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Bears-Vikings Is the Perfect Avatar for the NFL’s Shrug-Emoji Season

Chicago and Minnesota, the embodiments of underachievement and inconsistency, face off on Sunday. Call it the 2020 Bowl: Nothing matters but everything counts.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This Sunday, the Bears play the Vikings in a Week 15 matchup that’s either important or not, depending on how closely you squint at it. Both teams are 6-7, with a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, meaning that they will have to fight like hell to try to squeak in and still probably won’t. Sunday’s loser will walk away with a single-digit percent chance to reach the postseason; the winner’s will stay below 50 percent with two games to play. The Bears are coming off their best win of the season, 36-7 over the Texans, ending a six-game losing streak. The Vikings are coming off a loss to the Buccaneers in which a kicking debacle pushed them farther out of the playoff picture. The Vikings had won five of their previous six games heading into Week 14, which had aptly given their season-long playoff projections the look of a shrug emoji.

If you’re looking for an artistic rendition of what it means to be a middling team in 2020, this is it. The Chiefs are good, and the Jets are bad, but a wide swath of NFL teams exist in a constant state of ambiguously defined mediocrity. It’s understandable in a season when teams are dealing with added challenges due to COVID-19, where practices are canceled, position groups are wiped out, and games are moved to Tuesday afternoons. The expanded playoff format makes room for one more team in each conference, creating the potential for teams like Minnesota and Chicago—which haven’t won on the same week once in 2020—to take on the shiny veneer of a postseason berth. Call Sunday’s matchup between them the 2020 Bowl: Nothing matters but everything counts.

In the Bears’ win against the Texans, who currently serve as a reminder to teams like Chicago and Minnesota that it could always be worse, several players—quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running back David Montgomery, wide receiver Allen Robinson II, tight end Cole Kmet, linebacker Roquan Smith—had their best games of the year. Trubisky’s performance was the most significant, as his 24-of-33, 267-yard, three-touchdown day came against his fellow 2017 draft choice Deshaun Watson, whom the Bears passed on to select Trubisky, and created this unequivocal truth that should go on a banner in Halas Hall.

It is worth mentioning that Trubisky’s great passing performance came against a Houston defense that’s 25th against the pass in DVOA. On Sunday, it started backup defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III, Keion Crossen, and Eric Murray, all of whom were overmatched by Robinson and a suddenly explosive Chicago running game. But the Bears also called plays that worked to Trubisky’s strengths and made you wonder how the fourth-year passer would have fared had he not been benched for Nick Foles in Week 3. Trubisky was 9-of-11 passing on play action and looked good using his legs and making mostly short throws, especially on the run. Trubisky has now had back-to-back games without interceptions and completed over 70 percent of his passes in those two games.

“It’s real,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said Monday, asked about Trubisky’s progress, a statement that Bears fans will accept with both excitement or terror, possibly both. Trubisky’s performance, one of the best of his career, came in a game that sustained the Bears’ slim playoff hopes, presenting something of a paradox for the organization or an existential crisis, depending on how you want to view it. The Bears already declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Trubisky’s rookie contract last spring, meaning that his deal is expiring and Chicago will have to figure out whether to let him leave in free agency or invest more resources in their 2017 first-round pick. This season was already a contract year for Trubisky, but by benching him for Foles so early in the season, the Bears have ensured they’ll have a smaller sample size to evaluate him from. Complicating that scenario is whether Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace will be the ones making the decision about Trubisky’s future.

Nagy is under contract for two more years; Pace is for one. They could both be gone after this season, or they could both stay, or one could go, depending on what Bears chairman George McCaskey wants and feels comfortable spending on a coach or executive no longer working for the team. I know that doesn’t offer a lot of answers, but that’s the point: The Bears are vacillating between a lost season and a playoff berth seemingly week to week. It was always going to be hard for any team to draw significant conclusions from this season, but the Bears might not have a choice but to do so.

Minnesota has had its own ups and downs, but the good news for the Vikings is that quarterback Kirk Cousins has not been the problem this season. Cousins, who would carry a $41 million dead cap hit in 2021, is not going anywhere. Based on how he’s played since the Vikings’ bye in Week 7, though, they shouldn’t want him to.

Cousins posted an 88.2 passer rating during the Vikings’ 1-5 start, but had put together a five-game stretch with a 124.3 rating leading up to the Bucs game, which Minnesota lost 26-14. Cousins has thrown 27 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions this season, with 10 of the picks coming during those first six weeks. Since then, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Cousins was fine against the Bucs—24-of-37 for 225 yards and a touchdown—and running back Dalvin Cook ran for 102 yards, but the Vikings were doomed because kicker Dan Bailey missed three field goals and an extra point.

It was the second week in a row in which Bailey struggled, and Minnesota knows better than most what happens when a kicker loses his confidence. It’s possible Bailey is cut this week—Vikings coach Mike Zimmer deflected some of criticism leveled against Bailey, but also spoke ominously about what happens next: “At this point,” Zimmer said, “we’re not really worried about feelings anymore.”

In order to make the playoffs, the Vikings need to win and for the Cardinals to slip up in their next three games. A win against Chicago would pull them to .500, in some ways an impressive feat for a team that started 1-5. They’ve been good enough to play close games against the Seahawks and the Titans but not good enough to win them; their only win against a team with a winning record was against the Packers, with 30-mph winds blowing around them. And it will be hard to get a good read on Minnesota, even after Week 15, given the up-and-down nature of their opponent. You see how this gets circular?