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NOTEBOOK: Vikings O-Line Handles Shuffling, Defense Dominates

MINNEAPOLIS —Joe Berger stepped back in at center on Sunday for the first time since 2015 and joked that it was like riding "maybe a rusty bike."

The Vikings defense, meanwhile?

It appears to be a well-oiled machine that has menaced opponents for most of the season and dominated for the past three games, including the 23-10 win against the Bears that locked down the No. 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs and the opportunity to host a Divisional round game.

More on the defense and playoffs in a bit, but first a little more on the position group that struggled the most for Minnesota in 2016 and was the subject of considerable overhaul in 2017.

With rookie Pat Elflein out with a shoulder injury and Nick Easton going on injured reserve this week because of a fractured ankle, the Vikings turned to Berger for the regular-season finale against Chicago.

"It felt good," Berger said. "I wouldn't say it's like riding a bike, maybe a rusty bike, but it went all right. Good guys around me."

Minnesota started Jeremiah Sirles at left guard, moved right tackle Mike Remmers from right tackle to right guard and started Rashod Hill at right tackle. Offseason signee Riley Reiff started for the 15th time at left tackle.

"Without looking at it [on film], I would say we did all right, but I think there's lots of room for improvements from all of us," Berger said. "I don't know if we'll be able to do that, because hopefully we'll be able to slide back to our positions, but I think there's room to improve for me. I didn't play center as well as I have in the past, but that's part of the deal, I guess."

Even with all the movement, the Vikings opened the game with a purpose, rushing six times for 29 yards and a 1-yard touchdown on their first possession.

The Vikings brought in tackle Aviante Collins to be a big tight end early and often, and Minnesota finished with 147 rushing yards on 36 carries.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who improved to 39-25 in four regular seasons, said the decision was in part made because tight end Kyle Rudolph "was a little banged up."

"We were a little thin at tight end and it was just another way to get another blocker in there — sometimes pass protection, sometimes run," Zimmer said. "Just kind of to ease the burden off of some of these other tight ends."

Latavius Murray toted the rock 20 times for 111 yards and found the end zone twice for his seventh and eighth rushing scores of the season.

Quarterback Case Keenum noted the Vikings also attempted passes with Collins in the game, so that Chicago couldn't sell out against the run when the rookie had to report as an eligible receiver.

Defense continues dominance

The Vikings closed the season defeating their final three opponents 73-17, and the defensive unit has allowed one touchdown on the past three opponents' 36 combined possessions.

Those 17 points occurred on a touchdown pass by the Bengals on a 23-yard drive, a 59-yard punt return by the Bears with help of some trickery and a 55-yard field goal by Chicago's Mike Nugent. Nestled in between the Bears and Bengals games was Minnesota's first shutout since 1993 and first ever at Green Bay.

Sunday's shutdown included a pair of impressive goal-line stands in the fourth quarter and limiting the Bears to 1-for-12 on third-down attempts, helping the Vikings set an NFL record for stinginess on third down. Minnesota finished the season allowing opponents to convert 51 of 202 third downs (25.2 percent), which is the lowest rate since 1991 when the NFL began tracking that stat.

The reward for now?

Minnesota finished with 13 wins, which is the second-highest total in a regular season in franchise history.

The Vikings will receive a bye through next weekend's Wild Card round and host a Divisional game. The opponent will be determined.

Minnesota's players will welcome the chance to rest and recover a bit but acknowledged their work isn't done.

"We've been battling for a while now, so having this extra weekend before going into the playoffs is great physically and mentally to have some time to step away and get the mind fresh and focused," Berger said.

Longest-tenured Viking Brian Robison, who recorded his 60th career sack on Sunday and is the only player remaining from the 2009 Vikings team that finished 12-4 and earned a bye, said the week off is "very important."

"You play [16 games] in the NFL, guys are going to get banged up and are going to be sore," Robison said. "Guys are going to be tired. To get that week off is huge, but you have to make sure your focus stays in the right place.

"You can't get complacent, you can't be satisfied with where you're at, so guys definitely have to, not only physically let their bodies repair and things like that, but mentally they have to get their mind right going into that second week," Robison said.

Rudolph said the team's goals when it reported to training camp "were to win the division, have a home playoff game and try to get as many games here at U.S. Bank Stadium as we could."

"Now, we've earned the right to sit back and watch everyone else play next week, and we're 50 percent closer to playing for a championship," Rudolph said. "It's awesome. To be 13-3 is great. I've been a fan of this league for a long time and have followed the game closely. I know a lot of teams that didn't finish the job, so our work is not done yet. We've put ourselves in a great situation to be successful and accomplish all of our goals. It will be great to get some rest, for me especially. Then, it's time to get back to work."

Run defense dictates flow of game

The Vikings limited Jordan Howard to nine yards on nine carries and Tarik Cohen to 13 yards on three carries. It was the third-lowest total of Howard's two-year career (31 games).

"We knew with that team that we had to stop the run," Robison said. "That's pretty much what their offense is predicated on, making sure they can run the ball and set up a lot of play-actions and things like that. Our number one goal was to make sure we didn't let 29 (Cohen) and 24 (Howard) get going. We were able to do that today, and it kind of made them a one-dimensional offense, which allowed us to do a few more things."

The Bears totaled 30 yards on 15 carries and had one run that gained 10 yards (out of the Wildcat formation).

It was just the 20th run of 10 or more yards allowed by Minnesota this season, which is tied with the 1995 San Francisco 49ers for the fewest allowed since 1991.

The Vikings finished the season allowing 83.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the NFL behind the Eagles, who allowed 79.2 yards per game en route to a 13-3 mark and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

"If we can't stop the run, we can't do anything else," defensive back Terence Newman said. "[The defensive line is] the heart and soul of this team."

WR milestones

Adam Thielen finished the season with 91 receptions (seventh in Vikings history) and 1,276 yards (ninth in team history), and Stefon Diggs' sixth reception of the game gave him 200 in his career (40 games).

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