EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings will begin the second half of their season in prime time, by visiting Chicago on Monday Night Football. Kickoff is at 7:15 p.m. (CT).
The 2020 season has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Vikings thus far, with recent back-to-back wins helping massage the disappointment of securing one victory in the first six contests.
Yet as the Vikings head to a city where they have struggled over the past two decades, they also have a chance to turn some heads on national television.
If the Vikings can get a win in front of a lot of eyeballs, the national perceptions on Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's team could shift.
More importantly, a win gets the Vikings to 4-5, with an outside chance to keep making strides toward a potential playoff berth. Remember, there's an extra postseason spot in each conference this season.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith knows what's at stake. But like a true veteran, he knows Monday night's game is also just one of 16 on the schedule.
View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Bears for Monday Night Football during practice at TCO Performance Center.
"It's typical football-speak, but the next game is the most important one … but it's always true," Smith said. "You can't look to anything else besides what's here, so focus on the present, that's all we can really do.
"Focus on going into Soldier Field, which is always a tough place to get a win for whatever reason," Smith added. "Focus on ourselves, focus on our assignments and playing well. Play hard and see how it plays out."
As for Zimmer, he knows the 5-4 Bears will be a handful. But he also knows the opportunity that awaits in prime time.
"We're going to have to play really well to win this ball game," Zimmer said. "Our guys have had a good week of practice. They're into it and should be ready to go."
Here are three areas to watch in Monday night's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
Don't beat yourselves | By @Eric_L_Smith
It's no secret the Vikings have struggled in recent seasons in Chicago, with a big part of that being an ineffective run game. Minnesota will try to flip that script on Monday night.
But the Vikings offense has struggled in other areas that have led to back-to-back losses at Soldier Field, many of which have been self-inflicted mistakes.
To start, the Vikings have totaled five turnovers in their past two trips to Chicago and have gone a combined 10-for-25 on third downs. It also didn't help that the Bears controlled the ball for an average of 10 more minutes in each of those games.
"You look at all the times you play each other and try to learn from various things that go on throughout the course of the game," said Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak. "We got behind the 8-ball on some third downs [in 2019], and you start holding the ball against this team and bad things happen. It did for us in that game.
"We've got great respect for them schematically, and for their players as well," Kubiak added. "We know what we're up against and are going to have to play really well."
The Vikings know they'll have to have a cleaner performance Monday night. That doesn't mean a touchdown on every drive, but if they can avoid numerous three-and-outs — Chicago's defense has forced the second-most in the NFL — that could help the Vikings notch their third consecutive win.
"If we're not going to get points, let's get what we can," Kirk Cousins said. "The same is when we get backed up and we're playing out of our own end zone. If we're not going to go down and score — which we have done a couple times this year — to still be able to get a couple first downs and then, if you're punting, be able to put them back in their own territory.
"There's a positive there that doesn't show up as much on the scoreboard, but still shows up in field position and time of possession," Cousins added. "We're going to always look for one play at a time, looking for ways to stay ahead of the chains and stay in manageable third downs and protecting the football, all the little things that lead to the final score being what you want it to be at the end of the game."
In the Vikings past two wins, they have controlled the clock, avoided third-and-long and haven't turned the ball over once. That's a formula that could work again in Chicago.
Much to consider on special teams | By @LindseyMNSports
A handful of questions surround Minnesota's special teams.
It's safe to say Zimmer was unhappy with the two blocked punts Detroit recorded last week, and Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf said the issues there have been shored up. He told media members Friday that punter Britton Colquitt was not at fault but that it was a technique problem.
The unit did get encouraging news Saturday when Austin Cutting was cleared to be removed from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Vikings specialists will also be facing their second outdoor game in three weeks, after playing in less-than-ideal, blustery conditions at Green Bay. Wind can always be a factor at Chicago, but the forecast for Monday (as of Friday afternoon) predicts clear skies and a temperature of 37 degrees.
And last but not least, Maalouf is preparing his kickoff coverage team for one of the best in the business, former Viking Cordarrelle Patterson. The 29-year-old currently tops the league in kickoff return yards with 652, and his average of 27.2 yards per return ranks fourth in the NFL.
"He's big, he's strong, he's got a great center of gravity, he breaks tackles, he has very good vision. And for somebody that big, he cuts on a dime. He can change his direction so fast," Maalouf said of Patterson. "He's not going to commit to any play if it's not there. And if he sees a breakdown in the coverage, then he can exploit that. That's probably what makes him such a dangerous returner. If you're looking to fit returns, that's probably not the way to do it with somebody like him. He's somebody that you have to be extremely fundamentally sound with and make sure you set the edges and work."
Finding and limiting explosive plays | By @pcraigers
The Vikings recorded a whopping 15 "big plays" — defined as a run play that gains at least 10 yards or a pass that goes for at least 20 — against the Lions for the most allowed by a team in a game this season.
Minnesota will try to keep finding those explosive gains against a Chicago squad that has limited them during a four-game win streak in the series.
From 2018-19, the Bears offense recorded 17 big plays against the Vikings and only allowed 10 by Minnesota, a per-game average of 4.3 to 2.5.
This season, however, the Vikings average number of big plays per game is 8.5. Minnesota has allowed an average of 6.3 in 2020. That has led to a season-long differential of plus-18, according to Sportradar. Minnesota was plus-10 against Detroit for the second-largest margin in a game by any team this season.
The Bears defense, however, has allowed an average of 7.2 big plays a game, and Chicago's offense has averaged 4.9 per outing. That has resulted in a differential of minus-21.
Vikings coaches have talked all week about the talent throughout the levels of the Bears defense, and they expect the game to be tough sledding.
A new wrinkle this week is Bears Head Coach Matt Nagy announced Friday he is relinquishing offensive play-calling duties to Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor.
What do the Vikings expect from Lazor?
"It's a little bit of an unknown, but we obviously went back and looked at when he was in Cincinnati and so forth, as far as some of those things," Zimmer said. "I think it's tough to just change everything. The tendencies might change a little bit, but during the course of the game, you kind of just go with what you feel, anyway. We'll just have to see. I really can't tell you."
Notable Number: 12
Dalvin Cook has had a nose for the end zone this season, as he leads all NFL players with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2020. Cook has hit the dozen mark despite playing in just six-and-a-half games this season.
That total is already a franchise record through 10 games, and is tied for the third-most in a single season in Vikings history. Minnesota's single-season record was set in 2009 by Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 18 scores.
Here are some other fun facts about Cook's impressive 2020 season to date.
He leads the league with 858 rushing yards, 122.6 rushing yards per game, 48 rushing first downs and 25 rushes of 10-plus yards.
His 1,031 scrimmage yards rank second behind only Alvin Kamara's 1,036 with the Saints.