Pelissero: In need of 'A' game in playoff race, Vikings drop 'F' bomb
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CHICAGO -- If this is the best the Minnesota Vikings can do with their biggest game in three years, the season won't be over on Dec. 30.
The season will be over two weeks from now, after two more NFC North Division drubbings to match Sunday's 28-10 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears.
"Against a team like Chicago, in Chicago, you have to play a pretty flawless game," Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We turned the ball over three times. We weren't good on third down, weren't good in the red zone.
"We didn't take advantage of the opportunities we had. We didn't take advantage of the opportunity this game was."
The Vikings had an extra week to prepare, thanks to the bye after a 34-24 win over Detroit on Nov. 11. The Bears had just six days to recover from a 32-7 drubbing on Monday night in San Francisco.
Yet it was Chicago that came with a plan to win and executed it to near perfection after a shaky first 2 minutes the visitors easily could have leveraged into boos from the partisan crowd of 62,306 at Soldier Field.
Jerome Simpson's third-down drop left the Vikings with a field goal to show for Chad Greenway's fumble recovery. Nick Roach stripped Adrian Peterson on the first play of the Vikings' next series, Charles Tillman recovered and Michael Bush's 1-yard touchdown plunge gave Chicago a 7-3 lead it didn't relinquish.
"It was bad from the start," Vikings end Jared Allen said. "We got a quick turnover, they hold us to three and I think it went downhill from there."
The Bears used short passes and extra blockers to protect Cutler, who kept shuffling away from pressure, waited for his receivers to find soft spots in the Vikings' zones and delivered a handful of sensational throws in his return from a concussion.
He finished 23-of-31 passing (74.2%) for 188 yards and took only one sack -- five fewer than backup Jason Campbell took against the 49ers -- on a foot fault despite losing two guards to injury and finishing with only three healthy receivers.
"We were straight chasing (Cutler)," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "But he would just back up instead of stepping up into the line. They wasn't going to let the dogs get turned loose on him like last week. That's the bottom line.
"The 49ers took advantage of them, having to come back from so many points down. They kept the game manageable and wasn't going to let us get after the quarterback."
About the only thing that went wrong for the Bears offensively the rest of the half was Cutler's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson, backing the Bears into a field goal that made it 10-3 late in the first quarter.
Julius Peppers blocked Blair Walsh's 30-yard field-goal attempt. Brandon Marshall, who racked up 12 catches for 92 yards, drew a curious pass-interference penalty on Antoine Winfield to set up another Bush score from 1 yard out.
Punter Adam Podlesh walked in a two-point conversion on a well-designed fake. Ponder airmailed Devin Aromashodu on a dig route, Chris Conte intercepted, Matt Spaeth made a sprawling, 13-yard touchdown catch and the Bears were rolling 25-3 by halftime.
"It's very difficult to win on the road against a team that thrives off of turnovers and you turn it over at some inopportune times like we did (Sunday)," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's hard to overcome sometimes."
It was more than the turnovers, though. Even when the Vikings did make a play, such as Winfield's tipped interception that led to a 2-yard Kyle Rudolph touchdown early in the third quarter, they found a way to give the momentum right back.
The Bears' ensuing possession went 51 yards in 12 plays, ending in a 46-yard Robbie Gould field that ate 6:47 off the clock and extended the lead back to 28-10. The Vikings answered with a 15-play drive that stalled out with Ponder's throw out of bounds for Michael Jenkins on fourth-and-2 from the Chicago 8.
Ponder completed 22 of 43 passes (51.2%) for 159 yards and a 58.2 rating. Six balls were dropped. Two of the Vikings' four longest gains from scrimmage were a product of Bears penalties. They netted all of 92 yards and three first downs over the first 30 minutes.
"It just comes down to guys got to perform and coaches got to put us in the right situations and when all that comes together, then we win games," Allen said. "When it doesn't, this is what happens."
The book on the Vikings hasn't changed -- get a 10-point lead, watch the offense move away from an effective Peterson (18 carries, 108 yards, 6.0 average) and then grind on a defense that entered the game tied for 24th in the NFL in third-down efficiency.
Chicago controlled the ball for 37½ minutes, ran 39 times (2.9 average), scored three touchdowns in four red-zone trips and converted 11 of 19 third downs (57.9%), including 10 of the first 13 before putting away the decision.
"That's another bad stat," Winfield said. "Ten for (13), which means they were extending drives, and they did a good job in the red zone. They were scoring touchdowns."
The Vikings emphasized red-zone offense all week, too, and finished 1-for-3 there. They emphasized third downs and finished 6-for-16 (37.5%). They emphasized reducing turnovers but had three, including a botched exchange Peterson said was his fault in the on third-and-1 from the 50 in the fourth quarter.
They'll surely emphasize the same areas over the next week as they prepare to visit a Green Bay team that had its own flop against the New York Giants on Sunday night.
They're still even with two more Sunday losers, Tampa Bay and Seattle, for the second NFC wild card at 6-5. And they won't have to wait long for their chance at revenge against the Bears, who sit alone atop the division again at 8-3.
"Our expectations for ourselves are so much higher than what we played (Sunday) and what we showed," Ponder said. "Obviously, a lot of mental mistakes, turnovers, doing certain things on offense that isn't characteristic of us.
"We want to play smart and disciplined and we didn't do that. We have a confidence in ourselves that we can play a lot better."
They proved it on several occasions while putting themselves in this position -- playing for something as the calendar flips to December -- for the first time 2009.
They'll benefit from the return of their top receiver, Percy Harvin, whenever his sore left ankle finally can handle it.
They know nobody is pulling away in an NFC playoff chase that now features six teams -- including 5-6 Washington, Dallas and New Orleans -- within one game of the last spot.
But with the pressure on, the Vikings looked every bit like the team that wasn't supposed to be there in the first place. Two more weeks of this, and they won't be there anymore.
"We definitely need to play better," Winfield said. "We know we can play better. But we need to put it on the field. We can all talk about it, say it's good during the week, but on Sundays, we need to get out there and perform."