Humbled Vikings running out of time to catch Bears

By Dave Campbell

AP Pro Football Writer

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The NBC camera on Minnesota’s pregame huddle in Chicago captured Kirk Cousins delivering the customary pep talk to his teammates, a full-throated reminder by the quarterback that the Vikings reached the NFC championship game last season, not the Bears.

“They’re not the reason this game moved to prime time,” Cousins shouted. “We are.”

Soon after the opening kickoff, though, the Vikings (5-4-1) wilted in the spotlight of the NFL’s showcase Sunday night game. The offense didn’t score until 7 seconds were left in the third quarter, and the defense gave up a season-high 148 rushing yards, leading to a 25-20 loss that wasn’t as close as the score.

The Vikings fell 1½ games behind the Bears (7-3) in the NFC North, meaning they’ll have to win once more than the surprise division leader over the next five games to make the rematch on Dec. 30 count toward the race.

Chicago plays the Los Angeles Rams (9-1) on Dec. 2, but that’s at home. Every other opponent has a losing record. Minnesota has back-to-back road games against the New England Patriots (7-3) and Seattle Seahawks (5-5) looming.

“The schedule’s the schedule. I’m not worried about that,” coach Mike Zimmer said.

What most troubled Zimmer were the three turnovers, a failure to reach the end zone on the first three trips inside the 20-yard line, and a total of 22 rushing yards on 14 attempts . His message to the offense in meetings throughout the week was that those three areas would determine the outcome.

“Either they’re not listening or they’re not paying attention or they don’t really care,” Zimmer said. “So we’ll have to find out which one of the three it is.”

The defense also had a 15-yard penalty on two of Chicago’s three drives for field goals.

Cousins said the defeat “certainly humbles you,” a potential positive to take in preparation for the next game against the rival Green Bay Packers (4-5-1). The Vikings have already had several of those sobering defeats this year, from the lopsided loss at home against the lowly Buffalo Bills to the 556 total yards allowed to the Rams to the gaffes that precipitated their fall against the New Orleans Saints.

Whether there’s some natural regression in the works after their 13-3 regular-season record in 2017, a few flaws they haven’t yet fixed or a little bit of bad luck, the Vikings have been a hair off and a step behind from the start this year despite adding Cousins to one of the league’s deepest rosters.

In facing the Rams, Saints and Bears in nationally televised night games, the top three teams in the NFC, the Vikings have performed like a wild-card team at best.

“We’re a good team. We know that. It’s just about going out there and doing it. Quit talking about it,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “Just getting back to work, putting our hard hats on and no excuses. We’ve got to point the finger at ourselves, so we’ve just got to get the job done, period.”

The Vikings have 16 turnovers, seventh most in the NFL after producing at least one in all but one game. That’s already two more than last season, when they had the third fewest in the league.

“That’s what we talk about every single day since OTAs, talk about protecting the football,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “The percentage of you winning a football game when you lose a turnover battle is pretty low. We know that. We have to go back to work and figure it out.”

The Vikings finished in the top seven in the NFL in fewest turnovers in each of Zimmer’s first four years.

“It’s been frustrating at times,” Zimmer said, noting the unlikelihood of some of the giveaways like Thielen’s fumble against the Saints that turned that game around: He added: “I guess stuff happens sometimes.”

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