EAGAN, Minn. — The end of the 2021 season is here.
The Vikings will put a bow on the 61st season Sunday with a Week 18 home game against the Bears.
Minnesota (7-9) hosts Chicago (6-10) in the season finale for both teams and in a game that is just one of two on the Week 18 schedule that does not involve a team that is already in the postseason or is still alive for the playoffs. (Washington at the New York Giants is the other).
But even with no postseason aspirations at stake, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer isn't about to treat this as an exhibition game.
"The guys came out and practiced really well this week," Zimmer said. "You know, it was pretty much business as usual.
"I get these questions [on] 'Are we going to play young guys?', but training camp and the preseason games, that's when those guys play," Zimmer continued. "This is a regular-season game, and we approach it as we would the first game of the year or last game of the year.
"We grind the same, we do pretty much everything the same. Other than maybe we back down a few reps, but we do that at the end of the year anyway, added Zimmer, who will complete his eighth season Sunday "This isn't the preseason, so we just go about our business as we always have."
Patrick Peterson, who will complete his 11th season this weekend, echoed Zimmer's sentiments.
"I don't care how you cut it, there's nothing like winning," Peterson said. "We could be 0-16, and I'm still preparing to win that last game because, [No. 1], you don't know when that opportunity is going to come to an end.
"And [No. 2], you don't know who else is watching," Peterson added. "I hate that term that we're not playing for anything. You are playing for something."
Minnesota will finish with a losing record for the second consecutive season and has not been above .500 since the end of the 2019 season.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in the season finale:
Vikings thin at cornerback | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
You're forgiven if you potentially need to glance at an updated roster/depth chart to help identify Minnesota's cornerback group on Sunday.
That group is undermanned at the moment, with Peterson being the only fully healthy player at that spot. Cameron Dantzler was limited on Wednesday and Thursday with a calf injury but fully participated Friday. He did not receive a game designation.
Kris Boyd (ribs) and Mackensie Alexander (ankle) are questionable against the Bears. Boyd didn't practice this week. Alexander was limited Wednesday and Thursday but did not participate Friday.
"We're juggling it right now," said Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer.
The Vikings will be without Harrison Hand, who usually backs up Alexander in the slot, as he is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
The other cornerbacks available appear to be Tye Smith (who was elevated from the practice squad and played 17 snaps in his season debut against Green Bay) and Bryan Mills, who was added to the practice squad Wednesday and has never played an NFL snap.
"We're definitely a little thin right now at the cornerback position, but just trying to make do with what we've got," Peterson said.
If Boyd and Alexander don't play or are limited, perhaps safeties Camryn Bynum (who played corner in college but would have to clear protocols to be activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list) or Josh Metellus could play at the nickel spot.
Chicago's passing attack ranks last in the NFL with 183.8 yards per game.
One last look at Vikings OL | By @LindseyMNSports
The Vikings are expected to play their starting offensive line against the Bears Sunday afternoon.
Questions certainly existed around the unit at the start of this week, being that Minnesota placed right tackle Brian O'Neill, left tackle Christian Darrisaw and left guard Ezra Cleveland on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.
But O'Neill was activated from the list Wednesday afternoon, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer told reporters following Friday's practice that he hopes to get Cleveland and Darrisaw back Saturday.
Assuming that's the case, Minnesota would likely start Darrisaw, Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Olisaemeka Udoh and O'Neill in the Vikings regular-season finale. The outcome of the game doesn't carry much weight at this point, being that Minnesota was eliminated from playoff contention after losing at Green Bay last weekend.
The best news for the Vikings offensive line may be that the Bears on Friday ruled out defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who has had a propensity for wrecking the line of scrimmage.
Edge rusher Robert Quinn, who has set a Chicago record with 18 sacks this season, was listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. Hicks (one) and Quinn (two) recorded the Bears sacks of Kirk Cousins in Chicago in Week 15.
Ending with something special | By @pcraigers
Vikings special teams have had a strong season despite having two new players among the three specialists. Kicker Greg Joseph and punter Jordan Berry quickly merged with help of Andrew DePaola, a former Bear who joined Minnesota in 2020.
The battery impressively worked well on a 51-yard field goal at Lambeau Field last week for the longest field goal ever in a January game at the venue.
Joseph is now 32-of-37 on field goals this season. He's also made 32 of 36 points for a career-high 128 points, which ranks eighth among Vikings single-season scoring leaders. Those kicks have included an impressive 7-for-9 from 50-plus yards and another 7-for-9 when kicking from 40-49 yards out.
With Sunday's forecast high of 9 degrees Fahrenheit, it's likely the specialists won't mind the cozier climate inside U.S. Bank Stadium. Conditions will be ripe for Joseph to move up the single-season list. He's seven away from tying Blair Walsh for the third-most points in a Vikings season.
The Vikings also got sparks from new returners Kene Nwangwu on kickoffs and Dede Westbrook on punts.
Nwangwu and former Viking Cordarrelle Patterson (2013 and 2015) are the only two players to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in one season since 2012 when Jacoby Jones took two back for Baltimore.
Leon Washington (2010) is the most-recent player with three in a season.
While the controlled conditions help the kicking battery, they might limit the opportunities for Nwangwu. Here's hoping he gets a shot at a third house call to cap his rookie season.
Notable Number: 48
Chicago put rookie quarterback Justin Fields on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday, and Bears head coach Matt Nagy announced Friday that the first-round pick will not play Sunday.
Andy Dalton will now start against the Vikings.
"It sounds like we're going to see Andy Dalton, who we were with in Cincinnati for quite a long time," Mike Zimmer said.
Dalton and Zimmer were both with the Bengals from 2011-2013, when Dalton started 48 games and posted a 30-18 record. Zimmer was the defensive coordinator before getting hired by the Vikings in 2014.
Zimmer said Minnesota's defense had to adapt on the fly from Fields to Dalton this week.
"Yes, we had to change some things," Zimmer said.