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Monday Morning Mailbag: Vikings-Bears Preview, Playoff Math & An Update on Irv Smith, Jr.

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What do you think? Can we beat the Bears and make the playoffs?

— Jim Jenkins

It feels a little weird doing a Mailbag before a Monday Night Football game, and it's especially odd to do two Mailbags between games, but here we are.

Jim's email made me laugh, and I don't mean that in an unkind way. Instead, I actually look at it as the million-dollar question, and one the Vikings will have to have the answers to in the final four games?

Can the Vikings beat the Bears? Without a doubt.

Chicago is banged up on both sides of the ball, has a rookie quarterback leading the one of the league's lowest-rated passing attacks and features a defense that is without Khalil Mack and seems to have lost some of its bite this season.

On the other hand, can the Bears beat the Vikings? Without a doubt.

Minnesota is likely the league's most thrilling or inconsistent team (probably the latter), and is also just 7-10 in regular-season games in December and January since 2018 (including a split in the two games this season).

And, as Vikings fans pointed out to me numerous times on Twitter this week, the return of Bears defensive tackle (and noted Vikings nemesis) Akiem Hicks is a bit scary.

With tonight's game in prime time, all eyes will be on the Vikings to see how they fare in their first test in the four-game march toward a potential playoff spot.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer put it best Saturday when asked about his team's mindset.

"We have to take care of our own business," Zimmer said. "This game is extremely important to us, as the next three will be. Like every year, you're just trying to add up as many [wins] as you can.

"I think our guys understand that this is basically a four-game season for us," Zimmer said. "We've talked about that, as far as what we need to do to get to where we want to be."

Put another way, a playoff spot is dangling in front of the Vikings with four games to go. Minnesota is almost a shoo in if it wins out, and three wins likely gets the job done. Heck, two might even be enough depending on how weird and wild the rest of the NFC wants to get.

My point is, it's up to the Vikings to determine if they want to be a playoff team or not. They have the talent, but they also need to play a solid four-game stretch, something we haven't seen this season.

Minnesota is 5-4 since Week 4, and have alternated pairs of wins and losses for almost that entire stretch.

The time is now for the Vikings to make a move and get rolling. A loss Monday won't completely eliminate Minnesota, but Zimmer's squad would much rather start the final stretch off with a victory.

And given the state of the Bears right now, they would be wise to take advantage, even if the game is at Soldier Field.

Despite a win over the Steelers, the Vikings will be lucky to win two more games this season. This talented team will once again be at home come playoff time. There is no way they can run the table in order to make the postseason. Time to consider another rebuilding for them.

— Bill from North Carolina

Whatever optimism you have about the Vikings, Bill is on the opposite end of the spectrum. And it's not hard to see why based on the roller-coaster season this far.

But I don't know that I would count out the Vikings just yet. As I said above, they might not even need to win out given the state of the other teams battling for the No. 7 seed. Let's look at the quintet of teams who were 6-7 entering Week 15).

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

Minnesota plays Chicago twice, plus the Los Angeles Rams (home) and Green Bay (away). For the sake of this exercise, let's assume the Vikings go 3-1 and finish 9-8 with a 7-5 conference record.

Washington is currently the No. 7 seed and plays Philadelphia twice, plus Dallas (away) the New York Giants (away). Closing with three out of four on the road, especially with all of them being division games, is a tall task. Let's say Washington splits against Philadelphia and loses to Dallas, and finishes at 8-9.

Philadelphia also plays Washington twice, plus has division home games against New York and Dallas. We already said the Eagles split against Washington, and let's say they also lose to the Cowboys, who will be playing for seeding in Week 18. Philadelphia also would finish at 8-9.

Washington and Philadelphia play Tuesday night, by the way. The plan is simple for Vikings fans: root for one team this week, and then the loser of this one in Week 17.

Atlanta is now 6-8 following a lopsided loss Sunday to San Francisco. Let's say the Falcons get wins over the Lions and Saints, but lose on the road to the Bills. At 8-9, they wouldn't be able to catch the Vikings.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

New Orleans did itself a favor with a big win over Tampa Bay to get to 7-7 and move into a playoff spot for now. But since we have the Saints losing to the Falcons in Week 18, and let's envision they also lose to a red-hot Dolphins team next week that is also 7-7 and has won six straight. That would be an 8-9 record for New Orleans.

If all that happens — and the odds are somewhat reasonable that it will — then the Vikings are in the playoffs.

Am I declaring that Minnesota will make the dance? Heck no, not after watching this team for 13 mind-boggling and exhausting games thus far. All I did was lay out a path to the playoffs.

But again, the Vikings have to do their part — which is the most important part — if Minnesota wants to be playing beyond Week 18.

Can you tell me why Cameron Dantzler is not starting over Bashaud Breeland? The stats show he is a better player, what is going on? Is Zimmer letting pride get in the way?

— Warren W.

One thing remains constant … WE CANNOT STOP THE PASS. Why do they refuse to address this issue not counting the signing of Patrick Peterson?

— Doug in Nova Scotia

A full disclosure: Warren's email came in almost a week ago. I had planned on putting in today's Mailbag anyway, but then it became even more topical after Saturday when the Vikings waived Breeland.

I didn't see Breeland with a helmet at the start of Saturday's practice, which seemed a little odd to me since he hadn't been on the week's injury report.

A few quick thoughts:

Is it odd to see a starting cornerback released so late into the season? Absolutely.

Was there likely frustration from both sides at this point in the season? Probably.

According to independent analytics website Pro Football Focus, there were 135 cornerbacks across the league who had played at least 100 snaps in coverage entering Sunday's games.

Breeland's rank? 129th out of 135, with PFF giving him an overall coverage grade of 45.3 out of 100.

That isn't what Breeland probably had in mind when he signed with the Vikings this offseason, and it's fair to say the Vikings probably expected more of the veteran this season. In the end, things just didn't work out between the Vikings and Breeland.

One of the first things that came to my mind were Zimmer's comments from over a week ago when he criticized that group for being lined up incorrectly and being misaligned throughout the Steelers game.

I'm not saying Zimmer was talking directly about Breeland there, but I doubt he was talking about Patrick Peterson. Minnesota felt it was better to go forward with Dantzler as the other starter.

Warren will now get his wish and see Dantzler in the lineup. The second-year corner by the way, has been OK this season, as his PFF grade based on the above criteria is 63.8, which ranks him 61st out of 135.

Zimmer has been critical of Dantzler this season, whether it was the final play in Detroit or against Pittsburgh. But with four games left, he has a chance to end his season on a high note.

As for Doug's email, I'd argue the Vikings did address that group outside of Peterson this offseason. Both Breeland and Mackensie Alexander were added in free agency, so the team thought that quartet would be sufficient.

But it's safe to say it hasn't worked out as planned.

Peterson has missed some time and generally been reliable, while Alexander has struggled with a PFF coverage grade of 43.3 this season. That puts him at No. 134 out of 135 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps in 2021.

With Breeland gone and Peterson and Alexander playing on one-year deals, it's not hard to believe the Vikings will have to address that position group yet again this offseason, whether it's through the draft or via free agency.

It takes about 4-5 months for a meniscus to heal. With that in mind, and if the Vikings make the playoffs, is there a chance that Irv Smith, Jr., will play this year? And will Everson Griffen play again this year?

— Kenneth Beroid

Kenneth ends a packed Mailbag with a pair of questions about two Vikings who are not currently playing.

Because the Vikings waited to put Smith on Injured Reserve instead of to get to their initial 53-man roster, they'd be eligible to bring him back (they've already done so with the other two players who were placed on IR the same day — Kene Nwangwu and Dan Chisena).

I asked Zimmer on Saturday about Smith and where he was at in his rehab. Here was his answer:

"I don't see him all the time now, but I saw him maybe a week ago, and he said he's doing really good and hanging in there," Zimmer.

While that's not the most profound answer, it also wasn't overly encouraging, either.

As for Griffen, he is currently on the Reserve/Non-Football Illness list after dealing with personal issues last month.

If you missed it, Griffen posted an update on his personal Instagram page earlier this month:

A lot of times people forget that these are people under the helmets and in the uniforms. People's personal lives should always come first and foremost, especially in this case.

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