EAGAN, Minn. — Rarely does an NFL team go through an ideal season, as the grind of four-plus months usually includes ups and downs, injuries, and in the past two seasons, the effects of COVID-19.
The Vikings know that feeling well, as the 2021 season has been a whirlwind even as far back as training camp.
Yet with the final game on deck for Sunday, Minnesota is trying to keep it business as usual this week. On Wednesday, that included the usual meetings, walk-through and practice ahead of Week 18.
"Yeah, just another day," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said.
Zimmer spoke with Twin Cities media members on a videoconference at his usual time, preferring to keep the focus on Sunday's NFC North clash between a pair of teams that are both assured of finishing the season under .500.
Zimmer was asked about Minnesota's 11-man draft claass and the impact those players made in 2021.
"I think that's a question for the offseason," Zimmer said.
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Jan. 5 at the TCO Performance Center.
Does Zimmer plan to play those rookies, or any other younger players, with the playoffs out of the picture?
"No," Zimmer said.
Instead, Zimmer revealed quarterback Kirk Cousins will start, and that other starters and contributors will be in their usual roles if they suit up.
Cousins was back inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Wednesday after being activated off the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Cousins also met with Twin Cities media members via a videoconference and said five different times in 10 minutes that he's simply focused on the Bears.
"Certainly disappointed whenever you're not playing in the playoffs," Cousins said. "But really, my focus is on the Bears right now and I don't think a lot about the big picture.
"There's plenty of time to do that in the offseason, and you do [think about that] in the offseason," Cousins added. "Right now, we're still in it and really focused on Chicago before we step back and take a bigger-picture answer."
The 7-9 Vikings have the same record they finished the 2020 season with. But with an extra 17th game added to the schedule, Minnesota will either finish one game better or worse than that by Sunday afternoon.
Even with no playoff appearance, Cousins said he will cherish the chance to play Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I think it's really, for us, as important as any football game we have. You only get so many opportunities," Cousins said. "You want to always, when you step between the white lines, put a great product out there, play hard for your teammates, play hard for your coaches, play hard for one another.
"It's our last opportunity this season," Cousins added. "When you think back on all the workouts, all the stuff you do, talking about watching tape in the offseason and going through your own individual workouts and getting together with teammates, and then OTAs and training camp … there's just so much that goes into it. When you only get 17 guaranteed opportunities, you don't ever take one for granted."
Cousins, who will play in his 16th game of the season Sunday, isn't alone in his thoughts.
"A game in the NFL is never meaningless. It's a tryout every time you go out," said Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. "You can't put bad film out there, that's just not good for anybody. These guys know that.
"We're going to do our same normal things and go get ready for a football game and go win a football game. That's our mindset," Cook added. "I'm going to bring that energy to practice. It's going to be the same thing and go out and get ready to play."
Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson added: "So right now, your focus is on trying to play well enough to beat the Bears on Sunday. We haven't played up to the standard that we like to have around here as a total defense since the day we came into Minnesota, but it just didn't work out for us this year. Right now, our focus is on trying to slow down the Chicago Bears."
As Week 18 approaches, the young players who do get on the field will try to make an impression for next season. And the veterans on the roster know that Sunday marks the end of another chapter in a career that only lasts for so long.
Cook will be out there Sunday against the Bears, and said he'll use some personal motivation in a game that might soon be forgotten once it's over.
"It's football man. What do I have right here?," Cook said as he lifted his shirt up on a videoconference to reveal a tattoo of his father, James, who passed away a little over a year ago at the age of 46. "It's my dad. It's my dad. That's one of my reasons. Every time I'm going to compete, that's how he raised me.
"It ain't about nothing but competing and getting better. … We didn't get the outcome that we wanted, yeah, and that's squarely on us as an organization as a whole," Cook added. "We lost games as players, as coaches, all as one. Games we want back we can't go get them back so now we have to go out here and compete and have some pride about ourselves."
Kickoff between the Vikings and Bears is at noon (CT) from U.S. Bank Stadium.