At first, it was a red alert, everyone-abandon-ship kind of night. The Vikings had turned in two clunkers against Arizona and Carolina, but make no mistake about it: They appeared to be heading for their worst game yet. The Vikings were shut out in the first half, as Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson's protection was nonexistent and any attempts to establish the run were laughable. Meanwhile, Jay Cutler was playing excellent football.
But then something happened. After a horrendous showing in the first two quarters that left the Vikings behind 16-0, the offense suddenly opened up. Brett was running the show. He had more options than he did in the first half. Adrian was running the football like a man with something to prove -- and although he failed to break any big runs, he was running angry in the second half and was quite effective. A team that appeared dead was taking the game to overtime, and there was new life breathed into the offense.
Unfortunately, while the Favre-led charge was enough to tie the game, it wasn't enough to steal the win. And when handing out the blame, the special teams belong at the top of the list. Danieal Manning was running wild on kickoffs, with one of his returns being particularly costly for the Vikings. An Adrian Peterson touchdown knotted the game at 23-23, but on the ensuing kickoff, Manning returned it for 59 yards and set up a Cutler touchdown toss two plays later. And that brings up another key problem: The pass defense.
For much of the game, Cutler had his way with the Vikings defense. On one hand, the pass rush didn't get much traction until later in the game -- Jared Allen might as well have been on the inactive list. But the issues in the secondary are also starting to get more attention, particularly the lackluster play from the safeties and continuing problems with missed tackles. The tackling was particularly awful in the first half, with Cutler breaking out of a Madieu Williams tackle on one play and Matt Forte breaking out of numerous tackles on another. And then there's Antoine Winfield, who absolutely got torched on the final play of overtime by Devin Aromashodu.
Aside from the defensive mishaps and shoddy kickoff coverage, quite a bit of attention will clearly center on Adrian Peterson's fumble in overtime. There were bigger reasons that the Vikings lost this game, but that fumble put the Bears in position to win the game. Take away the fumble and the result certainly could have flipped.
But because of the slow start, because of Cutler's big game, and because of the poor performance by the Vikings special teams, this team has now lost three of its last four. The Vikings lost out on their chance to capture the top seed in the NFC, and they no longer control their own destiny in the race for a first round bye in the playoffs. Quite a fall for this team -- but the second half of this game shows that there are still reasons for optimism.
When Brett Favre is given options, when he is given control, and when he can spread things out, this offense remains dangerous. When the Vikings can generate a pass rush and when they can actually tackle, they are a serviceable defensive unit. For a team that was collapsing in the first half, they came alive in the second.
There were a few telling moments. Favre waving off the goal line unit when the Vikings advanced inside the five yardline, and getting visibly frustrated when Chilly sent them in anyway. On the next play, Chester Taylor was stuffed at the line. Later in the game, the Vikings once again advanced near the goal line and Favre once again waved off the goal line unit. This time, Chilly let Favre do things his own way. Adrian scored on the next play.
The lesson? Brett Favre is his own man. Let him be his own man. Give him options and flexibility.
This is hardly the ideal way to be entering the playoffs, as the Vikings have clearly been on the decline throughout the past four weeks. Here's hoping their comeback on a cold night in Chicago, although ultimately unsuccessful, provides some momentum and some important lessons. With the potential loss of a first round bye on the horizon, there's no time to waste in figuring this thing out and turning the page on a tough month of December.