For the fourth time in the past five years, the Chicago Bears will visit the Minnesota Vikings in the last game on the schedule.
For once, this matchup has some meaning.
The Vikings, having already ceded the NFC North title to the Bears, have yet to secure a spot in the playoffs. The Bears could still improve their seed and snag that coveted first-round bye, if they win and the Los Angeles Rams also lose at home to San Francisco.
If not, the Vikings (8-6-1) would be the likeliest opponent for the Bears (11-4) in the wild-card round next week.
“We understand what’s at stake. There’s no magic formula. There’s no button you can push or hours you can put in to suddenly snap your fingers and guarantee a win,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “You do all you can, give everything you have.”
Last season, though the Vikings needed the victory to secure the second seed in the NFC and the first-round bye , they had clinched the division two weeks earlier while the Bears were bound for last place in the division.
The year before that, the biggest drama was the pair of repelling oil pipeline protesters who sneaked past security to climb up a truss connected to the roof and unfurl a large banner as they lowered themselves from the ceiling. Both the Bears and Vikings had already been eliminated from contention.
In 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings wrapped up their first of two years outside during the construction of U.S. Bank Stadium with a win over the Bears that determined they’d finish third in the NFC North and not fourth.
The two teams did this play-out-the-string thing twice in recent memory at the Metrodome, too. Both teams were eliminated before the 2011 finale, too, when the Bears stopped a five-game losing streak to finish at .500. In 2005, with the Bears resting most of their starters with the division already clinched, a victory by the Vikings wasn’t enough to keep coach Mike Tice from being fired after the game .
Well, finally, these rivals have entered their 2018 season closer in the right positions for a tension-filled game on Sunday.
“We’re going in there really focused,” Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We know we’re going against a really good team.”
Here are some other key angles to follow:
The NFL arranged the schedule to minimize the anticlimactic outcomes, moving the Bears-Vikings game to the late-afternoon slot so it would be played simultaneously with Eagles-Redskins, Cardinals-Seahawks and 49ers-Rams.
The Vikings are guaranteed the last wild-card spot if Philadelphia loses at Washington. They would get the No. 5 seed and a first-round game at Dallas with a win and a loss by Seattle at home to Arizona. Their long-shot scenario is starting the postseason in Los Angeles, if they lose to the Bears and the Rams and Eagles lose, too.
“All the hypotheticals or where we would be at or what we are going to be based on the results of this weekend, I know that we’re playing this game to win,” Trubisky said.
“We’re going out there with our starters, and we’re competing. For me, it’s an easy mindset. Coach says, ‘Go,’ and we’re going.”
The Bears said they’re not seeking payback for Vikings safety Harrison Smith, whose hit on a sliding Trubisky late in the game in Chicago on Nov. 18 drove the second-year quarterback’s throwing shoulder into the ground and wound up sidelining him for the following two games.
“I really put it behind me,” Trubisky said. “I didn’t even consider it illegal or anything malicious of that nature.”
Last week, 49ers safety Marcell Harris delivered a late hit on a sliding Trubisky, setting off a skirmish that resulted in the ejection of three players.
“We’re not about being revengeful or getting back to anybody,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Nothing. None of that.”
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, who was picked for his fourth Pro Bowl, reached double-digit sacks for the fourth straight year. He has 12½ sacks, with 4½ in the past four games. He’s tied for the NFL lead with six forced fumbles for the Bears, who have 36 takeaways for the most in the league.
Mack and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks helped make the previous matchup, a 25-20 victory by the Bears, miserable for Minnesota’s offensive line. Cousins took only two sacks, but each of them lost 8 yards .
Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray combined for only 18 rushing yards on 13 attempts. The Vikings have blocked better in the past two games, and the improvement down the stretch by rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill has been particularly visible.
“We knew at some point it was going to happen,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s just such a good athlete.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The Vikings are 18-6 in the regular season and postseason at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the Bears haven’t won in Minnesota since that final game on the 2011 schedule.
“Our team feeds off the crowd and what they bring,” Cousins said. “It’s just a great place to play an NFL football game, and I can’t say enough good things about the venue, the locker room, the facility and the way our fans spur us on.”
Source: The Associated Press