Vikings seek sweep of Bears, then what will Black Monday bring?

Vikings seek sweep of Bears
Green Bay Packers running back A.J. Dillon (28) rushes against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, January 2, 2022, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Apc Packers Vs Vikings 27901 010222wag

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

As the Vikings seek their first season sweep of the rival Bears since 2017 on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, there’s more media and fan attention being given this week to what the future of the franchise will look like at the head coach, GM and quarterback positions.

That’s the nature of pro sports and the NFL when a team misses the playoffs for a second straight season. Especially when this Vikings team appeared to be talented enough to win 10 plus games but so many winnable games turned to gut-wrenching, one score losses in this Covid-wracked season. Now speculation is rampant on what co-owners Zygi and Mark Wilf are thinking with Black Monday just days away (when the fate of an NFL non-playoff coach is usually decided).

As a former team exec, I understand the challenge of deciding if change at the top is needed. It’s usually not a simple process and many factors will be considered in judging the overall performance of Coach Mike Zimmer and his staff along with GM Rick Spielman and what things would look like moving forward with or without them.

One factor that has not been discussed much in the media is that both Zimmer and Spielman are under contract for two more years and when you add in Zimmer’s assistant coaches salaries, we could be talking $15 million or so that the Wilfs would have to pay off if wholesale changes are made. Owners do not want to absorb those salary hits unless they deem it absolutely necessary for the best interest of the franchise.

Kirk Cousins’ future also may be a question mark even though he says he’s only thinking about the Bears and not what lies ahead after Sunday. He’s under contract for one more season but could be traded and it’s complicated in Cousins’ case as he has surely infuriated ownership, coaches and much of the fan base with his decision not to get vaccinated which contributed to him missing an elimination game at Green Bay last Sunday. He also is the NFL’s fifth ranked passer who had a good year overall and with a more consistent offensive line and much better defense, the Vikings under Cousins would be playoff bound.

A great performance on Sunday could be a factor in the Wilfs’ decision making. So this season finale may matter in that regard but in any event it’s a rivalry game where players want to perform well, as Vikings coaches and players have been saying this week (Zimmer said it’s not a game where he wants to give rookies such as QB Kellen Mond experience). And teams always want to avoid double digit loss seasons (with a win the Vikings would finish 8-9).

Here are my keys to the Vikings getting the W in the season finale:

1.Run the ball: Cousins only threw for 87 yards in the Monday night win in Chicago three weeks ago. That was due in large part to the formidable Bears pass defense (No.3 ranked) led by a pass rush that sacked Cousins four times. Dalvin Cook showed great fortitude that night with a hard-earned 89 rushing yards on 28 carries.

Last week the Bears held the Giants’ Mike Glennon to 24 passing yards in a 29-3 thrashing. But the Giants did have 161 rushing yards led by Saquon Barkley with 102 yards on the ground. Stands to reason that the Vikings should throw just enough to keep the Bears from stacking the box but the run game should be featured.

2. Game plan to double Hicks and chip on Quinn and then watch for Smith: The Bears feature three great players on defense—Vikings-killer Akiem Hicks who should be constantly double-teamed if his sore ankle allows him to play (two sacks, two tackles for loss in the last meeting); Robert Quinn, a Pro Bowler who ranks second in the league with 18 sacks and sacked Cousins twice last time (he must be doubled or chipped with a tight end/back and if left tackle Christian Darrisaw remains on the Covid list, that spells trouble), and Roquan Smith, the Bears leading tackler.

3. Give J.J. a chance: Justin Jefferson caught four passes for 47 yards and a TD on 10 targets in Chicago and he must always get opportunities because he’s a top three receiver in the NFL and that will keep the Bears from overloading to stop Cook.

4. Defense force turnovers: the Bears are minus 11 in turnover ratio while the Vikings are plus 9 (interesting stat: Minnesota is the only team in the top eight in the category to not make the playoffs). Minnesota’s D forced three Chicago turnovers last time in the 17-9 victory.

5. Stop David Montgomery and get after likely QB starter Andy Dalton: the Vikings have struggled in run defense this season but did a good job on Montgomery last time, holding him to 60 yards in Chicago, and will need to repeat that performance. Rookie QB Justin Fields just hit the Covid list so the Bears are likely to start Dalton who beat the Giants last week although they could turn to Nick Foles who led a win in Seattle two weeks ago and notched a 2017 NFC title game win over the Vikings in Philly.

Whoever they face at quarterback, Minnesota must pass rush as they’ve done most of the season (including three sacks, all by D. J. Wonnum in Chicago) and not like the last two weeks when they were held sackless in losses to the Rams and Packers. If they can’t pressure the QB, the Vikings corners will face a tough task in covering Darnell Moody and Allen Robinson.

6. Win the special teams matchup that features two of the league’s top kick returners in Minnesota rookie Kene Nwangwu and Chicago Pro Bowler Jakeem Grant.

Jeff’s Prediction: The Bears have won two straight while the Vikings have lost two in a row. Chicago also has won the last three years in Minnesota. Based on the Vikings’ Week 15 win over the Bears and being at home, I’ll go with the Purple 24-21 on a Greg Joseph field goal to end the season on a winning note. And then we’ll see what Black Monday brings around the NFL (which almost certainly will include Bears Coach Matt Nagy being fired).

Around the NFL Observations:

1. The Raiders host the Chargers Sunday night with an AFC wild card spot on the line. The Raiders have overcome a lot of adversity to become one of late season surprises with three straight wins behind the leadership of interim Coach Rich Bisaccia and QB Derek Carr. I like their chances against the inconsistent but talented Chargers. The Colts claim the other open AFC wild card spot with a win in Jacksonville.

In the NFC, the 49ers have beaten the Rams five straight times and need a win or a Saints loss at Atlanta to clinch a playoff spot.

2. AFC top seed Tennessee (who needs to win in Houston to lock up their spot) is weighing whether to play star back Derrick Henry who has missed a couple months with a foot injury. If he’s ready to play and Coach Mike Vrabel thinks he needs a few snaps, then I would give him two carries and get him out of the game. Meanwhile the AFC North champion Bengals are resting star QB Joe Burrow who reportedly has a sore knee which is the smart thing to do even though they can possibly gain a higher seed with a victory in Cleveland.

3. Sounds like Packers Coach Matt LaFleur is leaning towards playing his starters for a series or two which is a questionable call in the case of presumptive league MVP Aaron Rodgers who has dealt with a toe injury towards the end of the regular season.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl