The Vikings Mystery Leading up to Week 18

Let Everyone Leave
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell looks to the video board in the third quarter game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

The Chicago Bears host the Minnesota Vikings in Week 18 to close out the 2022 regular season. The Vikings have not played at Chicago to end a season since 1971.

Chicago has nothing to play for besides draft positioning. If the Houston Texans win while the Bears lose to the Vikings, Chicago would gain the first overall pick in April’s draft. Minnesota, meanwhile, can still theoretically seize the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed but need the San Francisco 49ers to lose at home versus the Arizona Cardinals.

The Vikings Mystery Leading up to Week 18

Long story short — the game is fairly meaningless, and immediately after the Vikings outlandishly lost to the Green Bay Packers last weekend, fans wondered if starters would play in Chicago. Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell seemed to put the kibosh on that discussion Monday, telling reporters he “plans to play” starters.

But was that true?

Sports are frequently about gamesmanship, and O’Connell may have been creative with wording. In the preseason, O’Connell absolutely refused to play starters, a Los Angeles Rams-themed strategy he carried over from Tinseltown. With that precedent, it almost feels like a no-brainer that O’Connell would prefer health over end-of-season momentum.

The Vikings Mystery Leading
Kevin O’Connell

On the other hand, the Packers utterly bashed the Vikings in Week 17, and does a playoff-bound team really want that as the last memory before preparing for the Wildcard Round? Probably not.

While O’Connell personally mentioned his play-the-starters “plan,” reservist players have quietly experienced extended action at practice this week. KSTP‘s Darren Wolfson spoke with QB2 Nick Mullens — the man who would be front and center if starters rest — and tweeted thereafter Thursday, “Figure we’ll see him plenty Sunday in Chicago.”

Wolfson added on Twitter, “Who said winning and playing regulars is happening? Can win by resting plenty of guys!”

Here’s the exchange with Mullens:

Mullens has started 17 games in his career, and his teams have tallied a 5-12 (.294) on his watch.

3 Weeks Ago a Viking
Sep 30, 2022; Thundridge, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks David Blough (2), Kirk Cousins (8) and Nick Mullens. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

The Vikings could also “have it both ways,” playing some starters while resting veterans who have been beset by injuries throughout the year, for example — Za’Darius Smith or Harrison Smith. Too, some fans have spitballed the Vikings jumping out to an early lead and perhaps shutting down the starting personnel around halftime. The only problem there is that the Vikings rarely run up the score before halftime.

At Green Bay in Week 17, Minnesota lost right tackle Brian O’Neill and reservist center Austin Schlottmann for the remainder of the season. Those injuries should serve as a cautionary tale or at the very least, a reminder that a nasty injury is one snap away.

Significant Week 18
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Brian O’Neill. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

What’s more, the Vikings will play Sunday at Soldier Field, a spot not renowned for its pristine surface. A school of thought suggests playing starters on that field — right before a playoff game — is not a wise choice if truly optional.

Oddsmakers evidently believe starters will play for Minnesota, as the Vikings are 7.5-point favorites.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).