The Vikings and Bears renewed their twice-annual rivalry for the first time in 2016 on *Monday Night Football *to cap an exciting and wild Week 8 in the NFL. It was the Bears who took care of business at Soldier Field, topping the visiting Vikings by a score of 20-10. Here are five observations from the Vikings loss in Chicago.
1. Lost opportunity to create separation from NFC contenders
Fellow NFC contenders Arizona, Detroit, Green Bay and Seattle all lost on Sunday. The Vikings had a chance to double down on a good Sunday by defeating Chicago on Monday night. Instead, they'll use the ground gained on Sunday as the only solace in what was a second consecutive uncharacteristic performance and loss. Instead of increasing their lead by two games over Green Bay and joining Dallas with the top record in the NFC, the Vikings lead over Green Bay remains one game and Dallas sits alone atop the NFC with the Vikings trailing by a game.
2. Pass protection, running game woes are inhibiting offense
Sam Bradford was sacked five times and the Vikings averaged only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. That combination prevented the offense from sustaining drives and scoring points. The Vikings punted after their first five possessions and failed to record a first down on four of their first five offensive series, with a Blair Walsh field goal serving as the only score in the first half. The Vikings had only four possessions in the second half and couldn't muster enough production to mount a serious comeback. One of the four second-half possessions did end in a touchdown, though, with Bradford finding Stefon Diggs for a 25-yard touchdown. Correcting mistakes in the pass protection and running game will be a point of emphasis for the Vikings as they prepare for their game against Detroit next Sunday.
Conversely, the Bears were able to protect their quarterback while their running back ran wild against a normally-stingy Vikings defense. Jay Cutler was sacked just once and completed 20 of 31 passes. Running back Jordan Howard accounted for 202 total yards and one touchdown on the night, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and hauling in four receptions on four targets.
3. Kicking game remains strong
Punter Jeff Locke and kicker Blair Walsh continued their stellar play on Monday night. Locke had seven punts on the night, including a 71-yarder to the Chicago 5 early in the game. Three of Locke's seven punts were downed inside the 20, increasing his season-long total in that category to an impressive 18. Walsh was true on both of his kicks in Chicago, hitting from 30 yards in the second quarter and converting a point after touchdown try following the Bradford-to-Diggs score. Walsh also had two touchbacks on three kickoffs.
4. Linval Joseph continues another strong season
Quietly, defensive tackle Linval Joseph is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season. He stayed true to that form in Chicago, tallying six tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. Joseph was in the backfield even more than that, causing ball carriers to veer off course and into the arms of waiting Vikings defenders multiple times. Whether it's accumulating statistics himself or making it easier for teammates to rack them up, Joseph is a big-time difference-maker for Mike Zimmer's defense.
5. *This Close *to a better outcome?
For the second consecutive week, a missed opportunity early in the game left the Vikings wondering what could've been had the outcome gone the other way. Last week in Philadelphia, safety Andrew Sendejo returned an interception to the Eagles two yard line, failing to reach paydirt because he cut inside rather than toward the pylon. The Vikings wound up turning the ball over a few moments later. On Monday night, Bradford spotted a wide open Diggs down the middle of the field and lofted a pass to his playmaking receiver. Diggs left his feet and got his fingertips on the pass, but he wasn't able to haul it in, spoiling a chance for the Vikings to be set up inside the 5 with a first down and goal to go situation. Would the outcomes of either game been any different had Sendejo cut out rather than in and had Diggs found a way to pull Bradford's pass in? We'll never know, but it's hard not to think so. Football is indeed a game of inches.