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Vikings lock up a first-round bye, No. 2 seed in NFC playoffs with win over Bears

MINNEAPOLIS -- Every step along the way, the Minnesota Vikings hit the goals they set during the 2017 regular season.

Capture the NFC North? Check.

Secure a first-round bye in the playoffs? Check.

Field the league's most feared defense? Check.

The Vikings also closed out 2017 with the second-highest win total (13) in franchise history after beating the Bears 23-10.

"I was here our first year when we made that playoff run, and it was tough," Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said. "Last year, I was here through that tough time when we battled through adversity. To come back out, it was definitely hard to get these 13 wins. Not only is that credited to the guys on this team, but our coaches and everybody putting us in the best position."

Before they ring in the new year by intermittently inserting the Skol chant into the lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne," the Vikings will kick back and let out a deep sigh of satisfaction after locking up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They'll begin their postseason push in the divisional round the weekend of Jan. 13.

During the 2017 season, Minnesota enjoyed one of the NFL's strongest home-field advantages, with seven wins and just one loss at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings will lean upon that heavily when they host their first home playoff game in two weeks. The Eagles may have home-field advantage throughout the postseason as the No. 1 seed, but they chose to pull quarterback Nick Foles early in Week 17 after he went 4-of-11 for 39 yards and an interception in a 6-0 loss. Without Carson Wentz, Philadelphia faces a lot of uncertainty in the postseason.

The time off to rest next week will come in handy for Minnesota. The Vikings on Sunday were without starting center Pat Elflein, who was sidelined with a lingering shoulder injury. The Vikings had to shuffle their starting lineup of O-linemen for the seventh time this season. Joe Berger moved from right guard to center, Mike Remmers shifted from right tackle to right guard and Rashod Hill came off the bench to fill in at right tackle. Overall, the line performed well a week after also losing left guard Nick Easton for the season to an ankle injury. Case Keenum was sacked only once and finished 21-of-29 passing for 189 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers.

"Without looking at [the film], I would say we did all right," Berger said. "I think there's lots of room for improvements from all of us. Unfortunately, I don't know if we'll be able to do that because hopefully we'll slide back to our positions. I think there's room to improve, for me, I can speak for sure. I didn't play center as well as I had in the past. That's part of the deal I guess."

The run game churned out 147 yards behind Latavius Murray's two-touchdown day. Since the start of the 2016 season, Murray has 20 rushing touchdowns, which ranks second in the NFL behind Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott (22).

For a second straight game, the offense looked conservative with a lack of explosive plays and deep passing game. The good sign for the Vikings? Every time Minnesota reached the red zone (twice aided by Chicago penalties on a scoring drive), it came through with a score.

"I think there's a lot that we have in store as an offense," Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said. "I think we can play a lot better. It's not necessarily that we were holding things back but we just have to execute a little better."

Minnesota closed out the regular season as the NFL's best defense, ranking first in total (276 ypg) and scoring defense (15.8 ppg) for the first time since 1970 while setting the all-time record for third-down stops on defense with a 25.2 conversion rate.

On Sunday, Chicago converted just once on 12 tries on third down. Minnesota came through with a big stop at the goal line late in the game, the second time the Bears turned the ball over on downs inside the 10-yard line Sunday.

"When corners can cover and safeties can blitz and pressure, linebackers can blitz and cover, defensive line can rush -- it's important," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "We spend an awful lot of time at it. I don't think we do anything fancy, we've just got good players."

Minnesota's Week 5 win in Chicago is widely viewed as the turning point of the 2017 season. The Vikings went on to win eight straight games after Oct. 9.

In that last outing at Soldier Field, Jordan Howard gave Minnesota's defense problems -- one of the few running backs to pull that off this season. Twelve weeks later, the Vikings flipped the script on Chicago's run game. The Vikings allowed minus-1 rushing yards in the first half and held the Bears to a total of 30 yards on the ground.

The Bears didn't fold early despite being eliminated from the playoffs weeks ago. Chicago ran a trick punt return in the first half, resulting in its only touchdown of the afternoon. But the Bears were overmatched by a dominant Minnesota team in every other phase.

As they gear up for the playoffs, the Vikings will look back on everything they accomplished this season despite rough circumstances after losing Sam Bradford in Week 1 and Dalvin Cook three games later.

The Vikings swept two of their NFC North rivals (Chicago and Green Bay) and evened out the series with Detroit.

For now, they celebrate how they closed out the season. Tomorrow, they move forward with what's in store for the playoffs.

"When we set out on July 26 or whenever we went to Mankato, our goals were to win our division, have a home playoff game and have as many games as we can here at U.S. Bank Stadium," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "Now we've earned the right to sit back and watch everyone else this week and we're 50 percent closer to playing for a championship."