Tailback Adrian Peterson's late arrival to Soldier Field isn't the reason the Vikings lost Sunday. The Bears are a better team, and I think most people who watched the game would agree. But if the Vikings were going to pull off the upset, they needed to play a near-perfect and certainly mistake-free game. Peterson's pregame gaffe was indicative of a larger inattention to detail and sloppy play throughout the game. Peterson might have finished the game with 108 yards, his fifth consecutive game of at least 100 yards, but he had only 25 in the first half as the Vikings fell behind by 22 points. He fumbled twice, and receivers dropped a half-dozen passes. This was the Vikings' first game in three years that carried playoff implications, and they fell far short of the precision level required to win. Make it six consecutive losses for the Vikings to the Bears, their biggest NFC North failure of the past decade.
It was only one play in the first quarter, but I keep coming back to receiver Jerome Simpson's drop of a third-down pass that would have given the Vikings a first down in the red zone on their second possession. They had recovered a Matt Forte fumble on the Bears' opening play and had a chance to jump right away on the opportunity. Quarterback Christian Ponder delivered the ball right into the chest of Simpson, who had a step on cornerback Charles Tillman, and it bounced to the ground. Place-kicker Blair Walsh converted a 40-yard field goal on the next play to give the Vikings a briefly-held lead. But the drop seemed disproportionally deflating, and it's worth noting the Vikings didn't score again until Kyle Rudolph's touchdown reception in the third quarter. Those who expected Simpson to be a dynamic downfield threat this season were in dreamland, but it was fair to hope he could be a functional part of an otherwise conservative offense. Even in that context, his tenure with the team has been disappointing.
Here's a perfect illustration of the Vikings' downfield woes this season. Ponder threw eight passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. He overthrew three of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and four of them were batted down or tipped by the Bears' defense. That litany speaks to Ponder's more-than-occasional inaccuracy as well as the difficulty his receivers have getting separation. To be clear, the Bears are excellent in coverage and entered the game with the NFL's best defense on such throws based on opponent's Total Quarterback Rating. But to complete a downfield pass you typically need accuracy and either separation or superior ball skills from the receiver. The Vikings haven't had any of that on a consistent basis this season.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
In retrospect it's easy to second-guess the decision to call consecutive pass plays on third and fourth down at the Bears' eight-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Peterson was heated up, with 36 yards on the drive, and had scored a touchdown in four consecutive games. Coach Leslie Frazier said: "You can second-guess them to death, but we thought we had some good plays called." Ponder's passes to receiver Jarius Wright and Michael Jenkins both fell incomplete. OK, fine. But what about kicking a field goal in that situation? It would have been a chip shot, and more importantly, made it a two-score game at 28-13. It would still be a two-score game if the Vikings had scored a touchdown to make it 28-17 or 28-18, and at that point in the game, possessions are as important as the number of points gained. Just a thought.