It’s Only Week 6 but It’s Must-Win Time in Chicago
Must-win is an overused term in sports jargon, but it’s a fact of life for Coach Kevin O’Connell and the 1-4 Vikings as they head into Soldier Field to take on the revived and newly confident Chicago Bears coming off their most impressive performance of 2023 in a road victory at Washington.
It’s Only Week 6 but It’s Must-Win Time in Chicago
It’s rough for the Vikings to be facing a must-win so early in the season, but it’s undeniable that a loss would put the Vikings at 1-5 and 0-1 in divisional games with the NFL’s best team thus far in 2023– unbeaten San Francisco—next on the schedule. And the Vikings won’t catch the 49ers coasting through a Monday night game, as they’ll be highly motivated to send a strong message to the entire league of their dominance.
Further adding to the difficulty facing O’Connell and his team is that they’ll have to win on the road without their best player, Justin Jefferson—who is on injured reserve for at least four weeks with a hamstring injury.
If the Vikings can find a way to win in Chicago and then likely fall to the 49ers to sit at 2-5, next up are tough but winnable road games at Green Bay and Atlanta before returning home to face the currently 3-2 Saints who just walloped the Patriots 34-0 in Foxboro.
Challenging times indeed for the Purple, who put themselves in this predicament by losing their first three home games of 2023 with the league’s worst turnover ratio at minus 9, clock management issues in losses to the Chargers and Chiefs, and a case of the dropsies last Sunday against Kansas City.
Here are my keys to getting back in the win column this Sunday in Chicago:
1. Win the turnover battle: it’s been the team’s mantra since Week 1, but they continue to lose the turnover battle (five straight games after minus 1 vs. the Chiefs, with their one turnover incredibly coming via the Josh Oliver fumble on the game’s first offensive play).
The Vikings defense is part of the problem, with only three takeaways this season (second fewest in the league behind New England’s two). The Vikings D had seven takeaways during their 4-1 start last season. At minus 9, the Vikings have the league’s worst turnover ratio, and their 12 giveaways lead the NFL. This is a good week to change that narrative since the Bears stand at minus 4 and rank 25th.
It’s critical for the Vikings to protect the football, especially in the first quarter when they’ve turned it over seven times and may be playing on a rainy day with a wet ball.
2. Catch the football: there were six dropped passes against K.C., led by T.J. Hockenson with three drops. He’s the second-highest-paid tight end in the league at over $15 million per year and needs to be more reliable, as he was last season (he also had a chance to catch the winning TD in the Chargers game, but it deflected off him into a game-ending interception). Hockenson likely will be targeted more often by Cousins with Jefferson out, but he also may attract more double coverage, which could free up Jordan Addison, K.J. Osborn, Brandon Powell, and Josh Oliver.
3. Run it enough but throw it to win vs. a poor pass defense with others stepping up since no J.J.: The Bears rank No. 31 against the pass after giving up 388 passing yards to the Commanders’ Sam Howell, and the Vikings have the second-ranked passing attack.
The run game must be reasonably effective, with Alex Mattison and Cam Akers running behind an O-line that has improved in run blocking. That will set up the play-action passing game from Kirk Cousins to his receiving corps with good targets (led by Addison and Hockenson), even without J.J., who obviously will be missed. Cousins should have a big game if the weather is decent.
4. Pass protection a key: the Bears had five sacks in their 40-20 win over the Commanders. Will this be the week when Dalton Risner gets more snaps at guard in place of Ed Ingram or perhaps Ezra Cleveland, as both guards were beaten for sacks last Sunday?
5. Stop the run with Chicago’s running back injuries: the Bears have been hit hard with injuries at running back. Top rusher Khalil Herbert will likely miss the game with an ankle injury, and free agent signee D’Onta Foreman is expected to start. Several other backs also are hurt, so depth is an issue for the Bears this week. The Vikings have played well against the run the past two games and now rank 13th. The Vikings need to stop the run and get after QB Justin Fields.
6. Contain Fields passing and running and cover D.J. Moore (that means better play from Byron Murphy):
Fields is a dynamic runner on run-pass option plays or designed runs, but he is running less than in the past. DC Brian Flores must devise a plan to keep Fields contained on his scrambling and make sure star receiver D.J. Moore is double covered after he burned the Commanders for 230 yards and 3 TDs.
Murphy must start playing like the $9 million, No. 1 cornerback he was signed to be after a lousy game in which he gave up two TD passes against the Chiefs.
There should be opportunities for Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport to get to Fields as he still tends to hold the ball and take sacks (20 in the first five games to rank third most this season after a league-leading 55 sacks taken last season).
7. Better clock management and use of timeouts and challenges: Coach Kevin O’Connell must get his play calls in more quickly to Cousins, and the defense also has to not burn timeouts by ensuring the proper personnel are in the game. O’Connell also made a bad challenge on a Travis Kelce catch last week, so the Vikings had no timeouts as the game wound down.
8. Make a big play on special teams: the fake punt play with Ty Chandler running for a first down to keep a drive alive was a great call. The Vikings need more big plays on special teams to turn the tide in these close games (all five games have been one-score, with the four losses by a total of 20 points).
9. Believe: Davenport said O’Connell’s message to the team is to keep the faith that they have the talent to win if they stop making so many miscues, especially with the turnovers.
It’s the first divisional game for the Vikings as defending NFC North champs. If they’re going to turn this season around, they need to sweep the Bears. I see a close game, but the Vikings are more talented. I predict Cousins and Hunter will make the key plays to lead a much-needed 23-20 victory.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The other game of most interest to the Vikings this week is 4-1 Detroit at 3-1 Tampa Bay. Baker Mayfield is one of the early surprises this season as he leads the surprising Bucs with a 101.5 passer rating (8th best in the league). He’s shown big improvement in cutting down his interceptions (only two so far). Tampa Bay is coming off their bye, and the Lions are dealing with many injuries, especially on their prolific offense. I think the Bucs win as a 3-point home underdog.
2. Unbeatens on road: San Francisco travels to Cleveland, and red-hot QB Brock Purdy (123.1 passer rating to lead the NFL and unbeaten in 10 regular season starts in his career) will face the league’s top-ranked defense. If Deshaun Watson remains out with a shoulder injury, the 49ers should win easily, and I expect them to win regardless of whether Watson plays, as the 49ers defense is outstanding and will shut down the Cleveland offense.
The Eagles are at the Jets, and Philly’s pass rush will force a couple of Zach Wilson interceptions while Jalen Hurts makes enough plays against a good Jets D to get the win. Both the 49ers and Eagles should improve to 6-0. These two teams meet in Philadelphia on December 3.
3. Other interesting matchups include 3-1 Seattle at seemingly revived Cincinnati (2-3 after their win in Arizona with Joe Burrow’s calf injury looking better). I pick the Bengals at home, and I expect Dallas to bounce back from their shellacking in San Fran (42-10 last Sunday) and win a close Monday night game at the L.A. Chargers.
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