Time running out for Vikings

Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings have lost three of their last four games. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO -- I found it amusing late Monday night when Minnesota coach Brad Childress teased reporters for not bringing tougher questions his way. He was hoping for an opportunity to mock any suggestion that last week’s feud with quarterback Brett Favre played a role in the Vikings’ 36-30 overtime loss at Soldier Field.

“You guys are way too easy,” Childress said, smirking. “There’s got to be somebody that will be sawing me off tomorrow.”

It’s true. Monday night’s game provided every indication that the Vikings are more prolific when Favre has the central role in running the offense. He threw for 285 yards after halftime, leading the Vikings back from a 16-0 deficit and playing what he called “about as good a game as I can play.”

But the game also illustrated deficiencies that went overlooked amid the Favre-Childress theater. To different degrees, the Vikings are reeling in all three phases and are exhibiting the makings of an early playoff exit. Devin Aromashodu’s 39-yard touchdown catch in overtime sent the Vikings to their third loss in four games and could send them tumbling in the NFC playoff seedings as well.

Players who rolled to an 10-1 start minced few words in the postgame locker room, alternately stunned and angry that their dream season appears to be slipping away.

“I know we have to play better than we did tonight and really the last few weeks or we’ll be home fairly quickly,” Favre said. “I’m just being as honest as I can be. We have to play better. I think we all know that. If not, then we’re fooling ourselves. So it is what it is. We have to find a way to correct it or we’ll be home sooner than we would like.”

Defensive end Jared Allen was more blunt.

“If I could cuss right now, I would,” he said. “[This] sucked. We’re playing bad right now. We’ve got to play better. Each man on this team needs to go home and look himself in the mirror and figure out what we want to be this year: An 11-5 team or a 12-4 team that makes noise in the playoffs. That’s just the bottom line.”

Chicago deserves credit for playing better than it has in three months. Bears fans are probably wondering where this type of effort and explosion has been. But let’s also be honest: It didn’t start that way Monday night.

The Bears punted on their first possession and tripped themselves up in the red zone on their second drive. But you could see their confidence grow with every Vikings misstep.

Since their 30-17 loss Dec. 6 at Arizona, the Vikings have revealed themselves to have a shaky offensive line. They’ve been unable to open games with a strong running game. Monday night, tailback Adrian Peterson had 28 yards in the first half and went a sixth consecutive game without compiling 100 yards. His overtime fumble, his sixth turnover of the season, put the Bears in position for the winning score.

The Vikings had success Monday night after shifting into a modified two-minute drill in the second half, but their defense and special teams didn’t follow. Their vaunted pass rush has only five sacks over the past four games, including two Monday night, while giving up 11 touchdown passes over that span.

And their special teams, which has spent much of the year perched atop Football Outsiders' noted special-teams rankings, failed three times Monday night. A blocked extra point in the third quarter proved to be a decisive play, and Bears kickoff returner Danieal Manning set up a pair of touchdowns with kickoff returns of 57 and 59 yards.

“I’m not going to put it on any one group,” Childress said, and he was right. This collapse -- and yes, there’s nothing else to call it at this point -- has been systemic and widespread. Favre noted the Vikings are lucky to have given themselves enough “cushion” to weather the storm, but to this point there’s no reason to suggest the Vikings can do that.

Even if you cling to their offensive explosion in the second half, you can’t deny the crucial failures on defense and special teams.

“This time of year, it’s really about who is hot and what teams have it going,” guard Steve Hutchinson said. “Hopefully, offensively speaking, that second half was enough of a spark to give us enough confidence to return to what we were doing consistently a month ago. I guess that’s what I can say about that.”

Childress said the Vikings must work to “find ourselves,” and indeed, there have been examples of teams that have turned around late slumps to make a playoff run. Arizona, for example, lost two of its final three games last year before pushing to the Super Bowl. But those teams are generally the exception rather than the rule.

The reality is Monday's loss sent the Vikings tumbling out of the No. 2 seed, and they’ll have to play a first-round postseason game unless they beat the New York Giants on Sunday and Philadelphia loses to Dallas. Even if they win in the first round, a No. 3 or No. 4 seed would mean playing the next week on the road; they have lost four of their past five games away from the Metrodome.

“Momentum is important but it’s not everything,” linebacker Ben Leber said. “We’d like to have it going into the playoffs. But if we don’t end up finding that momentum, we’ve just got to come out and starting battling. Time is running out. We’ve got one game left. Let’s put it all in one basket and let it all go.”

Favre said he wants to “see how we handle this” adversity. Frankly, the Vikings haven’t given us a reason to think this will end well.