The bye week is officially over for the Minnesota Vikings. The team returned to practice on Wednesday as it faces a critical game Sunday night at the Chicago Bears.
The Bears, at 6-3, hold the slimmest of leads over the 5-3-1 Vikings in the NFC North Division. The Bears have won three straight games since losing to the New England Patriots 38-31 in Week 7. They dismantled the New York Jets 24-10 and the Buffalo Bills 41-9, then held off a late Detroit Lions charge last week in a 34-22 victory.
The Vikings recovered from a 30-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football with a 24-9 win over the Lions two weeks ago. This week’s game at Chicago, with the division lead at stake, has been flexed to national television and will be on Sunday Night Football again.
The Vikings continue a huge stretch after beating Detroit with another divisional game. They host the Packers Nov. 25 before hitting the road to face the Patriots Dec. 2.
Here are four keys to Sunday night’s game:
Contain Khalil Mack
It’s easier said than done, but the Vikings need to do whatever they can to keep Khallil Mack in check. Mack was traded to the Bears from the Raiders before the season started, and he’s been on a tear ever since when he’s been healthy. Mack missed one game and was limited in other with an ankle injury, but all indications are he’ll play Sunday. He can make life a nightmare for Kirk Cousins and the offensive line.
Mack has 25 tackles and seven sacks on the season. He also has an interception, two pass deflections, four forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown. He’s virtually unstoppable when he wants to be. The Vikings offensive line will need to have its best game of the season, because if you let Mack get going, he will destroy your offense and never let it get going.
Get Injured Players Back
The Vikings were awfully banged up despite beating the Detroit Lions 24-9. The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. The Vikings were without Stefon Diggs, Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Barr, Tom Compton and Roc Thomas among key players. They’ll need to get healthy, especially Diggs, Sendejo and Barr, before Sunday night’s game at Chicago.
Diggs was optimistic heading into the bye week about playing at Chicago, but we don’t know yet what the status will be for Sendejo and Barr. If they practice in any capacity this week, that’s a great sign that they’ll be in uniform Sunday night. Diggs returned to practice Wednesday, Barr was back Thursday but Sendejo remained absent. They’ll need all hands on deck to claim the division lead with six games to play.
Get the Run Game Going
One way to limit Khalil Mack from terrorizing the Vikings’ offense is to establish the run game early and often. It’s something the Vikings have largely struggled with this season. They’re No. 28 in the NFL at 91.7 yards per game. That’s right, only four teams are worse than the Vikings at running the ball. The Vikings are averaging 4.2 yards per carry, but they’re not running the ball consistently enough to have it be a threat.
They only have one 100-yard rusher on the season. Latavius Murray went for 155 yards against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Vikings will need to run the ball effectively, and get the ball out of Cousins’ hands quickly to keep the ball moving.
Take Advantage of Bears Secondary
There are opportunities to be had in the passing game against the Bears if Kirk Cousins can get time to throw. The Bears are ranked No. 20 in the NFL in pass defense, allowing more than 235 yards per game on average and have allowed 17 touchdowns in nine games. But they also lead the NFL with 16 interceptions. So they take chances, and they can make plays.
It sets up the potential for Cousins to have a big day, if he can get enough time to see his receivers get open. He’s currently seventh in the NFL overall and averaging 298 yards per game. He’s got 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He’s completing more than 71 percent of his passes, but has also been sacked 24 times and has issues with fumbling under pressure. If he stays upright and gets time to keep his eyes downfield, he’s poised to have a big day.
The Vikings have a chance to make a statement on the national stage Sunday night. A victory gives them the division lead and the inside track to a playoff spot. But the Vikings also have a history of not playing well in the national spotlight, especially in Chicago on the long turf.