Vikings rest starters with playoffs on the horizon

MINNEAPOLIS -- At times Sunday, the vibe inside U.S. Bank Stadium more closely resembled that of preseason game No. 3 than the 2019 regular-season finale.

Week 17 and its outcome were effectively meaningless for the Minnesota Vikings, who were handed a 21-19 loss by the Chicago Bears, their second defeat this season by their NFC North rival.

Having secured a postseason bid eight days ago and with no room to advance past the No. 6 seed after a loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football, the Vikings opted to sit the majority of their starters and roll with their backups against the Bears. A group that included Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook (shoulder), Eric Kendricks (quad) and Anthony Barr were able to scoreboard watch from the sideline as the Vikings eagerly waited to see if they'd find out their first-round opponent by the end of the game.

With the Packers pulling off a last-second win over the Detroit Lions, the Vikings had to wait until the conclusion of San Francisco-Seattle to find out they are heading to New Orleans to play the Saints for the wild-card round.

The last time Minnesota won a road playoff game was 2004. Despite ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, the Vikings aim to buck that trend next Sunday.

Playoff scenarios: Green Bay might have been the preferred destination for Minnesota, given the adage that it's difficult to beat the same team three times in a season, but the Packers' Week 17 win means they're a top two seed in the NFC playoffs. The Vikings will play either the Saints or Seahawks next weekend and won't find out their wild-card opponent until the conclusion of Sunday Night Football. New Orleans will be the No. 3 seed if San Francisco wins and the Seahawks will host the Vikings if they beat their NFC West opponent tonight.

Time to shake off the rust: The Vikings made the right choice to treat Sunday's game and the lead up as a mini bye week. Cook and backup running back Alexander Mattison (ankle) have been dealing with injuries for several weeks. Shutting down both for Week 16 and 17, along with Kendricks against Chicago, while resting the bulk of their starters, was the smart decision. No team wants to back their way into the month of January, though, so the biggest test for the Vikings this week will be regaining the momentum they had.

Proving ground on the horizon: The Vikings brought Cousins to Minnesota to win a Super Bowl. The quarterback had a handful of great moments this season, emerging as an MVP candidate for a period in November, but almost equally as many instances that make Minnesota question whether he's deserving of an extension that could come this offseason. Cousins has one last the chance to change the narrative around him. The quarterback's lasting impression from the regular season was his stat line of 16-of-31 passing for 122 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Green Bay that extended his Monday night record to 0-9. Next weekend, the Vikings will find out whether Cousins can succeed in uncharted territory by winning his first playoff game. Dating to the offseason, the message from Vikings' brass was that gaudy statistics don't amount to anything if they don't result in wins. If Cousins leads Minnesota to the divisional round, he has done a portion of what was expected of him when he signed his three-year, $84 million contract in March 2018.