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Final Thoughts: Vikings Playoff Chase Begins in Prime Time at Soldier Field

EAGAN, Minn. — Welcome to the final month of the 2021 NFL season.

Most teams have four games remaining, meaning it will be a mad dash to the finish line as playoff pictures ger sorted out in the coming weeks. (The Chargers and Chiefs have three remaining after playing Thursday).

The Vikings are 6-7 and are among five NFC teams with that record who are battling for the final Wild Card spot.

Minnesota will probably get into the dance if it is able to win out, but three wins might also be enough to get into the postseason.

All but one of the Vikings 13 games have been decided by one score, a trend the team is trying to avoid in prime time against the Bears.

"It's all on us at the end of the day. We shouldn't have ourselves in this situation," said Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson. "All those close games we lost that we should've won, so all those things, we should not be in this position. All we can do is go out there and win those games we have left."

Dalvin Cook added: "It's squarely about us and how we play football to end games, start games, coming out of half, whatever it is. It's about us getting better as a group, and that's what we're trying to dig deep and get better at."

The Vikings will see the Bears twice over the final month, as the teams are scheduled to meet in the season finale in addition to Week 15's tilt on Monday Night Football.

Chicago is 4-9 and can be eliminated from the NFC playoff picture with a loss, but Minnesota knows records don't mean much in this rivalry. Especially at Soldier Field, where the Vikings are 3-3 in their past six games, but have just four total wins in Chicago since 2001.

Depending on what happens in Week 15, and that includes Tuesday's game between Washington and Philadelphia, Minnesota could find itself in the postseason picture with three games left. A loss, meanwhile, could make for a very steep hill to climb.

"We have to take care of our own business," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "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."

The Vikings final playoff chase begins Monday night against the Bears. Buckle up for the ride.

Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 15:

Containing Fields on the ground | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

Justin Fields has been the main storyline this week around Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance center.

Everyone from Zimmer to defensive players — even Kirk Cousins —was asked about the rookie quarterback the Bears tabbed in the first round.

And while there was plenty of praise for his throwing skills, the Vikings will need to be wary of his ability to get on the move, too.

Fields, like most rookie quarterbacks, has had his ups and downs this season. But he's also shown plenty of flashes, especially with his legs.

That doesn't necessarily mean running with the ball, as Patrick Peterson said this week that a strength of Fields is throwing it outside the pocket.

"Watching him on film, he's a little different. His mobility is a little bit different than Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray," Peterson said. "To me, it seems more like he's looking to move around and throw the ball. You don't have many runs on design or you don't see him scrambling very much."

Minnesota's defense has been inconsistent for most of the 2021 season, combining strong stretches with untimely lapses in most games.

A key way to get a win in prime time would be to let the Vikings offense keep the ball and go to work. In order to do that though, Minnesota will need to stay disciplined against Fields and not let him get comfortable in the air or on the ground.

Put another way: if it's third-and-5, the Vikings can't allow him to make a play with his feet and move the chains.

Look for Zimmer to dial up a well-prepared scheme against the No. 11 overall pick.

"Him being able to use his legs is always a concern," Zimmer said. "Especially with, you get bottled up and next thing you know, he's out and out in space and you got guys spread out all over the place and you have to make a tough tackle on an open-field runner who is a really good athlete.

"They can get into some of the third-and-mediums and run the ball with run-options, zone-reads, things like that," Zimmer added. "That always makes it more difficult when the quarterback can run."

View photos of Vikings players from practice on Dec. 17 at the TCO Performance Center.

Special teams challenges & opportunities | By @LindseyMNSports

Keep your eye on special teams – for both clubs – Monday night.

Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken pointed out that Chicago's special teams units are, to be frank, the team's strength. It all starts with kickoff and punt returner Jakeem Grant, Sr., whose 303 yards on punt returns rank second in the NFL behind Baltimore's Devin Duvernay (360). Grant is averaging 13.2 yards per return, and he has one return for a touchdown – a 97-yarder at Green Bay just last week.

Grant also has 533 yards on kickoff returns, which is the ninth-most in the NFL this season.

"He's a very confident returner, and he should be. He's dynamic, he's quick, he's shifty. He's got all those skill sets that you're looking for as a returner," Ficken told Twin Cities media members Friday. "He'll return it at any part of the field. We saw it last week, where he returned it from the 3-yard line. Against the Raiders, he returned one that was [5 yards] deep in the end zone. We've got to make sure we're covering everything until that whistle's blown.

"They've got really dynamic returners, but they've got a great group of core guys. And they play fast, and they play with a lot of confidence," Ficken said of the Bears special teams. "So we've gotta go ahead and match that, too. I think our guys have a lot of confidence, as well, so it'll be a great matchup. But we've gotta make sure we just continue to do what we do best."

Ficken will be looking for strong performances by kicker Greg Joseph, punter Jordan Berry and of course Minnesota's returners, as well. Rookie Kene Nwangwu currently leads all returners across the league with two touchdowns on kickoff returns, and he's averaging 39.5 yards per return. Dede Westbrook, who typically returns punts for Minnesota, was added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list this past week, which means the Vikings may be without him. In that case, it could be K.J. Osborn – or someone else – stepping in.

"You know, it's whatever player's going to give us the best opportunity to win that down, win that situation," Ficken said. "So it could be by situation, but [Head Coach Mike Zimmer] gave the green light, said 'Hey, use the best guy.' We've gotta make sure we know who the best guy is out there that's going to be able to achieve what we're trying to achieve on that specific play."

Sack prevention and prevalence | By @pcraigers

Minnesota's offense ranks second in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-attempt allowance rate of 3.74 percent, having essentially cut in half its rate of 7.56 that ranked 23rd in the NFL in 2020.

Kirk Cousins has described looking at the season stats immediately after the final game of the season. Taking fewer sacks than the 39 he did in 2020 was a goal for 2021. So far, so good, with 18 through the first 13 games of 2021.

Cousins, Zimmer and Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak credited multiple factors for the intended decrease.

Minnesota's offensive line and other players who help with the protection deserve a nod, as well as receivers being able to win early in routes. Cousins has played faster and gotten the ball out more decisively for the better part of the season, and he's also aware of the exit ramps within the plays.

"Coaches have to be smart not to ask too much when we're playing teams that are rushing the passer really well. So I think it starts with Klint and the coaches having a plan that is aware of a pass rush," Cousins said. "Certainly our offensive line and our fullbacks and our tailbacks and our tight ends have to do a great job in protection and in chipping and slowing the rush down, and then as a quarterback you've got to get through your reads. You've got to find a place to ditch the football if need be, and sometimes sacks are the best play.

"Sometimes sacks are the best option. I think a couple times this year, late in games where we want to keep the clock the running, where I've thrown an incomplete pass, actually a sack would've been better," Cousins added. "So there's all those elements that factor into it, but it was a stat last year I didn't love to see at the end of the year."

Kubiak said "It's never one thing" but added that the offensive line "stands out."

"They're doing a great job of protecting, our receivers are getting open quickly, and Kirk is getting the ball out quickly," Kubiak said. "Our run game is stepping up, and that's all part of it. It's a team thing, but it all starts up front with the O-line.

"I just put a lot of praise on our players on the offensive line and our coaches. We know that there's still a lot of football left, so we're just trying to give our guys the best chance in these games, and I think our guys up front have really stepped up and Kirk has done a great job of getting the ball out."

Zimmer said protection has been better, and Cousins has done a good job at the line of scrimmage when he needs to make a change.

"We changed up the protections. I think he's getting ball out when he sees pressure. He's able to change protection at the line of scrimmage. So I think all those things have been a big factor," Zimmer said. "But it's not just one thing. He's been really, really good with knowing where his hots are going to be based on the route concept and things like that as well."

Cousins has been sacked nine times in three games as a Viking at Soldier Field, including six in 2019. That number dropped to one last season. The Bears have 36 sacks this season, including 14 by Robert Quinn, but they'll be without Khalil Mack, who recorded 6.0 sacks in the seven games he's played this season.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears have a sacks-per-pass-attempt allowance rate of 10.9 percent, which ranks last in the NFL.

The Vikings defense entered Week 15 with 41 sacks, the most in the NFL. Minnesota leapfrogged Pittsburgh last week by not allowing a sack and recording five of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.

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

Notable Number: 66

Monday's game will mark the 66th time the Vikings will have appeared on Monday Night Football in team history.

This will be the only appearance of the 2021 season for Minnesota, which is 30-35 all-time in the national TV broadcast.

The Vikings are 12-26 on the road on MNF, with seven of those games coming in Chicago. Minnesota is 18-9 at home on MNF.

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