Scoggins: Having Vikings healthy for playoffs matters more than loss to Bears

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The Vikings defense tried to bait the Chicago Bears into scoring a touchdown. The Bears refused, even with the red carpet rolled out for them. That singular moment brought comic relief to a weird, nothing-to-gain game inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Leading by one point with a minute left in regulation and out of timeouts, the Vikings attempted to let running back David Montgomery score on a short touchdown run because the Bears were in chip-shot field goal range. It was their only shot. That, or hope the Bears turned a gimme kick into another double-doink miss.

Alas, Montgomery played it smart. He took the handoff, saw what the Vikings were doing and countered. He stopped. Defenders stopped, and the two sides had a split-second stare-down until Montgomery fell to the ground.

“It’s a testament to [Montgomery],” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “We tried to give him a freebie, hoping he was going to be selfish, pads his stats. But he’s a team player and didn’t fall for it.”

That answer drew a chuckle inside the “losing” locker room. Technically, the Vikings lost 21-19, but the game was meaningless in terms of playoff positioning and the Vikings had the benefit of being able to rest their starters.

Week 17 of an NFL season serves as a gridiron version of getaway day. Some teams have incentive to win. Some teams rest players. And some teams already are mentally on the golf course. It’s a mixed bag.

The Vikings were locked into the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs. Coach Mike Zimmer made the right strategic move in resting most of his starters, even though his offense looked woefully unprepared for the postseason in a prime-time loss to the Green Bay Packers a week ago.

Zimmer apparently wrestled with the decision because of how poorly his team played at home against the Packers. The temptation to remove that stench by playing starters in a meaningless finale had merit, but the risk of losing a key player — or players — to injury mandated a cautious approach.

Just imagine the reaction if, say, Kirk Cousins had played Sunday and suffered an injury that knocked him out of the playoffs, forcing the Vikings to start Sean Mannion. There wouldn’t be enough minutes in the day to adequately criticize Zimmer’s decision-making.

This was a time for cooler heads.

“I think for us, all the guys on our team want to be out there and want to play,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph, who played one snap before leaving in order to continue his streak of games started (81). “But when you explain to us how we can’t improve our playoff position, we have to go on the road three times, and you played all year to try to get a bye before the playoffs. Well, we could treat this like a bye, get healthy and get rested up where any of the three teams we might have to play next week won’t be able to say the same.”

Being fresher doesn’t remove concerns about their offensive line, Cousins’ résumé in big games or the state of their pass defense. Those flashing red lights would still be flashing today had Zimmer played it normal because the Bears hardly represent an all’s-right measuring stick.

Mitchell Trubisky isn’t exactly Aaron Rodgers. And Mike Boone gashed the Bears defense for 126 yards rushing in the first half.

The game was pointless. Being healthy, or healthier, carries more significance.

“It’s a war of attrition at this point,” Weatherly said. “Whoever is the healthiest will go the farthest.”

Not necessarily. Injuries matter, and teams need their best players available. The Vikings offense obviously is much more dangerous with Dalvin Cook than without him. But execution decides games. The Vikings’ playoff life will be short if they perform like they did against the Packers.

“We believe we’ve got a lot of pieces,” safety Anthony Harris said.

Most of those pieces got the day off Sunday. It was a smart plan. Whether they take advantage of it is now up to them.

chip.scoggins@startribune.com

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