*EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – *While the Vikings may have a playoff berth secured, they’re anything but complacent heading into their final regular-season game of 2017.
Minnesota is “playing for a little something extra” – as Stefon Diggs put it – this week, knowing that a win over Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium will clinch a first-round bye in the postseason.
Other scenarios also could lock up the bye for the Vikings, but Head Coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t plan to rely on other teams. He emphatically reiterated to Twin Cities media members on Wednesday that the New Year’s Eve contest is being approached as a must-win game.
“We need to win,” Zimmer said. “This isn’t about momentum. We need to win. It’s important to get a [bye]. If you can get a bye, it’s like winning two games in one day. That’s pretty huge, so we need to go out and win.”
Zimmer later commented on the energy of the team now compared to the vibe in 2016 when the Vikings were preparing for the Bears having already been eliminated from the playoffs.
He acknowledged that there’s a natural increase in vigor when a team knows it’s made it into the postseason.
“When you get in the playoffs, you have a chance. Whatever it is, whether it’s sixth seed or second seed, you have a chance,” Zimmer said. “I think our guys feel good about that. This game is important, and we need to win this game.
“If you go back through the history of the league, there’s been some six seeds that made it,” Zimmer added. “But most of the time, these teams that only have to play a couple games to get to the big one, there’s a lot more of those.”
Here are four other topics Zimmer addressed during his mid-week podium session:
1. Trubisky has trended up
It’s been nearly three months since the Vikings last played against the Bears, who have been led this season by Mitchell Trubisky.
Zimmer said the rookie quarterback has “improved a lot” since the *Monday Night Football *showdown at Soldier Field.
“He’s doing a lot better. I think he’s got much better command of where he’s throwing the football,” Zimmer said. “He’s using his legs to make some plays in some bootlegs. Seems like he knows where to go with the football a lot better now. Reading coverages better, but to me he’s much improved.”
Trubisky so far this season has thrown just seven touchdowns and also has seven interceptions. Zimmer said, however, that the Bears are fairly successful if they can get inside an opponent’s 20. Chicago also has relied heavily on the run game.
“They’re pretty high in red zone touchdown percentage,” Zimmer said. “They just haven’t gotten down there that much, but they run a lot of boots and they run the ball so dang good, a lot of times they run it in.”
2. Honing in on Howard
Illustrating Zimmer’s point about Chicago’s run game, Jordan Howard has recorded nine touchdowns on the season. The second-year running back has 1,113 yards on 267 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per attempt.
According to Zimmer, Howard almost “has a different gear” to get to the perimeter and kick it in.
“But he can also put his foot in the ground and cut back,” Zimmer said. “When he makes contact with you, it’s an extra two or three yards usually. He’s a big, physical guy. He’s been a great back. When you watch him, his time speed is not his play speed. He plays a lot faster than his time speed.
“I like his physicality,” Zimmer added. “For a big guy, they don’t usually bounce to the perimeter. Their offensive line I think does a great job. They do a great job of turning things over to the next level. I think that helps him. But when he gets a crease, he can hit it and get down and open.”
When asked specifically if nose tackle Linval Joseph considers it a personal test to contain Howard, who rushed for 76 yards against the Vikings in Week 5, Zimmer said it’s more of a group mentality.
“I think all the guys take it personally. This defense has a lot of pride in what they do,” Zimmer said. “Quite honestly, we have quite a few leaders over there [on defense] that are maybe not our captains that take a lot of pride in it. I think they like challenges.”
3. Thriving on third downs
Minnesota’s defense is now No. 1 in both total defense and scoring defense.
One of the areas in which the Vikings have especially thrived defensively is in third-down situations. Zimmer placed a lot of emphasis on third-down situations throughout the offseason and during in-seasons practices, and it has paid off.
“We spend an awful lot of time with it – probably more so than most teams, I would think,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know that it’s really anything fancy. We’ve got good players, and they understand what we’re trying to do. I think that’s a lot of it.
He added that the Bears are fairly successful on third downs and will be a good challenge for the Vikings.
“Chicago [is third] in the league in third down–and-4-to-6, so they try and get in that area quite a bit,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have to be on our Ps and Qs, especially in that down and distance.”
4. ‘The only thing that matters’
In true Zimmer form, the head coach brushed off the accolades of being the NFL’s top defense.
He doesn’t focus much on stats, unless it’s the win-loss record.
“I think that we need to continue to play this week and hopefully carry on into the playoffs, and if we do that, and we get some homes games and our fans are loud and help us,” Zimmer said. “I think that’ll be a big thing, so hopefully we can continue to do what we’re doing.”
When asked to identify his favorite defensive stat, Zimmer responded with the number of wins under Minnesota’s belt.
“What is our record? 12.” Zimmer said. “That is the only thing that matters.”