MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings season finale against the Bears included a chase of a long-standing franchise record, a veteran approaching the day as his last in a Vikings uniform and some moments for younger players to build momentum as they head into the offseason.
Defensive ends D.J. Wonnum and Kenny Willekes, receivers Justin Jefferson, Ihmir Smith Marsette and K.J. Osborn were among the young players who capped their first or second Vikings seasons on high notes.
Minnesota opened sluggishly for the third consecutive week but rallied for a 31-17 victory — its largest winning margin of the 2021 season — against Chicago, which finished 6-11 and in third place in the NFC North.
The Vikings opened by allowing a field goal and followed with a three-and-punt on offense. Chicago moved the ball to the Minnesota 40-yard line on its next possession and faced a third-and-10.
Wonnum dropped into coverage and limited a pass to Darnell Mooney to a gain of 5. Rather than attempt a 53-yard field goal, the Bears went for it on fourth-and-5. Wonnum chased down Andy Dalton for a sack and loss of 15 to keep the game 3-0.
The 2020 fourth-round pick recorded his second sack of the game — and fifth this season against Chicago — when the Bears went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Vikings 13 to again keep it a 3-0 game with 10-plus minutes remaining in the second quarter.
"He works really hard. He's a good kid. Very smart. You can do a lot of things with him," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "With a lot of these young guys, it's a little paint-by-numbers. And he has to continue just to be an athlete. And that's his best attribute, is being an athlete. He probably could play linebacker."
Minnesota's offense alternated a pair of three-and-punts with a field goal and 23-yard touchdown by Chicago. The Bears took a 14-0 lead with 31 seconds remaining in the first half on a pass from Dalton to running back Damien Williams and a 2-point conversion pass to Allen Robinson II.
The Vikings offense came out of its slumber just before halftime with a 25-yard pass to Jefferson and a 40-yarder to Smith-Marsette that enabled Joseph to kick a 39-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.
The Vikings completed a "double-dip" that was quite elusive this season by scoring before and immediately after halftime.
Smith-Marsette ran past coverage and contact by Marqui Christian, who fell down, on a 44-yard touchdown reception. His second score of the season (both against Chicago) made it 14-10 with 12:24 left in the third quarter.
The Bears drove to the Minnesota 8-yard line on their ensuing possession. Dalton scrambled on a third-and-goal and was ruled to have reached the end zone, but replays showed that second-year cornerback Cameron Dantzler forced Dalton's knee to the ground just shy of the goal line.
The Bears went for it again on fourth down, and Anthony Barr sacked Dalton for a 15-yard loss.
Chicago added a field goal for a 17-10 edge with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
Minnesota answered with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson, who showed savvy beyond his years.
He was initially supposed to run a post on the play but went with a go route and then deceived Bears safety Eddie Jackson on the play by acting like the ball wasn't coming his direction and using "late hands" to secure the catch.
"They brought the corner blitz, and I didn't even realize coming out of the play-action fake or the bootleg," Cousins said. "And I was trying to go through my progression. I was expecting him to come across the field; it was actually a post route. But he felt like, 'I'm just going to stay down the sidelines,' so it kind of threw me off for a second. (They) did a great job in protection so I could slide up. I just felt like, 'It's 1-on-1, it's been a tough day on offense, and we've got our best player down in the end zone, let's give him a chance.'
"I haven't talked to him about it, but I think he tried to kind of play dead a little bit, like, 'The ball's not coming to me,' so the safety didn't react," Cousins added. "If he did that, he did a really good job of it because he was kind of able to late hands it and make a great play."
Jefferson added: "Yeah, I guess just us being that far down the field and me not really acting like the ball is coming and then late handing it. I guess he felt like Kirk wasn't going to throw the ball. It is what it is. He was kind of joking with me about it the next possession."
Osborn ended Minnesota's next possession with a 21-yard touchdown catch that gave him 50 catches and seven scores on the year after not playing an offensive snap in 2020.
"K.J.'s a guy who has really improved a lot over the course of the year," Zimmer said. "He comes into work every day. I think he's gained a lot of confidence in his abilities, and he can play all the positions. Smith-Marsette is very talented. Probably needs to continue to learn how to be a professional. It was good to see him out there because he's talented. He made a couple of nice catches today. But moving forward, that's what he's got to do. He's got a chance to be a really good football player. But he's got to be on-point. He's got to do things right. It's just how it is."
Patrick Peterson returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown for the game's final score with less than five minutes remaining. It gave the veteran at least one pick in each of his 11 pro seasons.
View game action photos between the Vikings and Bears during the Week 18 season finale matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Linebacker Blake Lynch, who was undrafted in 2020, ended Chicago's next possession two plays later with his first career interception.
Willekes recorded two of Minnesota's seven sacks on the day during Chicago's final possession, enabling the offense to line up in the victory formation for the second time this season.
The Vikings (8-9) missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season and entered the offseason before 3 p.m. (CT). The game officially kicked off at 12:02 p.m. (CT) and lasted two hours and 51 minutes, bringing about speculation regarding the future of the franchise at multiple positions.
Besides Barr bringing a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar to his postgame press conference, the linebacker posted on social media a thank-you message to Minnesota with the anticipation his time with the Vikings would conclude after eight seasons.