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Vikings vs. Bears Week 17 Preview: Binary

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The Vikings will look back on their 2018 regular season finale in one of two ways: “won” or “zero.”

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Kirk Cousins and Mitchell Trubisky have been anything but predictable this season. Their play could dictate the fate of the Vikings and Bears over the next couple weeks.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past nine years, I have been asked innumerable times about how I became a Vikings blogger. While there is no “typical” path one takes to the lofty heights of sporadically read and mildly tolerated internet writing I have achieved, I suppose you would say my route wasn’t particularly unique. I just started writing one day in the FanPost section of a fledgling Vikings fan site with a quirky name. When the head writer put out a call for additional help because the site was expanding into a network called “SB Nation,” I threw my hat into the ring. Yada yada yada, fast forward nearly a decade later, and somehow I’m still writing about the Vikings for an audience of dozens. The team even lets me pretend to be a journalist from time to time. It’s pretty neat.

How I got started is nothing new. Most people cut their teeth by simply writing and writing until a decent amount of people actually start reading it. However, my writing background is rather unique for most people that share my side hustle (or better yet, have turned it into an actual career). I never had an internship or entry-level job with any sort of publication or multimedia company. I never went to school for Journalism or English or anything even remotely related to writing. In fact, my education was about as far removed as one could get from sports writing: I graduated with a degree in Computer Science.

Oddly enough, I have actually ended up writing a ton of content for my day job. I’m a Senior Information Developer, which is a fancy title for “Technical Writer that also does Project Management.” But the writing there couldn’t be much different than what I do in this space. Here, I can butcher be liberal with the English language, go off on tangents, and use silly humor as a crutch fun way to mix things up. At work, I have to be as concise, consistent, and clear as humanly possible. There isn’t exactly a ton of room for puns or sarcasm when you’re writing about code for content that will be translated into over a dozen languages. I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to this style of writing in my “free” time. It’s a great dichotomy of discourse that allows me to work the other side of my brain after being in Programmer Nerd Mode for 40 hours a week.

But for the 2018 Minnesota Vikings regular season finale, I don’t even have to switch out of Programmer Nerd Mode. The situation is as simple and straightforward as the “Hello, World!” program. Win, you’re in. Lose, you’re (most likely) out. After fifteen games that have had more ups and downs than a sine wave, everything rests on one Boolean function Sunday afternoon. Add 1 to the win column: live to fight another week. If not, the season is over.

Allow me to elaborate in a way that fellow programmers will understand:

import java.lang.Math;

public class Playoffs {
public static void main(String args[]) {
System.out.println(“Playoffs = “ + bearsGame());
}

public static boolean bearsGame() {
int vikings = (int)(Math.random() * 50);
int bears = (int)(Math.random() * 50);
if(vikings >= bears){
System.out.println(“Vikings: “ + vikings + “ Bears: “ + bears);
return true;
}
else{
System.out.println(“Vikings: “ + vikings + “ Bears: “ + bears);
return false;
}
}
}

In case you were wondering—yes, that is actual code. It generates a random score between 0 and 50 for each team and tells you whether the Vikings made the playoffs based on the score. It compiles and everything; try it out!

A programming background isn’t required to know that the Vikings will need to play much better than they did in their Week 11 matchup at Soldier Field to earn a rematch in Chicago next week. The Vikings offense had five first downs, three punts, two turnovers, and zero points in the first half of that contest. The running game never got going and the passing game only got going after the Vikings were down by two scores in the fourth quarter. It was a thorough domination by the Bears defense that signaled the unexpected passing of the torch for NFC North supremacy.

The Vikings offense was absolutely miserable for the majority of the day because three of their four Pro Bowl defenders had huge days. Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack terrorized Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota offense throughout the evening to the tune of ten total pressures. a sack, and a forced fumble. Eddie Jackson didn’t allow a catch and had a pick six that turned out to be the game-winning score. The Vikings might be catching a break this time around because Jackson has yet to practice this week. Chicago’s ace slot corner Bryce Callahan has also been placed on Injured Reserve, so Minnesota’s passing game might be able to enjoy a little more success on Sunday.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who’s playing in the secondary if Cousins is still running for his life. The Bears had 24 total pressures in Week 11, led by Mack firing around the edge and Hicks wreaking havoc in the middle. As I stated in my preview for the first game, Mack has been collecting all the headlines and is a deserving Defensive MVP candidate. Meanwhile, Hicks remains one of the best players in the league, especially when it comes to publicity-to-performance ratio. I went back through most of the Bears games this season and could only find one where Hicks wasn’t an absolute force. Surprisingly, it was the Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions. It was the only game in 2018 where Hicks wasn’t credited with a pressure and he wasn’t nearly as disruptive as he usually is in the run game. On the ground, Detroit double teamed Hicks a lot and had some success running away from him to the outside. Novel concepts, right?

As Chad Graff wrote for The Athletic this week, the Vikings’ dedication to the run game will be tested in a big way on Sunday. Chicago’s run defense is a huge step up from the Miami and Detroit teams that the Vikings ran for 320 yards against at a 4.7 yard per carry clip over the past two weeks. Basic run plays probably won’t get the job done on their own. I noticed another wrinkle Detroit employed in Week 12 that the Vikings should utilize more: play action. Since Kevin Stefanski took over two weeks ago, Cousins’ play action percentage has already jumped 1.5% for the year. His current mark of 20.1% is still only 26th in the league among qualifying quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus, but at least it’s trending in the right direction. Getting the ball-hawking Bears defense to hesitate for even a bit could be the difference between success and disaster.

One final wrinkle I wouldn’t mind the Vikings trying out on Sunday: putting Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray on the field at the same time for a handful of plays. According to the NFL lineup detail statistics, Cook and Murray have played exactly one snap together this season, which seems odd considering how their talents compliment each other. Putting them out there together might be a good way for Stefanski to catch the Bears off guard.

While Chicago’s defense remains the backbone of their success this season, their offense has continued to make strides with Mitchell Trubisky. After a brutal Week 14 game where the Bears won in spite of Trubisky’s horrific play, he has gone 45 of 57 for 481 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions over the past two weeks. The Bears are extremely tough to beat when Trubisky avoids making the big mistakes. Hell, they’re still pretty tough to beat when he screws up—just ask the Rams and Vikings. But the odds are much more in your favor when you can force “Bad Mitch” to make an appearance.

Pressuring Trubisky into mistakes has been easier said than done this season. As Sam Monson of PFF pointed out, the Bears offensive line has allowed the fewest pressures in the NFL:

There’s even a chance that the Bears could be getting a key piece of their line back. Kyle Long has been practicing this week and could play for the first time since Week 8. Long would be a big upgrade over Bryan Witzmann at right guard. Even if Long doesn’t play Sunday, having him back for the playoffs should be a huge boost for Chicago.

Even if the Vikings don’t rack up a ton of sacks on Sunday, Trubisky and the Bears should be hard pressed to rack up a ton of yards through the air. Minnesota’s pass defense has been stingier than Ebeneezer Scrooge before the ghosts showed up over the past few weeks. The Vikings haven’t allowed a passing touchdown in 37 consecutive opponent drives. They’re allowing 78 net yards passing per game over the past three weeks. Since Drew Brees passed to Alvin Kamara for a touchdown in the first quarter of their game in Week 9, Vikings opponents have more defensive touchdowns (four) than passing touchdowns (three). Those numbers are patently absurd. If leading receiver Allen Robinson can’t go this week because of his sore ribs, that makes Trubisky’s task even more difficult.

Even if the Vikings neutralize Chicago’s passing attack, they still have to be wary of Trubisky using his legs. His scrambling kept multiple scoring drives alive and demoralized an otherwise solid defensive effort in Week 11. Keeping Trubisky contained on the ground could be a much bigger challenge than limiting his passing yardage.

Tackling will be extremely important for the Vikings defense, and not just when it comes to the quarterback. They kept Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard in check for most of the night in their first meeting and they’ll need a repeat performance of that on Sunday. The Bears ground game has been rather pedestrian most of the year; PFF has them ranked 29th in their rushing grade and Football Outsiders puts them at 19th in rushing DVOA. Chicago is 28th in the league in yards per attempt, which actually trails the Vikings. Like Denny Green said all those years ago, the Bears are who we thought they were on offense. As long as the Vikings don’t let ‘em off the hook with turnovers and field position, I don’t anticipate Chicago putting up yards or points in bunches.

If the Vikings sputter in the first half like they did in their game in Chicago and their game in Detroit last week, it could effectively end their season. Let’s say the game in Los Angeles isn’t going the Bears’ way in terms of securing them a first round bye. Matt Nagy has already discussed “being smart” about sitting players in that scenario. If the Vikings can jump out to an early lead, I would suspect that Chicago would sit some starters to avoid injury and employ conservative play calling to save some surprises for the playoffs. But what if Chicago is already up a couple scores at the break like they were back in November? Wouldn’t they rather just finish off the Vikings for good instead of letting them back up off the mat?

Even with the Bears likely to be missing a couple key pieces that hurt the Vikings last time around, that worst-case scenario remains a very real possibility. But after the loss at Soldier Field, I predicted the Vikings would take the exact path they have taken thus far: a win over Green Bay, losses to New England and Seattle, wins over Miami and Detroit, all leading up to this must-win game on Sunday. I predicted a Week 17 win that leads to a rematch in the Wild Card round back then, so I might as well stick to my guns now. This Vikings team, especially Cousins and the defense, has performed much better at home for most of the season. I think that will be enough to defeat a Bears squad that might know their playoff seeding well before the final whistle.

If not, the Vikings will have to do some major debugging to their program in an offseason that came much earlier than we expected at the beginning of the year.

Prediction

Vikings 23, Bears 17


And now for the rest of my Week 17 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Falcons over BUCCANEERS

A friendly reminder: the early slate is full of largely meaningless games, like this one. Take a little extra time on Sunday morning to check off a few items from the honey-do list. Rack up some brownie points so you can spend the late afternoon fully unencumbered.

BILLS over Dolphins

If the Vikings end up missing the playoffs, you don’t need to look any further than the Week 3 loss to the Bills. But at least if Buffalo finishes strong on Sunday, that loss doesn’t look quite as bad as we originally thought it would.

GIANTS over Cowboys

Dallas is locked into the fourth seed no matter what, so I’ll take Eli Manning to win what better damn well be his last game as a Giant.

PACKERS over Lions

Pat McAfee is announcing this game, so don’t be surprised when your buddy that’s a little too into Barstool is tweeting like crazy about this game.

PATRIOTS over Jets

Wow, that was close. We almost saw New England have to play on Wild Card Weekend. Good thing they had a couple AFC East doormats to close out the regular season again.

SAINTS over Panthers

TED-DY! TED-DY! TED-DY! TED-DY!

TEXANS over Jaguars

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 11-5 after the Cowboys clinched against the Bucs last week. By the way: THANKS FOR NOTHING LAST WEEK, HOUSTON.

STEELERS over Bengals

I love how Pittsburgh has to depend on the Cleveland Browns to win on the road to make the playoffs. And somehow it isn’t completely out of the question.

RAVENS over Browns

I’m still picking Baltimore though. I mean, when have they ever blown a chance at the playoffs in a Week 17 home game against a division rival with nothing to play for?

Well, BESIDES last year?

Chargers over BRONCOS

Speaking of this week’s binary theme: Los Angeles is either the first seed with a bye and no road playoff games or the fifth seed with no bye and a likelihood of nothing but road playoff games. The NFL playoff structure can be so damn weird.

CHIEFS over Raiders

Yeah, the Chargers are gonna be the fifth seed. There is no way that K.C. loses this one.

RAMS over 49ers

C’mon, Rams. Do us a solid here. Put this game away early. You haven’t exactly come through when the Vikings have needed you the past few weeks; now would be a great time to remedy that.

Eagles over REDSKINS

I am all about getting this pick wrong and backing into the playoffs with eight wins like it was 2004 all over again. But I won’t get this wrong because December/January/February Nick Foles is the greatest football player of all time.

SEAHAWKS over Cardinals

Sure, this season was a gigantic disappointment for Arizona. But they’re only like 17 or 18 pieces away from being a playoff contender next year.

Colts over TITANS

Thank the football gods for this game. If the Vikings had to play for their playoff lives on Sunday Night Football, I’d feel about 50% less confident. (And I’m only about 51% confident about picking them to begin with.)

Last week: 12-4
Season so far: 150-88-2