The Minnesota Vikings are a new team three weeks after their bye, capping off a three-game win streak against their NFC North opponents with a 19-13 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday night.
It was Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins' first win on Monday Night Football, snapping a league-worst 0-9 streak to start his career.
Several weeks ago, the Vikings took a gamble on themselves and chose not to blow up this roster when it looked like a rebuild was inevitable. This team is not elite, and Monday night's game was ugly. But the Vikings have been able to scrap their way back into playoff contention after a 1-5 start with a group they believe can now make a push toward the postseason.
Finding a way without Cook: The Bears have always made things difficult for Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who entered Monday night with 34 rushes for 86 yards and one touchdown in three career games against his NFC North rival. The chirping between Cook and Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks made for a competitive matchup, and Chicago's defense made Cook fight for every one of his 96 yards (3.2 yards per carry).
With so much attention on Cook, the Vikings knew it would be up to Cousins. But Minnesota didn't need to rely on its quarterback to get into a dropback game to pull off the win, which was smart. A handful of perfectly calculated intermediate throws using receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph aided Cousins in moving the ball methodically.
Cousins was able to pick his spots to air it out, including a 54-yard pass to Jefferson that set up the Vikings to tie the score at 13-13 in the third quarter. Minnesota's third-down efficiency helped the offense gain and maintain momentum, as the aforementioned play on third-and-11 was the turning point for the Vikings to get the lead back. Overall, Cousins completed 25 of 36 passes for 292 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
He was accurate, went to the right spots with the ball and didn't succumb to the Bears' pressure. This game provided a big-time proving ground for Cousins to show he could come through and be the reason his team secured a win.
"I thought he played really fast, which is important for him," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He was extremely accurate. He got the ball in the right places all night. I just felt like he did a really good job of handling what the defense was giving us."
Defense shows up until the very end: This is no fluke. Zimmer's defense is much improved from where it was earlier this season. The Bears' offensive ineptitude can be blamed for their loss, but the Vikings' defense came through after two first-half turnovers (Rudolph's fumble and Cousins' interception) and held Chicago to two field goals.
Minnesota's front seven kept Bears quarterback Nick Foles on his toes. Zimmer challenged the Bears to run the ball by giving them a considerable amount of two-deep safety looks (to protect his young corners), and they never tested Minnesota's run defense. The Bears went three and out on four straight drives in the second half and were 2-of-11 on third down. With 44 seconds left in the game, the Vikings' defense closed out Chicago, proving that with time and a ton of adjustments, this unit has gotten better and can hold its own.
"The guys up front were doing a great job," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "D-line, linebackers were doing a great job in the run game, so we were able to do some things on the back end to help take away [Allen] Robinson and stuff like that. He's a really good player. They've got guys that can make plays, but when you're doing a good job stopping the run and you're not always having to get a safety involved, it really opens up your whole playcalling sheet.
"Everybody, players did a great job, coaches called a great game. They had us ready to go and prepared, and it was just a good team win.”
Special-teams blunders: Zimmer has expressed concerns with the Vikings' special teams in recent weeks. After the Bears' Cordarrelle Patterson returned the second-half kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown, Zimmer was irate and gave special-teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf an earful on the sideline.
Zimmer said it was "poor technique" that led to two blocked punts against Detroit in Week 9. In Chicago, rookie Dan Chisena's second-quarter gaffe on a punt cost the Vikings 20 yards when he stepped into the end zone instead of downing the ball at the Bears' 1-yard line. The Vikings' kickoff to open the third quarter went right to Patterson, who they know fully well is capable of going to the house on kickoff returns; that was his eighth career kickoff return TD, the majority of which happened while he played for Minnesota.
After the Vikings finally wrestled the lead back in the fourth quarter, a bad snap from long-snapper Austin Cutting, who spent last week on the COVID-19/reserve list, wrecked a point-after attempt. That also happened last week against Detroit. Zimmer has every reason to be concerned with Minnesota's special teams, given its poor play on Monday could have cost the Vikings a win.