We've finally reached the end of the NFL's first-ever 17-game regular season, and Week 18 will feature a matchup between the two teams in the middle of the NFC North standings. The Chicago Bears (6-10) and the Minnesota Vikings (7-9) are both out of playoff contention, but they want to end the season with a win and head into the offseason on a high note.
The Bears played their final home game of 2021 last week, where they dominated on both sides of the ball in a win over the New York Giants. The Vikings played their last road game of the year last week but were no match for the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Both teams emptied the benches in the fourth quarter of that game. The Bears and Vikings both fell short of expectations this season, and both franchises could endure changes during the offseason. But for now, the Bears look to end the year on a season-high, three-game winning streak, while the Vikings look to end a two-game losing streak.
When these teams first met in Week 15, the Vikings dominated on defense and got the job done on offense in order to win that game 17-9. They took advantage of multiple Bears mistakes and benefited from the fact that the Bears were missing numerous players due to either injury or COVID-19. The Bears just couldn't get out of their own way that night, and the fact that they were without key players only made those issues even worse. But Minnesota hasn't won a game since then, while the Bears have gone unbeaten in that same timeframe. Expect both teams to fight for every inch on the field this Sunday.
Chicago (6-10) at Minnesota (7-9)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. What the Bears are playing for
Aside from wanting to finish the season with its longest winning streak of the season, there are other reasons why Chicago wants to win this game. A report surfaced again this week that 2021 will be Matt Nagy's final season as the Bears head coach. While that hasn't been confirmed, and it's been denied by Nagy himself, the feeling is that the Bears will go in a different direction in 2022. But there's been some buzz that Nagy could get one more chance should the Bears finish the year by winning out. So if Nagy isn't coaching to save his job, perhaps he's hoping that this game could help him land his next job wherever that may be.
Furthermore, the Bears don't own their first-round pick, which was dealt to the Giants in the trade that netted them Justin Fields. So there's less incentive to tank to improve their draft position.
The Bears also have over 30 pending free agents heading into the offseason, so they'll be playing for their next contracts. If they can't convince the Bears to re-sign them, they'll be looking to put something on tape to land a roster spot elsewhere. Sunday's game was originally supposed to mark the latest chapter in Fields' development, as Nagy announced that he would start now that he's been cleared from the ankle injury that slowed him down over the last couple of weeks. But Fields was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday, putting this start in serious doubt.
And Matt Nagy made it official on Friday, saying that Andy Dalton would start against Minnesota with Nick Foles, who led the team to a come-from-behind win in Seattle two weeks ago, serving as the backup. Dalton is among those pending free agents looking for a new deal, while Foles — who was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season — probably wouldn't mind being a full-time starter again. In the grand scheme of things, the Bears are evaluating from top to bottom to see what changes will be made for next season.
When these teams last played three weeks ago, the Vikings' defense recorded three sacks on Fields. They haven't gotten one since then, and the Bears will need to find a way to exploit that. But they also need to cut down on the miscues (three turnovers in the last three games) and penalties (22 for 199 yards during those same three games), while the offensive line needs to keep who starts under center upright (allowed nine sacks in that span).
Outside linebacker Robert Quinn broke Richard Dent's long-standing single-season franchise sack record last week. His 18 sacks this year has only been outdone by Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt (21.5). Quinn will have a chance to add to his own total on Sunday against a Vikings offensive line that's given up nine sacks over the last three weeks. He's listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, but he also practiced in full on Thursday and Friday, so he should be out there.
The Bears come into this game as a mixed bag on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they are fifth from the bottom in total offense (304.3 ypg), dead last in passing (183.8 ypg), and 26th in scoring (18.4 ppg). The one thing the Bears have always done well is run the ball, where they rank 11th (120.5 ypg).
Defensively the Bears are slightly better, as they give up the fifth-fewest yards per game (315.8 ypg) and own the NFL's third-best pass defense (189.4 ypg). But they've struggled against the run this season (126.4 ypg, 24th), and they haven't exactly been able to keep teams off the scoreboard (23.5 ppg, tied for 16th). They are, however, tied for third in sacks (46), and they're 12th in the NFC in takeaways (16). Sticking with the run and maximizing their pass rush is the Bears' path to victory on Sunday.
2. What the Vikings are playing for
In addition to wanting to send the fans home happy to some extent — they've won two of their last three home games — the Vikings are also playing for the future to a degree. The fans have made it known that they want a change at head coach, whether or not the team does so remains to be seen. The Vikings' recent shortcomings are well documented — they fell below expectations this season — and the fans have had enough. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has also carried some of the blame.
Speaking of Cousins, he's expected to be back in the lineup this week after missing last week's game because he was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Both Sean Mannion and rookie Kellen Mond took snaps in Green Bay, and they combined to complete 25-of-39 passes for 194 yards. Mannion did throw a third-quarter touchdown pass, but he was also sacked twice. They've also had issues running the ball (93 rushing yards and just one rush TD in the last two games combined), and like the Bears, the Vikings have also had issues with both injuries and the pandemic.
Minnesota will look to reignite their pass rush against the Bears struggling offensive line, and they need their offense to sustain long drives to wear out Chicago's defense in order to be successful on Sunday. While they don't have as many glaring question marks as the Bears do, this will be a team you need to pay attention to during the offseason.
The Vikings offense ranks 13th in total yards per game (364.8 ypg), 11th in passing offense (250.7 ypg), and 14th in scoring offense (24.6 ppg). But they haven't run the ball as effectively as they were capable of at the start of the season (114.1 ypg, 15th). The defense, which is normally a strength of head coach Mike Zimmer, has seen better seasons.
Heading into this game, the Vikings are second to last in total defense (385.4 ypg), 26th against the pass (252.1 ypg), 27th vs. the run (133.3 ypg), and 20th in scoring defense (25.6 ppg). But they are fifth in sacks (44). The Vikings have 22 pending free agents to consider as well. Both teams have somewhat similar issues heading into this game.
3. Offseason outlook
Barring anything unexpected happening, all signs point to the Bears getting a new head coach in 2022. But could a new general manager go along with that? Could finishing the season with three straight wins be enough to save the jobs of Nagy and/or general manager Ryan Pace? Only time will tell.
And considering the amount of pending free agents the Bears have, could some roster changes be in store as well? There's a cloud of uncertainty surrounding this team at the moment, but what this team can control is whether or not they enter the offseason victorious and perhaps save some jobs in the process.
There's been some buzz about possible changes for the Vikings this coming offseason, and the fans certainly want something to happen after this team's shortcomings in recent seasons. But if changes are to be made, do they give Zimmer another chance and just make changes to personnel? Or do they make wholesale changes as many expect to happen with the Bears? After Sunday, we should get a better idea about which direction these teams take for 2022.
The Vikings have the upper hand in this rivalry with an all-time record of 62-57-2. They won the first meeting with the Bears this year, which took place at Solider Field just three weeks ago. But the Bears have won three of the last five games in this series, including each of the last two games at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings are 4-3 on their home field this season and have won two of their last three home games as previously mentioned. But at the same time, the Bears have won two of their last three games away from Soldier Field.
Overall, however, the Vikings have won seven of their last 12 home games dating back to last season. The Bears, on the other hand, are 5-9 in their last 14 road games dating back to 2020. Minnesota uses their home-field advantage to pick up a close win before both teams head into the offseason figuring out what's next.
Prediction: Vikings 17, Bears 14
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.