Howard, Bears to finish season against vexed Vikings
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Jordan Howard took the handoff early in the first quarter in Chicago from Jay Cutler and ran toward the left tackle, escaping from heavy traffic around the line, zooming into the secondary before he was finally shoved out of bounds by Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes.
The play gained 69 yards, setting up a field goal by the Bears and setting the tone for a trying Monday night game for the Vikings. The burst by the rookie served as an introduction for the fifth-round draft pick out of Indiana to a national audience, one of a limited number of highlights for the Bears (3-12) in another unsuccessful season. That long run by the 6-foot, 220-pound Howard also became a harbinger of sorts for the Vikings (7-8), who never really recovered.
They'd taken their first hit the week before at Philadelphia, spoiling their perfect record, but after falling to 5-2 in Chicago on Halloween there wasn't any obvious concern about their ability to bounce back from a second consecutive loss.
''I really don't think the team lost confidence,'' coach Mike Zimmer said, unable or unwilling to produce an explanation. ''I didn't lose confidence.''
The most condemning development of this 2-8 stretch the Vikings have endured since their bye week has been the lapses by a defense that has otherwise been one of the NFL's best. Allowing 202 yards from scrimmage to Howard in that 20-10 defeat by the Bears was one of those low points.
''We just haven't held up the way we had been,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said, adding: ''Extremely frustrating in this building.''
There's hardly dishonor in allowing Howard to have a big game, though, given his success after starting the season behind Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey on the depth chart. Howard has 1,178 yards rushing, ranking seventh in the league, and an average of 5.1 yards per carry. With 61 or more yards in the rematch with the Vikings on Sunday, Howard will break Matt Forte's franchise record for rookie rushing in 2008.
''He's tough between the tackles. He's got the speed to get to the corner,'' Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. ''So we've got to do an excellent job of tackling and wrapping up.''
Cutler's return from a sprained right thumb was just as instrumental as Howard in the first game against Minnesota. But Cutler has since been sidelined with a right shoulder injury, with Matt Barkley on track for his sixth straight start at quarterback. The Bears will be absent from the postseason for the ninth time in 10 years and, if they lose Sunday, will finish with fewer than four wins for the first time in a non-strike season since going 3-11 in 1973.
So it's no stretch to anoint Howard as the team's most valuable player.
''The way he's established the run is impressive for a rookie coming in, carrying the load the way he has,'' Barkley said. ''He's grown a lot, too, in pass protection and seeing everything and getting his eyes in the right spot. As a quarterback, it's good to know you have a guy like him who can carry that workload.''
Here are some other key angles to follow around the game:
GREENWAY GOES OUT: Greenway will likely finish his career Sunday after being drafted in the first round by the Vikings in 2006. He wasn't ready to declare his retirement, but even if he preferred to return the Vikings wouldn't necessarily have room on the roster for him.
''It's just such a weird thing being 33 years old and talking about this, you know?'' Greenway said. ''My cousin just became a doctor and she's 30. Her career is just starting. It's just such a different profession that way.''
MORE THAN A THIELEN: The emergence of wide receiver Adam Thielen has been a boon for the Vikings. They originally signed the NCAA Division II product from Minnesota State out of a tryout camp in 2013 and have helped develop him from a special teams standout into an every-down pass catcher. He has 960 yards receiving, putting him in prime position to become the first 1,000-yard receiver for the Vikings since Sidney Rice in 2009. Stefon Diggs also has 903 yards.
MEETING AGAIN: Barkley was knocked out of a game with USC in 2012 by a jarring hit from UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who's now a fixture with the Vikings.
''He's continued to do well in the league,'' Barkley said, ''and it's not surprising.''
HANGING ON: Barkley said he is ''definitely far past'' last week's 41-21 loss to Washington. He did acknowledge the benefit of the experience after throwing five interceptions to match the second-highest total in franchise history, giving him eight pickoffs over the past two games. In six games, including five starts, Barkley has 12 interceptions and eight touchdowns.
''I've definitely learned from what I've been through so far,'' Barkley said.
DISAPPEARING DEFENSE: The Bears are on pace for a pair of dubious team records by their defense, which allowed a combined 929 yards in losses to Green Bay and Washington the last two weeks to drop their NFL ranking from seventh to 13th.
They have a league-least 10 takeaways and will almost certainly set a franchise low for the second straight season after finishing with 17 last year. With seven interceptions, they could also set a franchise low after tallying eight in 2015.
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