CHICAGO (AP)The Minnesota Vikings come into the regular-season finale with the NFC North championship secured, a home game in the playoffs guaranteed and a bitter taste in their mouths.
A lopsided loss last week left them staggering. They hope to steady themselves before the playoffs start.
The Vikings will try to do just that when they visit the Chicago Bears to close out the regular season on Sunday.
”Momentum is real, and it’s really big in the playoffs,” defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said.
The Vikings (12-4) won’t have to contend with Justin Fields, after Bears coach Matt Eberflus announced the electrifying quarterback will miss the final game because of a strained hip and Nathan Peterman will start in his place. Chicago (3-13) comes in with nine straight losses after getting blown out at Detroit last week and a chance to become the first team in franchise history to drop 14 games in a season.
This would seem like a good opportunity for the Vikings to find their footing coming off a 41-17 beatdown at Green Bay.
The Vikings are all but guaranteed the No. 3 seed in the NFC. They can’t finish ahead of the NFC East champion, be it Philadelphia or Dallas. They would need struggling Arizona to beat San Francisco to have a shot at the second seed.
”I think to get that bad taste out of our mouth is something that would be really good to do,” said Kirk Cousins, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble last week. ”No one’s just going to let that happen. We got to go earn it and play well enough to do that.”
SHOT AT TOP SPOT
The Bears assured themselves a top-four draft pick and have a shot at the No. 1 selection. The only team with a worse record is Houston (2-13-1).
”When you look at the wins and losses and that sort of thing, that’s disappointing obviously,” Eberflus said. ”But you see the progress. To me, it’s about foundational floor. You see that.”
The Vikings suffered a big blow last week when center Austin Schlottman, who already was filling in for the injured Garrett Bradbury, broke his lower leg in the first quarter. A few minutes later, right tackle Brian O’Neill hurt his calf and partially tore his Achilles. Bradbury has missed four straight games and primary backup tackle Blake Brandel is on injured reserve with a torn MCL in his knee. Bradbury and Brandel are on track to return for the playoffs, but for now against the Bears, all signs point to Chris Reed holding down the fort at center and Oli Udoh subbing at right tackle.
O’Neill, who is in his fifth year, had never before missed a game due to injury.
”We’ve had a lot of very, very strong outings and high moments, but even during some of the moments where we weren’t at our best, Brian was still so consistent for us in his role,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. ”I just think it’s going to be a hard thing to replace.”
Peterman shrugged off the idea the Bears are jockeying for draft positioning by holding out Fields.
”I’m very focused on going out there, playing great and winning a football game,” he said. ”That’s all you can do every time you go out there. I’m excited. Trying not to listen to the outside noise too much.”
Peterman is set to make his fifth career start and first since 2018. He almost got the call in Week 12 at the New York Jets.
Fields was sidelined because of a separated shoulder. Backup Trevor Siemian suffered an oblique injury in warmups, and the Bears announced Peterman would start in his place, only to reverse course. Siemian played through the injury, which required season-ending surgery.
The Vikings hosted the Bears in the regular-season finale in five of the last six years under the translucent U.S. Bank Stadium roof. Now the venue is reversed, with the Vikings playing in Chicago to close the regular season for the first time since 1971 and after November for only the second time since 2009. The Vikings ought to be prepared for the often-rough Soldier Field playing surface; they had frequent trouble with traction at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field last week.
O’Connell said after that game the staff ”strongly recommended” that players use 7-stud cleats for maximum grip, but some of them – including wide receiver Justin Jefferson – didn’t switch until they started slipping during the game.
”Hopefully it’s a learning lesson for all of us that we don’t need to go through some of that early to rectify the problem,” O’Connell said.
Fields finished his second season with 1,143 yards rushing, 63 shy of the record of 1,206 set by Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson in 2019 during his MVP season. He is sixth overall in rushing and is averaging a league-leading 7.1 yards per carry.
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