalvin Cook, the NFL’s offensive player of the week and league leader in pretty much every relevant rushing category, has three total games against the Bears. In those he has just 86 yards on 34 carries, one touchdown, one fumble.

Still Minnesota heads into Soldier Field favored to win by Vegas.

The Vikings are coming off two terrific wins over division opponents, which have put them back in the race and given reason to believe they can ride a hot streak back into playoff contention.

Beating the Bears would give confidence to the idea that they are capable of a hot streak.

Losing to the Bears would make the last two games merely a blip of good circumstances in Green Bay and the Lions being the Lions. In terms of playoff odds, the Vikings have about a one-in-four chance heading into Chicago.

If they leave at 4-5, the playoff percentages will rise to about a coin flip. If they lose, the idea of a magical run will be on life support.

In this pivotal game, the Bears will test the Vikings’ greatest weaknesses. The Vikings have too often allowed Cousins to be under duress and they haven’t been able to slow down even mediocre offenses.

In Week 4 last year, pass rusher Khalil Mack racked up seven QB pressures, two sacks and a forced fumble (per PFF). Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks wasn’t in the lineup that day but in Week 17 of 2018, Hicks had two sacks. This year Mack is fourth in the NFL among edge rushers in QB pressures and Hicks ranks fifth at his position.

The Mack/Hicks combo will truly test the Vikings’ improvement up front. Over the last two weeks, the Vikings have only allowed Cousins to be pressured on 11 of his 36 dropbacks (30.6%), which is a significant improvement over the first six games in which he was pressured on nearly 40% of dropbacks.

In turn, Cousins has been terrific, hitting 24 of 34 throws for an average of more than 11 yards per attempt, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

But the new look offensive line with rookie Ezra Cleveland thriving at guard will be threatened far more against Chicago than they were in Green Bay or against Detroit. In Cousins’s last three matchups against Chicago, Cousins has been pressured on 47% of dropbacks.

Will the Vikings’ offense be able to overcome the obstacles the Bears present if Cook isn’t breaking 70-yard runs? Will they protect Cousins if he needs to convert key third-and-long situations? And will Cousins avoid turnovers that have plagued him in important games.

On the defensive side, the Vikings have yet to put a whooping on anyone this year. At any point during the Mike Zimmer era -- even his first year -- you can find games where the defense simply dominated and the Vikings won because of it. In 2020 that has not been the case. The last time the D took over was in Los Angeles against the Chargers when they forced seven turnovers. Even Detroit last week managed 421 yards of offense.

If there was ever a week for the defense to show up, this would be it.

Chicago’s recent play makes them appear particularly vulnerable. They have lost three straight games behind quarterback Nick Foles, who is averaging just 6.5 yards per pass attempt during the losing streak. The Bears are just as miserable running the ball, averaging 3.7 yards per carry, second worst in the NFL. Chicago’s offense overall is rated the sixth worst by Pro Football Focus and ranks second worst in points per drive.

It breaks down pretty simply: If the Vikings are going to be a playoff team, they need to win every game that they’re supposed to win down the stretch. They have a far better offense than the Bears and have improved enough on defense to slow down one of the league’s worst offenses. Not to mention that they head to Chicago with far less road disadvantage than if fans were in the stands. This is a game they are supposed to win.

In recent years, games that they were supposed to win against Chicago haven’t always gone that way. In 2016, the 5-1 Vikings lost to the 1-6 Bears and the L sent Minnesota tumbling. In 2018, the Vikings needed a home Week 17 win to make it into the playoffs and lost.

This time has to be different. Playoff teams overcome curses. Though it is the game after Friday the 13th. 

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