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Final Thoughts: Vikings Balancing Rest for Starters at Bears & Chance at No. 2 Seed

EAGAN, Minn. — There's the age-old question for playoff-bound teams as they approach the final week of the regular season: How much should the starters play, if at all?

As the Vikings (12-4) prepare for their regular-season finale against the Bears (3-13) at noon (CT) Sunday in Chicago, Head Coach Kevin O'Connell must balance between trying to limit snap counts of starters at multiple spots while simultaneously competing for the No. 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs, which is mathematically possible but improbable.

In order for Minnesota — who currently owns the No. 3 seed — to jump up a spot, the Vikings have to defeat the Bears and need the 49ers (12-4) to lose to the Cardinals (4-12) in the afternoon slot on Sunday.

O'Connell said Friday his staff has a "clear-cut plan" for how they are going to approach balancing the starters playing time come Sunday.

"We're going to go in with the expectation of our guys going in, trying to get off to a good start and play good football," O'Connell said. "That's what we want to do. We've had a good week of preparation, and then we're going to be aware of not only what we want to do, not only from the standpoint of maybe getting some guys snaps here and there, but it's really something we've spent some time talking about as a staff, and we've got a good plan."

Wide receiver Adam Thielen added he sees the hard work and preparation being put in from everybody in the locker room and it's paid off in some players seeing increased snaps recently.

"The good thing is we have a lot of guys on this team that maybe haven't got a lot of snaps throughout the season but have been working their tail off and they haven't gotten frustrated, shut down and say, 'Oh well, I'm not going to play this year.' You just don't have that in this locker room," Thielen said. "We have a lot of guys that you can tell that even though they haven't played in the game this whole year that they've been getting better.

"We have a lot of faith and trust in those guys that are going to be filling in, and we're going to need them moving forward," he added. "They're going to be a big part of how far this team goes this year, so we're excited about that opportunity for them."

After earning a sweep of home division games in the first five weeks of the season, the Vikings have struggled on the road against those same opponents. Minnesota fell to Detroit 34-23 in Week 14 and Green Bay 41-17 this past weekend.

Thielen said the team knows it's going to be another challenging matchup despite Chicago's recent struggles.

"They're tough, they're physical, it's not a game that you're just kind of going out there and going through the motions because you'll get hit right in the face," Thielen said. "I think you saw that the first time we played them, but then you saw the progression that these teams have made since the first time we've played them.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bears.

"In this league you can't relax, you've got to play your best football. It doesn't matter who you're playing, it doesn't matter what their record is, it doesn't matter what their standings are or if they're in the playoffs or not in the playoffs, you've got to bring it because everybody's fighting for a job, everybody's fighting for a win; wins in this league feel great," Thielen added. "We've got to have good preparation and we've got to bring our best football on Sunday."

Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching for in Sunday's game:

Chicago's change under center | By Sam Thiel

The Vikings will keep Kirk Cousins in at quarterback (at least to start), but Chicago is looking toward its bench for its starter on Sunday.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields was ruled out on Wednesday ahead of their season finale after suffering a hip injury during Chicago's Week 17 loss to Detroit.

Fields — who will end his season just 64 yards short of the single-season quarterback rushing record (1,206 yards set by Baltimore's Lamar Jackson in 2019) — completed 15 of his 21 pass attempts for 208 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings in Week 5. He added 47 yards on the ground on eight carries.

Backup Nathan Peterman will make his fifth career start and his first since 2018 — coincidentally against Chicago — when he was with Buffalo.

Peterman has appeared in two games for Chicago this season, completing three of his six pass attempts for 25 yards and throwing an interception.

In 12 career games with three different teams (Buffalo, Las Vegas, Chicago), Peterman has completed 74 of his 141 passes (52.5 percent) for 598 yards. He's thrown three touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions.

Peterman has also rushed 20 times for 84 yards and a score in his career, but isn't as much of a dual threat as Fields (192-of-318 passing, 2,242 yards, 17 touchdowns; 160 rushing attempts, 1,143 yards, eight touchdowns).

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said preparing for Peterman will be a lot different than for Fields a second time.

"The biggest difference is there's [not only] more data on Fields but also what he can do with his legs and how they use him in the running game," Donatell said.

All eyes on an adjusted o-line | By Lindsey Young

The Vikings on Sunday will have a new-look offensive line with right tackle Brian O'Neill now on Injured Reserve after suffering a calf/Achilles injury at Green Bay.

Minnesota also has been without starting center Garrett Bradbury, who has missed the past four games with a back injury and was ruled out for the regular-season finale. Austin Schlottmann, who had been filling in for Bradbury, suffered a fractured fibula against the Packers and also landed on Injured Reserve.

O'Connell spoke with media members Wednesday and emphasized the "pillar of consistency" that O'Neill has been for the offense as a whole and specifically for the o-line.

"Even at times when as an offense we've had a lot of very, very strong outings and high moments, but even during some of the moments where we weren't at our best, Brian was still so consistent for us in his role," O'Connell said. "It's going to be a hard thing to replace, especially that consistency, but what I've kind of challenged some of our guys [with] is understanding the standard that Brian set at that position and what we can work to try to do to make sure we do our job to get in there, whether it's Oli (Olisaemeka Udoh) or Blake [Brandel] or anybody else here moving forward, to make sure they get in there and understand the responsibility, but also the confidence we have in those guys.

"They wouldn't be here if the expectation [wasn't] that if their number was called upon they [would] be ready. Those guys will be ready to go," O'Connell added. "Oli showed that the other day, stepped in at a tough spot, and now he gets a week of prep on the grass to prepare and hopefully build on that performance from the other day."

Udoh replaced O'Neill at Green Bay. Brandel filled in earlier this season for Christian Darrisaw at left tackle before landing on Injured Reserve, and he's making progress in his recovery.

Minnesota also has rookie Vederian Lowe on their 53-man roster and added four-year pro Bobby Evans to the practice squad this week.

The Vikings are likely to start Chris Reed at center against the Bears. Reed stepped in for Schlottmann last week without time for much preparation with the first team. Quarterback Kirk Cousins noted the benefit of having now had a full week of practice with Reed.

"It was a deal where Garrett and Austin had gotten most of the center work all season long, so then when Chris got thrown in there, the time on task just hadn't been where you'd want it to be at Lambeau Field – in the noise, with so many cadences," Cousins explained. "There's a complexity there to our snap counts and, really, to our offense as a whole. In that complexity is a lot of good strategy, but it can be a lot.

"So Chris handled [this week] really, really well, and you can't expect anything different with how long he's been around this game and just the pro that he is," Cousins continued. "That was a tough ask of him on Sunday, but now that he'll have more time, it makes a big difference."

The Vikings want to finish the season strong and pick up some momentum heading into a home playoff game, and the offensive line – altered or not – will play a key role in Sunday's game at Soldier Field.

Special teams has chance to re-center | By Craig Peters

While the Vikings may plan to reduce the number of snaps for offensive and defensive starters, there's only so much that can be removed from the plate of the special teams units.

Kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kickoff return, punt return, field goal attempt and field goal defend could all play a role in Sunday's game.

Minnesota's special teams have delivered some absolutely brilliant moments in 2022 to help fuel the success of the overall team and lift the offense or defense at key times. There also have been some missteps in recent weeks.

Last Sunday included one brilliant moment with Josh Metellus blocking a punt for the second game in a row, but after that, the Vikings soon allowed a 105-yard kickoff return touchdown, the second touchdown allowed on special teams in a span of three games (blocked punt return by Colts).

After setting a franchise record with his 61-yard field goal against the Giants in Week 16, Greg Joseph followed his fifth game-winning kick of the season and perfect December with two misses at Green Bay.

Back in the elements for a second consecutive week, the special teams could re-center and log some meaningful reps as the team tries to prepare for a deep playoff run that likely would require multiple road playoff games.

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