CHICAGO – The Bears’ rise, from a 5-11 record to the top of the NFC North under first-year coach Matt Nagy, has been fueled by a creative offense and a defense that leads the league in points off turnovers.
If their 25-20 victory over the Vikings on Sunday night — which gave the Bears a 1½-game lead over Minnesota — turns out to be the catalyst for Chicago’s first division title since 2010, the Bears will be able to credit their best defensive attributes, more than their most positive offensive traits, for helping them topple the defending division champions.
The Vikings’ fourth loss of the season was more because of preventable outcomes than unpredicted ones. Despite gaining only 118 yards through three quarters, they stayed within striking distance into the fourth, where second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky committed some of the neophyte errors that came with his spellbinding mobility through Chicago’s 6-3 start.
But in the end, it was Kirk Cousins who made the mistake the Vikings couldn’t afford.
With the Vikings down 14-6 in the fourth quarter, Cousins tried to hit Laquon Treadwell on a corner route that turned into an interception after Eddie Jackson made a play on the ball, picking it off and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown that put Chicago up 22-6 after Trubisky hit his second two-point conversion pass of the night.
“I think with the coverage, the ball really should have gone to Stefon [Diggs] in the flat,” Cousins said. “I was trying to feel the demeanor of the defensive backs and playing fast. Obviously, I felt wrong. I thought maybe I could put it over there to Laquon, but the [right] throw was, I think, Stefon in the flat. I felt like the DB was squatting, but he really wasn’t. If he’s not squatting, that means the safety’s going to be in a different spot than where I maybe thought he’d be, and that led to the interception.”
The interception was Cousins’ second of the night, a third Vikings turnover to go with a Dalvin Cook fumble that ended a potential scoring drive late in the first quarter.
The Bears are now 7-3 and play at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Vikings (5-4-1) will again play on Sunday night next week, at U.S. Bank Stadium against a Packers team whose playoff hopes are on life support.
The Vikings now have lost all three of their prime-time games against teams they are chasing in the NFC playoff standings. In those three games, the Vikings have turned the ball over six times.
“Yeah it’s definitely a concern,” coach Mike Zimmer said of the team making repeated mistakes. “Either they’re not listening or not paying attention or they don’t really care. So we’ll have to find out which one of the three that it is.”
Through two quarters, the Bears held the ball for 19:55, gaining 115 of their 202 first-half yards on the ground. Trubisky posted 37 yards on six attempts, with a 9-yard designed run coming among his scrambles, and the Bears’ misdirection helped create holes in the middle of the Vikings defense for Jordan Howard, who gained 46 yards on 10 first-half attempts.
After the Bears ran the ball — or Trubisky scrambled — on seven consecutive plays, the quarterback found Anthony Miller in the back of the end zone for a 18-yard touchdown before Nagy opted to go for two with the Bears up 9-0. Trubisky hit Josh Bellamy for the conversion, giving Chicago an 11-point lead it would extend to 14 with Cody Parkey’s second field goal with 50 seconds left in the first half.
While the Bears built their 14-0 lead, the Vikings managed only 77 first-half yards on 22 plays, with 43 of those yards coming on a two-minute drill that ended in a turnover as Cousins sailed a throw beyond tight end Kyle Rudolph while under pressure from Leonard Floyd and had it picked off by Adrian Amos.
The Vikings’ first points of the night didn’t come until the final minutes of the third quarter, after Trubisky forced a throw to Allen Robinson with Anthony Harris sitting over the top of the receiver. Harris made his second interception of the game, setting up a Dan Bailey field goal after a first-down sack from Khalil Mack and third-down pressure from Akiem Hicks and Floyd stalled the drive.
The Vikings forced a punt after Bailey’s second field goal with 11:46 remaining, but on their first offensive play, Cousins threw his interception to Jackson.
“The reasons we lost, you could argue, Coach Zimmer sat there on Monday morning and told us, ‘These are the keys to victory. We have to be good in these areas: Red zone offense, protecting the football, run the football well,’ ” Cousins said. “So the reasons we lost were no surprise to us in the sense that we knew they would be keys to victory and we weren’t good enough in those areas.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org