EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings returned to Winter Park last week, seemingly refreshed from some time off during the bye and fully focused on the task ahead: a six-game finishing stretch filled with divisional games that would truly define Minnesota’s surprising, bounceback season.
Players and coaches talked about “controlling our own destiny.” The Vikings were 6-4 but still faced an uphill climb toward the playoffs behind two NFC North opponents — Chicago and Green Bay — and a crowded field vying for wild-card spots. Yet, with the schedule ahead, with two games each against the Bears and Packers, Minnesota did control its fate.
One thing it didn’t control is what was happening elsewhere.
While the Vikings were getting back from the bye, Chicago was embarrassed by the San Francisco 49ers 32-7 on “Monday Night Football” without Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the lineup. Chicago would be returning home, licking its wounds and preparing for the supposedly rested and determined Vikings.
Then on Sunday, Minnesota didn’t look like the focused, rested team it said it was. Instead, the Bears were the motivated, hungry ones in a 28-10 Chicago win. If the Vikings believe they are a playoff team and were as single-minded as they had said, it didn’t show in the disappointing loss.
“We really didn’t do a lot of things we talked about what we had to do to win against a good team on the road,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “And the result was we walked off the field really disappointed in our performance and the way we played. We know we have to play better all the way across the board. We have to do a better job from a game plan standpoint, putting our players in a better position to make plays. But when you have the opportunity to make plays, you still have to make plays.”
If Minnesota wants to show things have changed after last year’s 3-13 debacle, it still has a chance in the final five games, but the sense of urgency must be more apparent than in Sunday’s loss. And the next opportunity is directly ahead of them — a very similar opportunity.
The Vikings travel to Green Bay to play the Packers this Sunday. Just like the Bears previously, Green Bay is coming off a lopsided loss on national TV. Just like Chicago, which got Cutler back in time to face Minnesota, the Packers could be getting healthy for the NFC North showdown with the Vikings. All reports say No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings will return to the lineup for the first time since Week 4. Top pass rusher Clay Mathews also has a chance to return after missing the past two games.
And there’s the fact that Green Bay, reeling from its 38-10 beating at the hands of the Giants, will be plain angry and ready to take it out on Minnesota in another divisional road game for the Vikings.
“You just try and learn week to week,” Minnesota receiver Michael Jenkins said. “It’s tough to go on the road and play like that, knowing that if we do that again, it’s going to be the same outcome.”
The Vikings (6-5) have talked about their opportunities ahead, and rightly so. Minnesota has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Sunday’s loss at Chicago ultimately didn’t hurt in the wild-card race except for the missed chance. The Packers (7-4 and a game behind 8-3 Chicago in the NFC North), Seattle Seahawks (6-5) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) all lost Sunday.
Ultimately though, the Vikings will have to show up with more fight, more motivation than they displayed Sunday. Minnesota had a prime chance to take control against the Bears after Chicago lost a fumble on its first offensive play. The Vikings could only turn the takeaway into three points. After that, Minnesota’s defense forced a three-and-out by the Bears.
But the tide turned after Adrian Peterson’s fumble, which Chicago turned into a touchdown, and Minnesota seemingly never recovered. A three-and-out and a short punt led to a Bears field goal, and the rout was on against a listless Vikings’ team that was dropping passes and fumbling on offense and unable to put pressure on Cutler and stop the Bears on third down on defense.
“Our defense goes out, gets a turnover right away, first play of the game,” Frazier said. “That lifts your spirits. Now you want to finish with a touchdown and you’re on the road. It’s a chance for what we talked about — quiet the crowd down early — and we didn’t do that. From a defensive standpoint, that’s a big deal if they hold you to a field goal and they’re starting at the plus-28 or plus-27 and then we come right back after our defense stops them again and we turn the football over, which is what they feed off of. That’s where their energy derives from, so we did the opposite of what we should have done to start that game.”
Minnesota can’t afford the same on Sunday at Green Bay. The Vikings have lost four straight games against the Packers. Minnesota has lost five of its past six games at Lambeau Field.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Frazier said. “I have a lot to do to get our team back, refocused on the task at hand for this next ball game.”
And time is running out for the Vikings to do just what they talked about before the bye and controlling their own destiny. An embarrassed, motivated, healthier Green Bay team likely feels the same way.