NFL Nation: Vikings-Bears 122809

Time running out for Vikings

December, 29, 2009
Brett FavreAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastBrett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings have lost three of their last four games.
CHICAGO -- I found it amusing late Monday night when Minnesota coach Brad Childress teased reporters for not bringing tougher questions his way. He was hoping for an opportunity to mock any suggestion that last week’s feud with quarterback Brett Favre played a role in the Vikings’ 36-30 overtime loss at Soldier Field.

“You guys are way too easy,” Childress said, smirking. “There’s got to be somebody that will be sawing me off tomorrow.”

It’s true. Monday night’s game provided every indication that the Vikings are more prolific when Favre has the central role in running the offense. He threw for 285 yards after halftime, leading the Vikings back from a 16-0 deficit and playing what he called “about as good a game as I can play.”

But the game also illustrated deficiencies that went overlooked amid the Favre-Childress theater. To different degrees, the Vikings are reeling in all three phases and are exhibiting the makings of an early playoff exit. Devin Aromashodu’s 39-yard touchdown catch in overtime sent the Vikings to their third loss in four games and could send them tumbling in the NFC playoff seedings as well.

Players who rolled to an 11-1 start minced few words in the postgame locker room, alternately stunned and angry that their dream season appears to be slipping away.

“I know we have to play better than we did tonight and really the last few weeks or we’ll be home fairly quickly,” Favre said. “I’m just being as honest as I can be. We have to play better. I think we all know that. If not, then we’re fooling ourselves. So it is what it is. We have to find a way to correct it or we’ll be home sooner than we would like.”

Defensive end Jared Allen was more blunt.

“If I could cuss right now, I would,” he said. “[This] sucked. We’re playing bad right now. We’ve got to play better. Each man on this team needs to go home and look himself in the mirror and figure out what we want to be this year: An 11-5 team or a 12-4 team that makes noise in the playoffs. That’s just the bottom line.”

Chicago deserves credit for playing better than it has in three months. Bears fans are probably wondering where this type of effort and explosion has been. But let’s also be honest: It didn’t start that way Monday night.

The Bears punted on their first possession and tripped themselves up in the red zone on their second drive. But you could see their confidence grow with every Vikings misstep.

Since their 30-17 loss Dec. 6 at Arizona, the Vikings have revealed themselves to have a shaky offensive line. They’ve been unable to open games with a strong running game. Monday night, tailback Adrian Peterson had 28 yards in the first half and went a sixth consecutive game without compiling 100 yards. His overtime fumble, his sixth turnover of the season, put the Bears in position for the winning score.

The Vikings had success Monday night after shifting into a modified two-minute drill in the second half, but their defense and special teams didn’t follow. Their vaunted pass rush has only five sacks over the past four games, including two Monday night, while giving up 11 touchdown passes over that span.

And their special teams, which has spent much of the year perched atop Football Outsiders' noted special-teams rankings, failed three times Monday night. A blocked extra point in the third quarter proved to be a decisive play, and Bears kickoff returner Danieal Manning set up a pair of touchdowns with kickoff returns of 57 and 59 yards.

“I’m not going to put it on any one group,” Childress said, and he was right. This collapse -- and yes, there’s nothing else to call it at this point -- has been systemic and widespread. Favre noted the Vikings are lucky to have given themselves enough “cushion” to weather the storm, but to this point there’s no reason to suggest the Vikings can do that.

Even if you cling to their offensive explosion in the second half, you can’t deny the crucial failures on defense and special teams.

“This time of year, it’s really about who is hot and what teams have it going,” guard Steve Hutchinson said. “Hopefully, offensively speaking, that second half was enough of a spark to give us enough confidence to return to what we were doing consistently a month ago. I guess that’s what I can say about that.”

Childress said the Vikings must work to “find ourselves,” and indeed, there have been examples of teams that have turned around late slumps to make a playoff run. Arizona, for example, lost two of its final three games last year before pushing to the Super Bowl. But those teams are generally the exception rather than the rule.

The reality is Monday's loss sent the Vikings tumbling out of the No. 2 seed, and they’ll have to play a first-round postseason game unless they beat the New York Giants on Sunday and Philadelphia loses to Dallas. Even if they win in the first round, a No. 3 or No. 4 seed would mean playing the next week on the road; they have lost four of their past five games away from the Metrodome.

“Momentum is important but it’s not everything,” linebacker Ben Leber said. “We’d like to have it going into the playoffs. But if we don’t end up finding that momentum, we’ve just got to come out and starting battling. Time is running out. We’ve got one game left. Let’s put it all in one basket and let it all go.”

Favre said he wants to “see how we handle this” adversity. Frankly, the Vikings haven’t given us a reason to think this will end well.

A joyous night leads to ... what?

December, 29, 2009
CHICAGO -- Soldier Field was rocking Monday night when Chicago receiver Devin Aromashodu hauled in Jay Cutler’s fourth touchdown pass of the evening, a 39-yarder to give the Bears a 36-30 victory over Minnesota.

“This is the kind of finish we wanted all season long and finally we got it,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “It’s a positive. These are the things -- crowd is excited on the big catch, we’re excited, every one’s running on the field. That’s the kind of feeling you want to have.”

As we enter the final week of the season, here’s the big question in Chicago: Will that feeling be enough to stave off an offseason overhaul of the team? What does it mean for the future of coach Lovie Smith and his staff?

Smith seemed to acknowledge that question Monday night, imploring players during a pregame speech to have their best games of the season.

“It was an opportunity to show what we can be in the future,” Smith said. “It’s about our future. That was enough. Guys know when everyone is watching. You want to play your best. It was pride, too, for guys who wear the Chicago Bears uniform. At times, we haven’t been pleased with our play. But we’re moving on.”

It would be hard to imagine the Bears making a long-term decision, one way or the other, based on a single game. Cutler said: “We obviously will see where we are at the end of the season. Everyone will be evaluated, and we will go from there.”

Rapid Reaction: Bears 36, Vikings 30

December, 29, 2009
CHICAGO -- Minnesota might have kissed away its first-round playoff bye Monday night at Soldier Field.

That’s the upshot of its stunning loss to a Chicago team that appeared to have mailed in the season weeks ago. The Vikings overcame a 16-0 halftime deficit to force overtime but ultimately lost for the third time in four games. Devin Aromashodu’s 39-yard touchdown reception, one play after Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson fumbled, saw to that.

More important, the Vikings 11-4 record leaves them tied with Philadelphia in the NFC’s playoff seeding.

The Eagles own the tiebreaker over the Vikings, based on conference record, and thus would claim the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a victory Sunday over Dallas. The Vikings would host a playoff game during wild-card weekend.

Minnesota will be left to wonder why it opened this game so flat, and they walked into the locker room knowing that overtime wouldn’t have been necessary if Bears defensive tackle Israel Idonije hadn’t blocked a third-quarter extra point. They’ll have all week -- and possibly the offseason as well -- to mull it over.

Favre, Rice force overtime

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- Sidney Rice has been Brett Favre’s favorite receiver this season, and so it’s no surprise Favre looked his way on fourth down from the Bears’ 6-yard line with 16 seconds left to play.

Rice’s leaping touchdown over cornerback Corey Graham allowed the Vikings to send the game into overtime. (It would have been the game-winner had Israel Idonije not blocked an extra point in the third quarter.)

Brett Favre has thrown for 269 yards in the second half to lead the Vikings back from a 16-0 halftime deficit. This time, I really mean I’ll be back with you when it’s over.

Bears' Tillman done for the night

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman was just taken off the field on a stretcher after colliding with Minnesota tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and teammate Craig Steltz.

Tillman appeared to be in intense pain after the collision. The Bears announced his condition as a “rib injury.” It was difficult to tell exactly what happened because Tillman had a blanket over his torso as he was wheeled off the field.

We’ll let you know if there are further updates. The injury overshadowed the fact that the Vikings have pulled to within one score at 23-16.

Why were the Bears throwing?

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- That’s my question after Minnesota quarterback Cedric Griffin intercepted Jay Cutler on the next-to-last play of the third quarter here at Soldier Field. Holding a 10-point lead, and with receiver Johnny Knox in the locker room after what appeared to be a serious ankle injury, shouldn’t the Bears have been trying to run some time off the clock?

It’s not like the Bears haven’t had any success running the ball in this game. They have 94 rushing yards through three quarters. But after the Cutler interception, a terribly thrown ball, the Vikings have the ball at midfield.

Peterson has a mind freeze

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- Another example of how Minnesota is out of sorts Monday night: The Vikings temporarily benched tailback Adrian Peterson after he failed to fulfill his part in a pre-snap formation change on a first down at Chicago’s 20-yard line.

Peterson was lined up in a traditional I-formation when quarterback Brett Favre started motioning frantically for Peterson to move. Several coaches on the sideline did the same thing before Peterson moved into receiver’s position on the right side of the field.

Peterson was obviously the first read on the play, but he never got close to Favre’s pass into the end zone. Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy lit into Peterson on the sideline after sending in Chester Taylor to replace him.

The Vikings eventually scored on Favre’s 6-yard pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. It’s 23-13 with 1:12 remaining in the third quarter.

Bears special teams rise up

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- Just when Minnesota had grabbed some momentum at Soldier Field, Chicago’s special teams took it right back.

Israel Idonije burst through the middle of the Vikings’ line to block Ryan Longwell’s extra point, and Danieal Manning returned the ensuing kickoff 57 yards to set up the Bears’ next drive. Jay Cutler’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Clark has the Bears ahead 23-6.

The missed extra point means the Bears are ahead by two touchdowns, two extra points and a field goal. Even if the Vikings hold the Bears’ offense scoreless the rest of the way, and there’s no indication that will happen, I wonder if they’ll even get enough possessions to make up the difference.

Berrian getting involved

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- Interesting that Minnesota targeted receiver Bernard Berrian on its first scoring drive rather than their two leading receivers, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin.

Berrian is just starting to round into shape after a series of hamstring injuries earlier this season. He caught back-to-back passes of 13 and 38 yards on a drive that ended in Adrian Peterson’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Berrian has been matched up mostly on No. 2 cornerback Zack Bowman. The Vikings obviously like that matchup.

No go for Minnesota on first possession

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- If the first series of the second half is any indication, Minnesota won’t be mounting a comeback in this game.

The Vikings’ drive fizzled on a lazy second -down pass from Brett Favre, ultimately mishandled by tailback Adrian Peterson, and a short-arm attempt to catch a third down pass by receiver Bernard Berrian. The Bears defense still hasn’t allowed the Vikings to penetrate deep enough to so much as attempt a field goal.

Halftime: Bears 16, Vikings 0

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- A few thoughts from Soldier Field:
  • Jay Cutler looks energized and Brett Favre looks cold, old and ineffective. That’s my instant analysis of the two quarterbacks in this game. The Bears are giving Cutler excellent pass protection -- have you even noticed Jared Allen in this game? -- and he has responded with (mostly) good decisions. The Vikings have mishandled a couple of potential interceptions. But Cutler’s 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen was a thing of beauty, sizzling right past cornerback Antoine Winfield, and demonstrated everything the Bears hoped to get when they traded for Cutler.
  • Favre, on the other hand, is getting harassed by a Bears pass rush that at times has included Gaines Adams and rookie Jarron Gilbert on the defensive line at the same time. Favre looks uncomfortable in the pocket and is getting rid of the ball just to get rid of it. I don’t know if it’s because of the temperature or other factors, but at this point the Vikings are going to have to make significant adjustments if they’re going to throw their way back into this game. To this point, they have 29 net yards passing.
  • The Bears could have taken one shot at the end zone before Robbie Gould kicked a 41-yard field goal to end the half. Cutler had the Bears offense on the line of scrimmage with 25 seconds left, but the Bears elected to let the clock run down to three seconds before calling a timeout. Maybe they didn’t want to get greedy.
  • I think we’re seeing more of why Cutler has been lobbying for receiver Devin Aromashodu this season. Aromashodu isn’t a speedster but he knows how to sit in the zone. He’s got three catches for 62 yards in the half.
  • The Bears’ radio broadcast reported that coach Lovie Smith made an emotional pregame plea for his players to have their best game of the season. To this point, they’ve done just that.

Can the Vikings make up this deficit?

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- In this ESPN Insiders story, Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders outlines how poorly constructed Minnesota is to play from behind.

In summary, Verhei found the Vikings don’t throw the ball well when they have to, and their defense doesn’t stop the run when opponents are ahead.

We’re about to find out if the Vikings can alter that trend. They’re down 13-0 midway through the second quarter at Soldier Field. The Bears look much more like the team that was 3-1 earlier this season. This should be interesting.
CHICAGO -- I didn’t say anyone had to listen to me.

The Vikings got back to its running game one drive after quarterback Brett Favre's fumble, but as they say in Minnesota, it didn’t work out so good for them.

Minnesota ran on five of six plays on its next possession. Its one pass was a screen to tailback Chester Taylor. But on 3rd-and-2 from the 50, Taylor was stopped for no gain on a pitch. It looks like the Vikings offense is in an ill-timed funk, while the Bears are getting more energized with every play.

Clear evidence for running the ball

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- If you’re wondering why some of us were advocating heavy doses of the running game at Soldier Field, you just saw why.

Minnesota just had a rough three-play sequence, all on pass plays, that ended with a turnover. A 12-yard pass to Adrian Peterson was called back because rookie receiver Percy Harvin lined up wrong. Vikings quarterback Brett Favre then got flustered by the Bears’ pass rush and threw an ill-advised shovel pass that fell incomplete.

Finally, Favre literally dropped the ball when rushed by Bears defensive tackle Israel Idonije. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris recovered to end a Vikings drive that had penetrated the Bears’ red zone.

The Vikings entered this game planning to emphasize Peterson and Chester Taylor. They’d be well-advised to stick to that plan.
CHICAGO -- As expected, Chicago won’t have receiver Devin Hester (calf), safety Al Afalava (knee) and safety Kevin Payne (ankle) for Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

Punter Brad Maynard, however, warmed up well and will punt despite a sore groin muscle.

With Payne and Afalava sidelined, the Bears are expected to start Craig Steltz and Josh Bullocks as their safeties in the base defense. Yeesh.