CHICAGO -- There's something about prime-time games that brings out the best in Khalil Mack.
On a cold Sunday night at Soldier Field against the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears' edge rusher was every bit "the silencer," mimicking LeBron James' signature celebration upon sacking Kirk Cousins. This came after he launched a momentum shift by stripping the ball from Dalvin Cook's arms in the red zone, forced a 305-pound Riley Reiff to the ground with one arm and acted as the nightmare force for the Bears' defense in generating the necessary pressure to continue their first-place run in the NFC North.
It was the opposite for Cousins, who ran his record to 4-12 in prime-time games. Coming out of their bye week, the Vikings (5-4-1) dropped their second of three straight division games with a 25-20 loss in Chicago. Minnesota has won two of its past 11 games at Soldier Field.
"The reasons we lost, you could argue, Coach [Mike] Zimmer sat there on Monday morning and told us these are the keys to victory, we have to be good in these areas: red zone offense, protecting the football, run the football well," Cousins said. "So the reasons we lost were no surprise to us."
Two weeks after Cook's return against Detroit when the run game seemed to finally be getting into a rhythm, Minnesota ran the ball 14 times for a total of 22 yards. A lack of explosive plays and the mistakes that Zimmer had talked about in previous losses kept occurring. The Vikings turned the ball over twice in the red zone (Cook's fumble and Cousins' second interception) and came away with points on just two of five trips inside the 20-yard line. Settling for two field goals when drives stalled at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter was unsettling. But more than anything, the fact that these mistakes -- especially turnovers in the red zone -- keep happening are "definitely" a cause for concern for Zimmer.
"Either they're not listening or not paying attention or they don't really care," he said. "So we'll have to find out which one of the three that it is."
Entering Week 11, Cousins had performed admirably under fire -- especially on the road -- having been pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks, which was the third-highest rate among all NFL quarterbacks. In Chicago, the pressure forced Cousins into errant throws and disrupted his timing and accuracy. Facing pressure on 16 of his dropbacks, the second most he's seen in a game this season, the Vikings quarterback completed 30 of 46 passes for 262 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"It was a balance at times," Cousins said. "They weren't necessarily getting a sack, but they were affecting my arm. Other times protection was holding up fine and we were getting the ball out. I think it was kind of everything across the board. Sometimes it was a rush around the edge, it was a rush inside, it was a game, a stunt. Different things. They have a really good front seven and we've said that all week, we've seen that on tape, that's a big reason why they're as good as they are."
Cousins walked through each of his interceptions postgame, the first of which happened while he was under duress on Minnesota's final play of the first half. Launching a deep pass intended for Kyle Rudolph, Cousins was picked off by Adrian Amos. Instead of getting within field goal range, the Vikings went into halftime scoreless.
"It was my fault," Cousins said. "As simple as that. Can't do that."
The Vikings defense had its fair share of struggles. Zimmer noted several missed tackles in the first half and 'soft' coverage on a handful of third downs. In the days leading into the game, defenders preached a need to account for Mitchell Trubisky's athleticism. A handful of designed and freelance runs by the Chicago quarterback helped the Bears score 14 unanswered points before halftime. The Bears accumulated 148 yards on the ground, the most the Vikings had given up since a loss to the Bills in Week 3.
"He's not only scrambling, he's juking guys," linebacker Eric Wilson said. "We just need someone on him and bring him down. It's not an easy job at all."
Minnesota's defense might have provided a boost in several situations, but the Vikings were not able to capitalize with touchdowns: not after Anthony Harris' two interceptions, not after a forced fumble and subsequent recovery by Jaleel Johnson and Harrison Smith, and not after a near pick-six by Xavier Rhodes that might have tied it if the cornerback hadn't dropped the ball.
But even with the breaks and near breaks, the Vikings couldn't overcome their own mistakes. On the next offensive drive after Rhodes' near interception forced Chicago (7-3) to punt, Cousins threw his second pick of the night.
"I was trying to trust my eyes," Cousins said. "What I felt the DB do, I don't think he really did. Playing fast in the moment I felt like the DB was squatting, but he wasn't. And if he's not squatting then that means that the safety will be in a different spot than where I maybe thought he would be. And that led to the interception."
Trubisky and the Bears offense wouldn't score another touchdown after halftime, and Cousins was able to lead two successful touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter. But the mistakes that piled up from the beginning were too much for Minnesota to overcome.
On Sunday night, Chicago silenced any doubt that it is a legitimate contender under first-year coach Matt Nagy. On the flip side, Minnesota left the door open for questions about its ability to win a prime-time game, which it has yet to do in three tries this season.