MINNEAPOLIS — What is usually the final rep of a practice week became the ending plays of the Vikings 2014 season.
Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was able to take three snaps from John Sullivan that were followed each time by kneeling to the ground, allowing fans at TCF Bank Stadium to savor a 13-9 victory and the final 95 seconds of a season that included multiple improvements, moments of encouragement, impressive progress of the defense and some unforeseen aspects in the first year under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Bridgewater handed the ball to Zimmer for the coach's first win in the NFC North.
"I wanted to tell him 'first of many' but I was so excited, so caught up in how well the guys played today," Bridgewater said. "Today showed a lot of character, the character of this team. Talk about Audie Cole, Adam Thielen, guys who we asked to make plays for us today and those guys stepped up, did a great job. It was an overall team effort. I just felt so comfortable and just felt good to give Coach Zimmer that ball."
Zimmer spent the previous six seasons as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, and his team showed notable improvements during its second contests this season with division rivals Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, losing by three points to the Packers and two to the Lions before taking the next step against the Bears (5-11).
It was Bridgewater's sixth win in 12 starts, which are both franchise records for a rookie QB, but his first time to use the victory formation to end a game.
"Ain't no better formation than the victory formation," Cole said. "That's always the best."
Cole was tabbed with starting duties in place of nine-year Viking Chad Greenway, who was unable to recover from a knee injury that sidelined him the previous week in Miami. Cole ran rampant with the opportunity to play a significant role in limiting Bears running back Matt Forte. He was involved in a tackle on five of the first six plays of the game and finished with a press box tally of 14 tackles and one pass defended.
Forte was able to set the NFL record for receptions by a back in a season with 102, but the Vikings (7-9) limited him to 23 yards on his eight catches and 51 rushing yards on 17 carries. Former Arizona fullback Larry Centers had 101 catches in 1995, and LaDainian Tomlinson had 100 with San Diego in 2003.
"I knew I had a good chance of playing this week and knew I had to prepare the best and had to come out and show it. I feel like we came out and did that," Cole said. "Forte is good, and they get him the ball a lot. We wanted to slow him down. We kept them out of the end zone, which is always good, and it was a good game for us."
NO TDs ALLOWED: The Vikings closed the season similar to the way they opened in St. Louis, by keeping an opponent out of the end zone.
Minnesota didn't allow Chicago to score a touchdown on either of its trips inside the Vikings 20-yard line a week after the Dolphins scored TDs on each of their five trips to the red zone.
View images from the week 17 matchup at TCF Bank Stadium between the Vikings and Bears.
"We had good tips before the game and good backfield tendencies that they did and we just used it to our advantage," defensive end Everson Griffen said. "We came out and ran to the ball, we were physical at the point of attack and we were able to get back there and disrupt Jay Cutler."
Tackles by Bridgewater and Adam Thielen helped the cause. Bridgewater suffered an interception on the second play of the second half, but was able to tackle Corey Fuller at the Minnesota 9-yard line. The play was originally called a 40-yard return for a touchdown by Fuller, but was reversed when video replays showed Fuller's knee touch the ground after Bridgewater tripped him for his first tackle in the pros.
"Hopefully I don't have to be making many of those," Bridgewater said.
The defense responded by limiting the Bears to a 2-yard run by Forte and pair of incompletions by Jay Cutler, forcing the Bears to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Jay Feely.
"Coach Zimmer has been harping on that for a while. We haven't been great in the red zone and did a better job today," safety Harrison Smith said. "That's huge. You don't realize it right away, but those points there are four points off the board and made a difference.
Thielen's tackle occurred on special teams when he caught Bears return specialist Marc Mariani after a 67-yard kickoff return to the Minnesota 35-yard line. The Vikings limited the Bears to 18 yards on eight plays and forced a 35-yard field goal by Feely with 8:53 left in the game.
"That was probably my fault in the first place; I wasn't going to let him score," Thielen said.
SCORING STRIKE: Bridgewater and Thielen also combined for the lone touchdown scored in the game. The quarterback followed a 22-yard pass to the receiver with a 44-yard toss that capitalized on what the Vikings thought was miscommunication by Bears defenders.
"As soon as I got the snap I peeked over there and saw that the corner and the safety had a miscommunication," Bridgewater said. "The safety seemed to be playing in the middle of the field and the corner seemed to be playing cloud coverage. It was one of those deals where it was an easy throw, just lay it out there and allow the guys to make the play. That's the same throw that I had earlier in the year in the Atlanta Falcons game when I missed Jarius Wright. It was just good to be able to hit those easy throws and capitalize."
Thielen said receiving that pass turned out easier than most plays, but it was tougher to locate his fiancée in the crowd to toss her the ball in celebration.
"It's one of those things where you just run the route that's called and do your job. Good things will happen if you stick to it and stay confident and keep working," Thielen said. "I'm happy that Teddy found me because it wasn't easy for him to do either, and he put it on me where there was no way I could have dropped it. It makes it easy on me.
After streaking down the Vikings sideline and crossing the goal line, Thielen ran across the end zone before locating his target.
"It was tough, but I found her late," Thielen said. "I had a long run, so I found her. I don't know if my throw was any good, but she ended up with the ball so that was good."
Thielen led Vikings receivers with 68 yards on three catches, and Greg Jennings had 45 yards on three catches, narrowly missing out on a 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter that was reviewed and reversed. That drive, the Vikings first of the game, ended with a 37-yard field goal by Blair Walsh, who also had a 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
CLOSING THE DOOR: When the Bears opted to kick the final field goal by Feely on fourth-and-14 with 8:54 remaining, they did so believing they would get the ball back with an opportunity to take the lead.
The Vikings, however, executed a 13-play drive that burned six minutes off the clock. The drive included three conversions on the four third downs Minnesota faced.
The first was a show-stopping one-handed grab by Jennings to convert third-and-12. If not for that grab, Minnesota would have had to punt with more than seven minutes left in the game.
The next conversion was a 16-yard run by Matt Asiata on third-and-1 near the five-minute mark. That play forced Chicago to start exhausting its timeouts. The third conversion moved the chains on third-and-4 when Bridgewater showed his threat as a runner, faking a handoff, rolling to his right and rushing for an 8-yard gain to the Chicago 12.
After a 6-yard gain, the Vikings tried to pound the ball into the end zone with their short-yardage unit but were stopped at the 3 on third and fourth downs to give the ball back to the Bears with 2:53 remaining. Asiata finished with 91 yards on 19 carries and added two catches for 17 yards.
Although the Vikings didn't cross the goal line on that possession, the time consumed and timeouts exhausted were important in closing the game.
"It was good. We knew that drive was going to put the game away," Asiata said. "We hoped to finish with the touchdown, but we didn't. Our defense stepped up and finished the game for us."
Chicago's comeback ended shy of its own 35-yard line when Andrew Sendejo stopped Martellus Bennett after a gain of 8 when the Bears needed 9 for the first down.