Since 2014, the Vikings have faced the Bears six times to close the regular season. On Sunday, Minnesota will match up with Chicago for a seventh time in that scenario, but it'll be the first time the Vikings are the visitor.
Minnesota will look to regain some momentum heading into the postseason while Chicago is one game away from starting its offseason preparations.
Lewis wrote he'll be keeping an eye on the Vikings sideline and what each player's snap counts will look like.
Who will be standing there and who will be jogging out on the field? Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said "it'll be more subtle" than simply resting starters like Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson. But how much will they play against a Nathan Peterman-led Chicago team? The NFC's No. 2 seed remains attainable mathematically, but for the Vikings to secure home-field advantage, the 49ers would have to lose to the Cardinals. With that unlikely, how will the Vikings approach who plays and how much?
Krawczynski will turn his attention to the duo of Cousins and center Chris Reed. Backup Austin Schlottmann — who started for Garrett Bradbury the past four games — left last Sunday's game against Green Bay with an ankle injury, forcing Reed to fill in.
Schlottmann was placed on Injured Reserve on Tuesday, along with right tackle Brian O'Neill, who also exited the game against the Packers with a calf injury.
Krawczynski said with a playoff berth already secured, it would make sense to rest Cousins Sunday, but he noted the quarterback needs more reps with Reed at center.
Normally I would say don't risk it. The chances of the Vikings moving up to the No. 2 seed are small, so better to just rest your best players and reduce the risk of getting more key players hurt. But I really think it's important for Cousins and Reed to get some serious reps against the Bears. We saw how sloppy things looked in Green Bay, and that's not the veteran guard Reed's fault. I think getting some chemistry built up in Chicago is really important in case Bradbury isn't ready to go.
Lewis said a key concern for the Vikings will be their offensive line after the injuries that were sustained last weekend. He wrote:
Considering the injuries of O'Neill and Schlottmann, the concern only heightens. O'Neill is a pillar of this team both in the locker room and on the field. Is Oli Udoh, a sixth-round pick from 2019, capable of holding down the fort of the right side of the line? Schlottmann was filling in admirably for Bradbury, who continues to rehab from a back injury. Reed master checks and swiftly develop a rapport with Cousins? Minnesota's short-term hopes — both with [its] passing attack and run game — depend on it.
Krawczynski added the other concern will be risking more key players to injury.
Alec took the offensive line, which is the issue facing the Vikings. And I know I might be contradicting myself by wanting to see Cousins and Reed get a bunch of snaps. Beyond that though, the major concern is that a team without any margin for error loses another key player. This team has been riding the razor's edge all season long. The Vikings are already down some important pieces. Losing any more of them could be too much to overcome in the playoffs.
View photos of Vikings players practicing at the TCO Performance Center on Jan. 5, 2022.
Vikings slow starts piling up
When it comes to crunch time, the Vikings have been among the best in the NFL this season. But sluggish starts to games have put Minnesota behind early and forced the Vikings to play catch-up several times.
Dave Campbell of The Associated Press looked at those numbers between Minnesota's 41-17 loss to Green Bay and its regular-season closer this week against Chicago. Campbell wrote:
The Minnesota Vikings have outscored their opponents this season during the fourth quarter and overtime by 78 points, the best total in the league.
Minnesota is 11-0 in one-score games this season, an NFL record. Eight of those 11 victories have required a fourth-quarter comeback by the Vikings, which is tied for the most in a single season.
While the Vikings have been particularly strong in the fourth quarter (league-best 10.2 points per game), they have struggled to generate points in the first three. Minnesota ranks 14th in first-quarter points per game (4.5), 21st in second quarters (6.3) and tied for 25th in third quarters (3.4).
Campbell said in the past four games, the Vikings have only outscored their opponent in two quarters that weren't the fourth or overtime.
O'Connell pointed first to the lack of sustained drives by his team's potent offense, but broadened the blame to implore the defense, special teams and coaching staff to step up as well and help stop the "avalanche" that has happened to these Vikings too often.
That "avalanche" of opposing points has been evident recently. In the Vikings past seven games, they've trailed by at least 33 points three times.
While Minnesota was able to overcome one of those substantial deficits — a 39-36 overtime victory against Indianapolis in Week 15 — it's an incredibly rare feat. Campbell wrote:
The Vikings are only the second NFL club in the past 10 years and the ninth since the salary cap was installed in 1994 to face a 33-plus-point deficit three times in the same season, according to Sportradar data.
Arizona in 2018 was the only team to do so in four different games. The other three-timers were Buffalo in 2012, Tampa Bay in 2011, St. Louis in 2009, San Francisco in 2005, Arizona in 2003, Cleveland in 2000 and Philadelphia in 1998. The cumulative record of those clubs was 28-100. Only one (Buffalo: 6-10) won more than four games.
In the Vikings four losses this season, Minnesota has been outscored 139-50.
"When we lose, we lose bad," wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. "We have to find a way to fix that."