Teddy Bridgewater was the first key Viking to go down on the eve of the regular season, with his torn ACL and dislocated knee. And, as many others would soon follow, Sam Bradford was brought in to be the savior to a season of Super Bowl aspirations.
While darting out to a not-surprising 5-0 start, those dreams of Houston in February quickly faded as Adrian Peterson, and Bradford's edge protectors, were dropping like flies. First, Phil Loadholt. Then, Matt Kalil. Eventually, Andre Smith. And finally, ineffective emergency signing Jake Long, the fast-fading 2008 first overall draft pick. When the Bears saw the Vikings on Halloween and had their most complete game of the season, a 20-10 victory that had them sensing a turning point in their season, Minnesota's season had already turned, despite being just 5-2 after that defeat. Watching the Bears sack Bradford five times and hit him nine times, it seemed there was no way the injury-prone top 2010 pick would survive.
Well, here we are, with both teams ringing in the new year playing for nothing but pride, and Bradford will take the field a 15th straight time, despite being sacked 37 times (tied for fifth-highest among regular starters) and knocked down countless others.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
Part of the Vikings' attempt to survive was to part ways with Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner (who "resigned"), while elevating tight ends coach Pat Shurmur, who called plays for Bradford in St. Louis. A quicker passing game has helped keep Bradford in the lineup, albeit with an offense that's generated just 24 touchdowns (the Bears, by comparison, have 28) and ranks 30th with 311 yards per game.
But Bradford has more than held up his end of the bargain statistically with what he has to work with. He's coming off a career-best 382 yards (34-of-50, 110.6 rating) Saturday. He leads the league in completion percentage (71.3), is second to Tom Brady in interception ratio (.80 on 17 touchdowns, four picks) and is seventh with a 98.3 rating.
The line now features T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles at the tackle spots, while center Joe Berger had to slide to guard in Saturday's loss to the Packers as Brandon Fusco recovers from a concussion. Alex Boone has had too much fall on his shoulders with all the injuries around him.
As for Peterson, he returned from his Week 2 torn meniscus two weeks ago, only to injure a groin, and figures not to face the Bears with his team out of the playoff picture. For the season, A.P. had 37 carries for 72 yards. His absence and the line woes leave the Vikes last in rushing offense (72.1 per game), but they averaged 4.7 in the loss at Lambeau (93 yards, with Jerrick McKinnon, who missed the first meeting with the Bears, carrying 11 times for 50 yards).
The most pleasant emergence offensively this season involves, like the Bears receiving corps, and undrafted free agent. Adam Thielen wasn't a quarterback at Minnesota State, like Cam Meredith was at Illinois State, but the one-time special teams regular actually leads Minni with 960 receiving yards on 68 catches. 202 of those came on a dozen catches Saturday, including a 71-yard TD in which a pair of Packers defensive backs knocked each other out going for the ball on a play that ended with Thielen Lambeau leaping. The quick-twitch tandem of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon ate up the Bears in the loss to Washington, so Stefon Diggs (84-903, 3 TDs) has too be licking his chops watching film. He scored the lone touchdown for the visitors on Halloween on the only play Tracy Porter sat out. This year's first round pick who seemed like such a perfect fit for this offense's needs, Laquon Treadwell, has just one reception while struggling to get into the lineup. Kyle Rudolph owns a team-best six touchdown receptions, and he's fourth among tight ends with 72 catches (723 yards).