MINNEAPOLIS — All across the visitors locker room at US Bank Stadium, the dismay was obvious. As hard as Chicago Bears players tried to embrace their spirited comeback effort Sunday — a rally from 18 points down to take a fourth-quarter lead — the result remained too painful.
Minnesota Vikings 29, Bears 22.
Safety Eddie Jackson slumped in front of his locker stall.
“These losses are hard to swallow, man,” he said. “It’s a tough loss, especially when we put in that work. Continuing to go out there and come up short just sucks.”
Linebacker Roquan Smith was fuming.
“This all comes back to execution,” he said. “And we didn’t execute.”
It wasn’t just that dispiriting final score, with the Vikings registering the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard Kirk Cousins run with 2 minutes, 26 seconds remaining. It was the way the Bears faltered and flailed early, falling behind 21-3 midway through the second quarter and doing little to help themselves.
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On three consecutive touchdown drives to open the game, Cousins completed all 17 of his passes, eight of them to Justin Jefferson. Yes, that Justin Jefferson, the game-breaking superstar whom the Bears circled on their scouting report and spent all week game-planning to contain.
Yet on the Vikings’ first three possessions — on his way to a career-high 12 catches and 154 yards — Jefferson turned those first eight receptions into 122 yards.
How in the world does that happen?
“It was bizarre,” Smith said. “Honestly. Just seeing that. Knowing the type of player he is, I have mad respect for him. But getting after him, we had to make better adjustments… That was bad. You know where they’re going and they’re still hitting completion after completion after completion.”
Jackson was at a loss for words.
“I don’t know how to put it,” he said. “Other than to say that we kind of let him do that. We had a game plan for him, but we have to stick to it. We knew what it was coming into this game. We knew that was the guy they were going to. We just have to do a better job stopping him. As a whole.
“We have to do the ordinary things better than everybody else. That’s the call. That’s executing the calls. That’s everything. Everyone owns a part of this one today.”
Maddening for certain. But that early Vikings barrage was not enough to sink the Bears. With 9:26 remaining, after a feisty comeback, they took a 22-21 lead on Cairo Santos’ 51-yard field goal. They were one defensive stand from one of the franchise’s most rousing come-from-behind victories in recent memory.
Somebody on the Bears defense just needed to make a big play. Any kind of win-sealing contribution.
Alas, it never came.
The Vikings’ game-winning drive was a grinding, methodical march. Seventeen plays, 75 yards, five third-down conversions.
The longest gain of the series came on the first snap, a 15-yard Cousins dart to tight end Irv Smith. The final play was Cousins’ plow-ahead sneak.
Those five third-down conversions were part of a 12-for-15 third-down effort by the Vikings. Alexander Mattison converted on third-and-1 with a 2-yard run. Cousins hit Smith for 13 yards on third-and-4, then scrambled four plays later for a chain-moving 5-yard gain on third-and-5.
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On third-and-8 inside the red zone, Cousins hit Mattison for 11 yards. Finally, with a huge push from his offensive line, Cousins took the ball across the goal line on third down from the 1 and the Bears spirits were smushed.
“In the NFL, it’s never going to be perfect and it’s always going to come down to the end,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “We learned that these last few weeks. We have to make the plays to finish the game and seal the deal. It’s about playmakers making plays. It’s about coaches putting guys in (the right) position. We just have to finish.
Even with a quick turnaround before Thursday night’s home game against the Washington Commanders, the Bears will be able to draw positives from Sunday’s loss.
For starters, quarterback Justin Fields had his best and most comfortable outing of the season, completing 15 of 21 passes for 208 yards and a 118.8 passer rating. He broke a 39-possession slump without a touchdown pass in the third quarter with a 9-yard speed-sweep touchdown pass to Velus Jones. The rookie receiver used a lead block from David Montgomery and turned his first offensive touch in the NFL into a touchdown.
“We were talking about that (play) all week,” Fields said. “I was like, ‘Bro, go crib it.’ He did that.”
Added Jones: “I just had to read D-Mo’s block. I saw Pat (Peterson) went outside of him, so I cut it inside. We went over that many times at practice and it paid off.”
In a game that was lopsided until late in the first half, the Bears can be encouraged by the way they clawed back from 18 down to take the lead. The game provided more evidence of this team’s resilience, unity and pluck.
Darnell Mooney had a ridiculous one-handed 39-yard reception to jump-start the offense.
Rookie Kyler Gordon blocked a field goal.
Kindle Vildor made a clutch fourth-quarter interception.
Cole Kmet contributed four catches for 45 yards.
“This is a young team,” Smith said. “And these guys just fight.”
Added Vildor: “We know the type of team we have. We know we’re built to sustain for the long haul, to rally back and make plays to help the team.”
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Who knows? Maybe the Bears were in the middle of an energizing game-tying or go-ahead drive in the final minutes when receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette had the ball ripped from his hands by Vikings cornerback Cam Dantzler near the left sideline at the end of a 15. – yard reception.
Instead of first down at the Vikings 39 with 1:01 left, the Bears were done. That was the dagger, a painful one given the circumstances and the basic fundamentals the Bears coach and practice.
“We need to get out of bounds there,” Eberflus said. “We tell the players that when they’re at the numbers or wider, get out of bounds. If they’re inside the numbers, get going north. That’s a simple function of two-minute (drill) mechanics. We have to do that better.”
Smith-Marsette couldn’t disagree. He admitted he lost track of Dantzler after he stiff-armed him and turned to gain more yardage. He never saw Dantzler coming back into the play from behind.
“I should have just (gone) out of bounds instead of looking to extend the play,” Smith-Marsette said. “Just have to be smarter in that situation.”
Sunday was the latest illumination of the Bears’ 2022 plight as a rebuilding team pushing to be smarter and sharper at key moments while lacking the high-end talent and quality depth available to the league’s better teams.
Every loss stings. But Sunday’s knife seemed to have a slightly different twist for the Bears.
“It just sucks, man,” Smith said.
Those feelings were widespread.