Beginning of the end? Vikings finish season 8-9 after win over Bears; await decisions

·6 min read
Star Tribune/TNS

The final snap of the Vikings' 2021 campaign was the first and only one Kirk Cousins would take in victory formation at U.S. Bank Stadium this season.

The quarterback dropped to a knee to kill the final 24 seconds of a comeback against the Bears, securing a 31-17 victory that would leave the Vikings (who had already been eliminated from the playoffs) at least able to say they closed as winners. But fans booed the team's decision not to give Justin Jefferson one more shot at breaking Randy Moss' team record for receiving yards in a season.

What a fitting final scene for this disenchanting Vikings season, where a talented roster talked boldly at the beginning of the season, offered teases of excellence at times but ultimately took up residence with the NFC's eight other also-rans, unable to make the expanded playoff field for the second consecutive season.

If Sunday was the final game for coach Mike Zimmer, who after the game stood at the goal line trying to line up a picture with the team's two defensive coordinators (his close friend Andre Patterson and his son Adam Zimmer), he departed at least able to say he never lost 10 games in a season. He had taken charge of a franchise that had done it three times in four years before he arrived.

Zimmer said he had not heard anything from the Wilfs, who watched Sunday's game from their suite at U.S. Bank Stadium, about his job status. "Not my choice," he said, "not my decision."

Between the way he left the field on Sunday, though, and his remarks to players in the Vikings' Saturday night meeting, the coach seemed to be taking it all in.

"I think I told them last night, maybe in the meeting, that I appreciate the way this team goes about their business," Zimmer said. "We don't have a lot of — I can't say the word I'm wanting to say — but we don't have a lot of guys that they're just cashing checks. They're trying to get better each and every day."

The Vikings were much better in the second half than they were in the first, when they had negative passing yards until Cousins completed throws of 25 and 40 yards on the final drive of the first half.

Their first four possessions totaled 22 yards on 18 plays, with Zimmer unleashing a more vulgar version of Vince Lombardi's famous exasperated sideline exclamation as he called a timeout before a third down in the second quarter.

The first round of boos arrived in the second quarter from a half-empty stadium. With the Vikings down 14-0, their game production crew resorted to old favorites to focus fans' angst elsewhere. Several shots of a woman in an Aaron Rodgers jersey drew jeers from the fans, and a brief display of the Lions-Packers score — which showed Green Bay down by a point in the first half, a week after beating the Vikings 37-10 at Lambeau Field — drew the biggest cheers of the day to that point.

Down 14-3 to begin the third quarter, the Vikings opened the second half by running Dalvin Cook three consecutive times for 34 yards, and Cousins hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 44-yard TD to pull the Vikings within four.

The Bears appeared to answer with a touchdown on their next drive when Andy Dalton eluded D.J. Wonnum on a third-down scramble to the end zone, but officials ruled Dalton's knee hit the ground before he slipped past Cameron Dantzler on his way to the goal line.

On fourth-and-goal from the Vikings' 1, the Bears opted for a play-action pass that got Dalton sacked. But even after the Vikings gained 9 yards on first down, they went three-and-out on their next possession, with Cook losing 2 yards and Cousins getting sacked as he stayed in a collapsing pocket on third down.

The Bears drove for a field goal to make it 17-10 through three quarters, but Cousins hit Jefferson for a game-tying 45-yard score, which the receiver caught easily in the end zone after Bears safety Eddie Jackson got lost on the play with 13:39 remaining.

"They played a corner blitz and the safety was on top," Jefferson said. "I was supposed to run a post, but he was just standing in the middle of the field so I just ran a go ball. After I scored, Kirk was like, 'Just throw it up, right?' I was like, 'Yeah, that's all you've got to do.' [Jackson] didn't see the ball. It was a great job by Kirk giving me an opportunity to go make a play. Scored and got in the end zone."

It was at that point the focus turned to Jefferson breaking the record of 1,632 yards Moss set in 2003, with updates about Jefferson's yardage total flashing on the stadium's video boards after every catch.

Cousins said afterward he'd talked all week with Jefferson about trying to help him break the mark. When Jefferson and K.J. Osborn ran deep crossing routes on the Vikings' next possession, Jefferson put his hand up in the right side of the end zone as Cousins looked Osborn's way. The quarterback hit Osborn in between four Bears defenders for a 24-17 lead.

"I was kind of feeling that they were likely going to lean to Justin and double him so the odds-on favorite would be to work K.J.," Cousins said. "And honestly, K.J. was far more covered than Justin was. In hindsight, if I could hit the reset button, yeah, I would love to hit 'JJ' there, get the record and a touchdown for him. But a great play by K.J. as well."

On the Bears' next drive, they faced another fourth-and-1 from their own 49, and Dalton, trying to flee pressure, heaved the ball into traffic, where Patrick Peterson got his first interception of the season. He brought it back 66 yards for a decisive touchdown that gave the Vikings a 31-17 lead with 4:54 to play.

After Peterson's interception, Cousins threw incomplete for Jefferson on first down of the next possession. The Vikings ran on second and third down, with Alexander Mattison losing 4 yards and Kene Nwangwu gaining 4 on a third-and-14 handoff.

On their final possession, the Vikings took over at the Chicago 31 after the Bears turned the ball over on downs, but Cousins handed off to Mattison for 8 yards on first down, as fans chanted for one more throw to Jefferson.

Asked if he was aware Jefferson was only 16 yards short of the record, Zimmer said, "Yes. I was. I don't care about records. All I care about is wins." Did Jefferson care about it? "I don't know. Maybe," Zimmer said. "You'd have to ask him."

With the Vikings playing a 17-game schedule, the receiver figures to get more chances to break Moss' record, especially if future Minnesota teams develop a more coherent approach to the passing game than this one did.

On Sunday, though, Jefferson fell a bit short, a fitting totem for a Vikings team that did so all season.

"Certainly a lot of close losses," Cousins said. "And we did feel in so many games we were right there. It wouldn't have taken much, and I'm sure most teams are saying that. I do think this year was unique in how close we were in so many games."