Khalil Mack’s Bears take Round 1 vs. Kirk Cousins’ Vikings
Football is the ultimate team sport, but the Chicago Bears and Minnesota VIkings spent a combined $174 million this offseason on two players with the expectation of them changing their respective franchise’s fortunes.
In the first meeting between Khalil Mack’s Bears and Kirk Cousins’ Vikings, Mack was utterly dominant, while Cousins played his worst game in purple and gold, and the Bears notched a signature win in primetime, 25-14, to take a two-game lead over the reigning division champs.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Chicago’s ‘D,’ collectively, was as good as advertised ... and then some. The Bears pitched a first-half shutout, limiting Minnesota to 77 yards, and didn’t allow a field goal until there were seven seconds remaining in the third quarter. Akiem Hicks’ brute strength to dominate the line resulted in 5 (!) tackles for loss and a mammoth fourth-quarter sack. Sticky coverage in the secondary to neutralize Minnesota’s superb WR tandem contributed to Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson interceptions, even if Cousins’ decision-making was as much to blame on Amos’. Chicago’s rangy linebackers flew around the field.
Mack, though, arguably was on another level, the kind reserved for players who command two first-round picks via trade and the richest defensive contract in NFL history ... and the kind expected of a quarterback who signed the first fully-guaranteed multi-year contract in NFL history.
But it was Mack who again showed that no stage is too big, and 6-foot-6 former first-round LT Riley Reiff was much too small to slow Mack, the best $90 million the Bears have spent in years. He needed only 13 plays to notch his fifth forced fumble — and second recovery of the season — which came at Chicago’s 15-yard line immediately after the offense’s promising opening series stalled in their own red zone, leading to Cody Parkey’s redemption in the form of a 33-yard field goal.
“God is good,” said Mack. “You got to understand situational football. We couldn’t let them get a score there. Just trying to make the big play to put our offense in position to score points.”
On the next series, following the first of two Mitch Trubisky interceptions, Mack swiftly beat Reiff on first- and third-down hurries to force a three-and-out. That’s been Mack’s calling card with the Bears — not only wrecking games but doing so in the most pivotal moments. He took over the first half of Week 1 in Green Bay and helped ice win No. 1 vs. Seattle under the bright lights the following week. Cousins has committed more giveaways (4) than he’s tossed touchdowns (3) in his past two primetime appearances, following a brilliant nighttime debut, albeit in a loss, in L.A.in Week 4.
“It was just my fault,” Cousins said of his interceptions Sunday night. “As simple as that. Can’t do that. It’s just basically, that’s all it is is a poor play by me.”
Minnesota would do more in an attempt to slow Mack after halftime, though Cousins didn’t use his legs to avoid trouble, which his coach, Mike Zimmer, admitted there were opportunities. A couple other problems: Hicks was busy manhandling poor Vikings C Pat Elflein inside, and the extra attention diverted to Mack didn’t work.
“Who do you block? Who do you block?” Hicks asked rhetorically of the dilemma the Bears’ stable of pass rushers creates for the opposition. “That’s the question. You block Leonard Floyd? You block Eddie Goldman? You block Akiem? You block Khalil? Who you gonna block? That’s the question we want every offense to have to figure out.”
Following another Trubisky pick early in the second half, on only the Vikings’ second visit to the red zone, Mack notched his eighth sack of the season. It came on first-and-10 on an inside stunt, a great call, we assume, by Vic Fangio considering the Vikings were giving Reiff help from Dalvin Cook. But Mack showed off sensational speed and, of course, finishing ability. Minnesota would settle for a field goal, a demoralizing concession against the Bears’ ferocious defense.
“I think he’s added a lot of swagger to the Bears,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said this week. It was evident Sunday night, when Mack helped lead the charge for a young Bears ‘D’ that appeared ready for the national stage and its biggest game in at least five seasons, unlike the Vikings.
Mack is soft-spoken off the field, also unlike the Vikings’ Cousins, who was caught on the NBC “Monday Night Football” broadcast telling his teammates before the game, “They’re not the reason this game moved to primetime. We are.”
Cousins is partially correct. The national stage is built for star power, and Mack and Cousins are each team’s biggest respective stars. But only one of them proved unequivocally that he’s worth the unprecedented investment his team made in him. Cousins’ Vikings fell to 5-4-1, one year after going 13-3 and appearing in the NFC title game. The Bears showed they’re now the team to beat in the NFC North, where they’d taken up residence in the basement until a player in Mack came along to help lift them out of it.