Chadiha: Vikings have reemerged as legit playoff contender

The NFC has been such a roller-coaster ride that it’s fitting to see Minnesota reemerging as a legitimate playoff contender.

The Vikings have been beaten up, written off and yet somehow they’re still lingering around the postseason discussion, especially after their Monday night win over Chicago. This was a last-place team just a few weeks ago. Now it’s a squad hitting its stride at an incredibly opportunistic moment.

It’s easy to come away from Minnesota’s 19-13 win over Chicago with the sense that the Bears are in free-fall.

The smarter move would be to focus on what’s been happening with the Vikings.

Our natural urge is to always stare at the wreck on the side of the road. The people who so often do that tend to ignore everything else that is happening around them.

It’s becoming quite apparent that the Vikings, the same team that was 1-5 at one point, is about to go on a run. They’ve won three straight games and they’ve got three more winnable contests coming up on the schedule. That’s why this victory over Chicago was so crucial to Minnesota’s season. It kept the Vikings moving in the right direction in a season that once seemed lost before it ever really got started.

“Just keep fighting – that’s all we do,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They weren’t tight before (this) game. They seem to practice hard. One thing we’ve been emphasizing the last few weeks is not allowing a completion in practice. Maybe that’s starting to show up – the competition part. Honestly, it’s three games. We’re fighting our way back into this thing. We still have a lot of football left to play and hopefully we can keep it going.”

There basically are two key reasons why the Vikings should be feeling so good about where they sit at this point in the season. The first is that the NFC is a crap shoot right now. The best teams in this conference can look great one week and downright mystifying the next. We know there has to be four divisional champions that qualify for the postseason, but the wild-card race will be as entertaining as it gets in this conference.

The Vikings have put themselves in a great position over the past three weeks.

Next up they’ll see Dallas, Carolina and Jacksonville, all teams that are sitting well under .500. The Panthers are the toughest opponent in that bunch, but it’s hard to know if quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be available after sustaining a sprained knee in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay. The Cowboys and Jaguars have just three wins between them.

The second reason for Minnesota’s optimism is talent. Unlike the Bears – who amassed a mind-boggling 149 total yards on Monday night – the Vikings have some serious weapons on offense. Running back Dalvin Cook is making a serious case for AP Offensive Player of the Year honors. Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson is in the running for AP Offensive Rookie of the Year while veteran targets like wide receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph have played in the Pro Bowl.

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Yes, the Vikings defense isn’t as stout as it once was, particularly when it comes to the pass rush. But this is a unit that even seems to be finding itself at the right time. Minnesota has only allowed 18.3 points over their last three games. They were surrendering an average of 32 points per contest prior to that.

The Bears converted only two of 11 third downs on Monday night, which factored heavily into Minnesota possessing the football for nearly 36 minutes.

“The intangible is the energy we decide to bring before we show up to whatever stadium it is,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s a goofy year for everybody. We’re starting to have a feeling of how to make our own energy and our own confidence. We’re starting to figure it out a little bit.”

“They’re starting to mature a little bit and they’re obviously getting a little bit of confidence now,” Zimmer added. “It’s been the last three games where the other team has had the ball with a chance to win the game and we’ve been able to put the fire out. The more times you do that, the more you believe you can do it.”

The Vikings obviously are finding energy in all sorts of places.

Cook, for example, has been a workhorse in the Vikings’ four wins, averaging 27 carries and nearly 149 yards in those contests while scoring seven touchdowns.

Jefferson has been just as inspiring. He produced a key 54-yard catch in the third quarter of that Monday night game that ignited the Vikings offense and led to a field goal that tied the game at 13.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins did his part, as well. He completed 25 of 36 passes for 292 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

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“It’s fun to get so many players involved,” Cousins said. “We have confidence in so many players to be able to spread it around and show defenses they have to honor a lot of different eligible (receivers). We’re not going to abandon the run game. Even when it’s been an uphill battle running the football, we’re still going to commit to it and use it as the foundation of our system. So it was important to churn out those hard-fought yards when we could (against the Bears).”

One of the more well-known facts coming into this contest was that Cousins had never won a game played on Monday night. It also happened to be one of the most overrated statistics still hovering around his career. Cousins proved he could win a big game when he led Minnesota to a wild-card playoff win in New Orleans last January. He didn’t need a victory in this contest to validate himself even more.

The Bears, on the other hand, are falling apart with each passing week. This was once a team that stood at the opposite end of the NFL spectrum, as its 5-1 start suggested it had the chops to ride a brilliant defense to the postseason. All Bears have done since, while enduring four straight losses, is remind us that quarterbacks mean everything in this league. They’ve gone with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles and they still haven’t found one who can generate points on a consistent basis.

The sight of Foles being carted off in the fourth quarter of this game — with some type of leg or hip injury, according to Bears head coach Matt Nagy — only added injury to insult. Cousins and Smith both started their press conferences expressing their concern for Foles. They also both spoke to the sudden maturation of this Minnesota team. Just as the Bears are spiraling, they see how the Vikings are moving in the right direction.

“As the season goes on, you figure out who you are, how you play, who you lean on,” Cousins said. “It’s been nice to figure ourselves out and find an identity as we play through things. Just like I said at the bye week when we had 10 games left, these 10 games will tell the story. Even after three wins, it feels like the next game or the next three will tell the story.”

The good thing for Minnesota is that the story is getting better with each passing week.

They’ve shown their resilience and the schedule is breaking in their favor these days.

That’s a good place to be if you’re the Vikings. It means January could be a lot more fun than it ever appeared just over a month ago.

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