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4 Vikings at Bears Storylines: Mindful of Damar Hamlin, Preparations for Week 18 Begin

EAGAN, Minn. — Quarterback Kirk Cousins said the hopeful healthful recovery of Bills safety Damar Hamlin was the first item discussed before every Vikings meetings Wednesday.

Position meetings, team meetings, offense meetings, there was concern for the member the NFL fraternity who collapsed Monday night after experiencing cardiac arrest. Former teammates Harrison Phillips (with Bills last season) and Pat Jones II (University of Pittsburgh) explained their care and support for Hamlin earlier Wednesday.

Cousins was watching the Monday Night Football game between the Bills and Bengals when Hamlin was injured.

He eventually went to bed still thinking about Hamlin and woke up Tuesday doing the same.

"Our thoughts and our prayers are with him and his family," Cousins said. "Grateful for the medical experts who were able to stabilize the situation. You think of playing quarterback in professional football as a high-pressure job, but I thought of the medical professionals who were addressing the situation on the field on Monday night, and that's a whole other definition of it. Just continue to pray for his full healing and recovery and then try to keep moving forward."

Every team, from players to coaches and staff, are processing the critical injury as they begin their on-field preparations for Week 18 games that are scheduled to conclude the regular season on Saturday and Sunday.

The Vikings (12-4) will wrap the regular season against the Bears (3-13) at noon (CT) Sunday on FOX.

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said "everyone in our building is constantly having Damar on their minds and continuing to pray and put our thoughts toward hopefully some good news and his full recovery."

"Anytime that something like that happens – it's so rare in our league," O'Connell said. "But, it puts a lot of things in perspective, not only for our players, but our coaches. I think it did the same thing for fans and media alike, about what these players risk when they go step in between the white lines. The love they have for this game and what it means for them to be teammates and the brotherhood that exists in this NFL, I think, has been on full display since what occurred."

O'Connell also commended the leadership that Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott and Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor "showed in incredibly difficult circumstances."

"I think the medical response and all the systems that are put into place – over 30 medical personnel for a variety of different emergency responses are in place on game day, in the event such a type of emergency like that occurs," O'Connell added. "There's just a lot of people that hopefully get recognized for how they handled it in that moment, when the time is right. But as of right now, all of our thoughts, all of our emotions, prayers and intentions are for Damar, his family and the Buffalo Bills organization during this time, and we'll continue to hope that we do get good news and continue to get good news however we can."

The Bills Twitter account provided this update Wednesday:

While there are encouraging words in that tweet, Hamlin's recovery continues. So will support from the Vikings and the rest of his extended NFL family.

As we do every week, here is a matchup to watch, along with four storylines.

Matchup to watch: Vikings vs. the elements

There's usually some unusual happenings at Soldier Field when the Vikings and Bears get together, but the game will provide another opportunity for Minnesota to play in the elements.

It will be the first noon (CT) Sunday start along the shore of Lake Michigan since Nov. 1, 2015, and the forecast is a temperature in the 30s with a chance of snow.

The Vikings slipped and slid all over the grass at Lambeau Field last week in falling from the No. 2 seed to No. 3 in the NFC Playoffs. Minnesota still has a shot at the No. 2 but needs to win and have San Francisco lose at home to Arizona.

Prior to last week's game, the Vikings spent some time practicing outside for their first game at an outdoor venue since Nov. 13 at Buffalo.

Following that remarkable game against the Bills, the Vikings hosted three consecutive games before visiting Detroit and returning for two more games at U.S. Bank Stadium.

We'll see if the Vikings find better footing and results in the elements this week since they may have to go on the road in the playoffs.

1. Are starters starting?

O'Connell has indicated that he anticipates Vikings starters playing in the finale, even if the chances of the 49ers losing to the Cardinals are small. San Francisco still has a shot to vault to the No. 1 spot if Philadelphia loses at home to the Giants.

The Vikings lost backup center Austin Schlottmann early last week. That meant Chris Reed played his first 53 offensive snaps for the Vikings of the 2022 season on Jan. 1, 2023. Starter Garrett Bradbury is making progress from a back injury but was listed Wednesday as not participating in the team's walk-through. Bradbury last played on Dec. 4 in a win against the Jets.

"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 different cadences," Cousins said. "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, today, Chris handled it really, really, well and can't expect anything different with how long he's been around this game and just the pro that he is. But it was a big ask to say to him, 'Hey, just jump in and handle everything like you've been doing it for weeks.' That was a tough ask for him on Sunday, but now that he'll have more time, it makes a big difference."

Minnesota also lost right tackle Brian O'Neill for the rest of the season. Olisaemeka Udoh relieved O'Neill and is likely to get the call again Sunday.

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

2. Bounce back again?

The Vikings under O'Connell have been a resilient bunch in winning the team's first NFC North title since 2017. Minnesota bounced back from a loss in Week 2 with seven consecutive wins before a 40-3 home loss to Dallas in which everything went sideways.

A pair of wins followed before a loss at Detroit delayed Minnesota clinching the division by one week.

Two more victories followed that, including a rally from a 33-point halftime deficit against Indianapolis to secure the crown and a 27-24 win over the Giants that was secured with a franchise-record 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph as time expired.

There's a good chance the Vikings could be hosting the Giants in the Wild Card Round as the No. 3 seed.

Now, Minnesota is trying to recover from a frustrating loss at Green Bay and build momentum for the playoffs.

A win would tie this year's squad with the 2017 team for the second-most wins in a regular season and trail only the 1998 team that went 15-1.

3. History hard to catch?

It seemed feasible just a week ago that Justin Jefferson might be able to top Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards from 2012.

But multiple factors limited Jefferson to one catch for 15 yards after he had tallied 35 receptions for 479 yards in Minnesota's previous three games.

Jefferson has the NFL lead this season with 124 receptions for 1,771 yards (an average of 110.7 per game) entering Week 18, having already set Vikings franchise records that belonged respectively to Pro Football Hall of Famers Cris Carter and Randy Moss.

The 2020 first-round pick needs two receptions for the most in an NFL player's first three seasons. New Orleans' Michael Thomas (321) currently holds that high mark.

Jefferson needs 194 to top Johnson's single-season mark.

4. A different look

The Bears ruled out quarterback Justin Fields because of a hip strain. Nathan Peterman is expected to start in his place.

Fields accounted for 1,143 of Chicago's 2,896 rushing yards this season and completed 192 of 318 passes for 2,242 years with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Peterman is 3-for-6 with 25 yards this season.

The Bears have allowed 57 sacks so far, so there could be an opportunity for Minnesota to pressure the pocket.