With the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff hopes on the line and the Chicago Bears’ playoff seed in play, both NFC North teams have something to prove in their head-to-head matchup in Week 17. Of course, all eyes will be on how Matt Nagy’s offense competes with a Minnesota Defense that has kicked into high gear over the past several weeks under head coach Mike Zimmer.
But the other half of the game will be just as fascinating a watch, as Interim Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski is tasked with deciphering and unraveling Vic Fangio’s hard-hitting defense. This Chicago defense has stopped offenses in their tracks, and looks to be a legitimate contender in the post-season because of it. Most famously the red-hot Los Angeles Rams, who looked unstoppable on offense under Sean McVay at that point in the season, came into Soldier Field and posted a season-low 6 points on December 9th. In the process, two potential MVP candidates – Jared Goff and Todd Gurley – were eliminated from that discussion. In fact, after struggles against the Bears and Eagles in the following week, the media is now asking what’s wrong with the Rams offense.
At the same time, Kevin Stefanski has received almost cult-like admiration from Vikings faithful. After only one week under his command, the Minnesota Offense raced out to a commanding 21-0 lead with touchdowns from Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook, and Latavius Murray in the first quarter. By the end of the game, a total of 41 points were scored, a season high. Stefanski’s first game also netted a total of 220 Yards Rushing, a season high for the Vikings on the ground. Calling 63 plays in total, the offense averaged a 6.6 yard gain – eclipsed only by a 7.1 average gain per play in week 2. He followed it up with a performance in Detroit yielding a commanding 27-9 victory, headed by a 122-yard, two touchdown game from Kyle Rudolph.
But week 17 will not be the last time we will see these coordinators face-off. Of course, there is a looming playoff game scheduled for these teams should the Vikings win on Sunday. But despite their impressive performances this season, there is little evidence to suggest that either will be moving on from their teams after the 2018 season has ended. Stefanski will be a victim of small sample size this offseason, as he will have only called the offense for 3 regular season games, plus playoffs. More importantly, he is still running a team trained under John DeFilippo’s offseason program. While there is always a chance a team could make a move to find the next young and lesser known offensive mind to take over akin to Rams’ Head Coach Sean McVay, it would be a risk. Stefanski has never called an offense over a full season, or implemented an offseason program, or been a part of building the Vikings offense through the draft or free agency (although he surely did have some say in his seasons as Tight End, Running Back, and Quarterbacks coach). It is worth noting that the aforementioned Sean McVay worked for three full seasons as the Washington Redskins offensive coordinator before his hiring. Stefanski will likely have to lead this Minnesota offense for at least one full season, including the offseason, before being seriously considered for a Head Coaching position in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Vic Fangio has plenty on the resume to warrant a head coaching position. He has worked as a defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, and now the Chicago Bears. A far cry from the relative inexperience of Stefanski, Fangio has more experience in the NFL – and football in general – than many Head Coaches in the league. Anybody who has watched the Bears knows the impact of the newly acquired Khalil Mack from a blockbuster trade from the Oakland Raiders. After sending two first-round, a third round, and a sixth round pick to the Raiders for Khalil Mack – nobody doubts that the Bears have made the right decision. Mack, with Fangio’s command, has emerged as a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year with 12.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, 37 solo tackles, and 6 forced fumbles. A pick-6 against Aaron Rodgers serves as the cherry on top of his season. But, his impact is almost undersold by his stats. He has played his part as a teammate on this defense; absorbing double teams, putting pressure on the quarterback, and freeing up other defenders to focus on stopping the run game. As a result, the Bears are sending not only Khalil Mack to the Pro Bowl, but also Safety Eddie Jackson, Cornerback Kyle Fuller, and Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks. This will be the first Pro Bowl appearance for the all three. After one year, Vic Fangio has transformed this team into the NFC North Division Champion and one of the best defenses in football. In the process, he has developed a second year fourth round pick (Jackson) and a 29-year old journeyman (Hicks) into household names. In fact, Bears fans now refer to their superstar Defensive Lineman as Aikem “A literal Bear” Hicks, a moniker he seems to embrace.
Surely, some teams would be looking for Vic Fangio to take over their Head Coaching vacancy. With his lifetime of experience and defensive development of the 2018 Bears, many NFL teams would love to have his defensive mind at the helm, helping their own young players ascend to Pro Bowl or All-Pro talent. But, Fangio seems to have little to no interest in a Head Coaching position. Dating back to his first job as Defensive Coordinator of Dunmore High School in 1979, Fangio has never held a Head Coaching job. Just last week, Fangio joked that he only has one interview booked – with the Cubs, Chicago’s baseball team. Fangio likely wont move on from the Bears, not from lack of interest in him, but from his own lack of interest in Head Coaching. If he wants to stay as a defensive coordinator, as all the evidence suggests, he will stay with the Bears. Who wouldn’t?
As a result, Sunday’s matchup has implications beyond this week, or this year. If the Vikings win this matchup they will clinch a playoff spot, which puts all the pressure on Stefanski’s playcalling to best his toughest opponent yet. Then, the Vikings would likely play the Bears again, but this time in Chicago – where previously John DeFilippo could only muster 6 points until midway through the 4th quarter, and only gained 268 yards in total. Then, assuming they stay in their respective positions, these coordinators will face each other twice in the division next year and potentially for the fifth time in two years if both teams meet in the playoffs again.
Furthermore, both teams have little resources in which to substantially alter their rosters this offseason. The Khalil Mack trade has taken away the Bears opening draft pick, and their playoff status ensures that their first pick will be later in the second round. They are also low in cap space with only $20.2 Million available to spend per overthecap.com, meaning 24 teams have more cash on hand to sign any potential free agents, outbidding the Bears. Meanwhile, the Vikings are even more cash deprived, with only $11.3 Million in cap space in 2019 – 3rd worst in the league. Part of the reason for the low cap space for these NFC North teams is due to the fact that they signed many of their core players to contacts this offseason. All four Defensive Pro Bowlers for Chicago are on multi-year deals through at least 2020. Several core players of the Minnesota Offense are also contracted through 2020; Quarterback Kirk Cousins, Tight End Kyle Rudolph, Running Back Dalvin Cook, and Wide Receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. With no cap space, contracted stars, and returning coordinators, These teams will have the same playmakers in future matchups against each other.
The stage is set. Playoff contention is on the line, now and into the future. If Kevin Stefanski and Vic Fangio hope to led their teams to a Super Bowl title, they will have to go through each other first. Sunday will be only the first taste, and a trendsetter, for this incredible rivalry. All eyes, including yours, should be on US Bank Stadium in Week 17.