Will NFL's best defense carry Vikings to Super Bowl?

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' defense capped off a dominant 2017 campaign by clamping down on the Chicago Bears while etching its name in NFL history.

Minnesota ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in both total defense (275.9 yards) and scoring defense (15.8), a mark the franchise last achieved in 1969 and 1970.

The Vikings have boasted some of the league’s top defensive units over the years, but it’s been decades since they achieved this level of prestige. With Carl Eller -- one of the most storied defenders in Minnesota history -- in attendance, the current Vikings defense put on a performance that would make the Purple People Eaters proud.

“It’s a heck of an achievement for our guys,” coach Mike Zimmer said of the Vikings' league-best scoring defense. “You can’t do that if your offense isn’t running the football and controlling the ball. You can’t do that if your defense is out there all the time. It’s a nice stat for the defense and these guys take a lot of pride in it.”

Entering Week 17 with the lowest third-down conversion rate (26.3 percent) allowed in 15 seasons, Minnesota set the all-time record for defensive efficiency on third down at 25.2 percent on Sunday. Chicago converted just one time on 12 attempts, an area that the Vikings have focused on for months.

“Absolutely, it’s huge,” Brian Robison said. “A big point of emphasis for us back in OTAs was being a lot better on first down, being better in critical situations -- third down being one of those -- and that’s why we’re here today.”

For a third straight week, Minnesota held its opponent under 10 points. Chicago’s only touchdown came off a trick punt return in the first half.

Jordan Howard was one of the few running backs who had consistent success against the Vikings' defense, averaging 5.3 yards per rush in his previous three outings against Minnesota.

On Sunday, Howard was limited to 9 yards on nine carries, his longest run of the day topping out at 4 yards. After registering minus-1 yard rushing at halftime, the Bears finished with 30 yards on the ground.

Chicago didn’t cross midfield for the first time until the fourth quarter. Even when the Bears showed fight, it wasn’t nearly enough to match the Vikings' strength across the board.

Especially when they decided to run on defensive tackle Linval Joseph in the red zone.

Twice Minnesota silenced Chicago at the goal line. Even in tense situations, the Vikings' defense never got rattled. On one last-ditch effort to score late in the game, Chicago was still unable to cross the goal line after running six plays inside the 5.

“We just don’t give up,” Xavier Rhodes said. “We make mistakes here and there, but we don’t give up. We’re resilient, we just go out there and we play. We play physical, and no matter what the outcome is, such as penalties, which we had a lot of this game, we’re going to go out there and play our defense.”

Since losing to Carolina in Week 14, the Vikings' third loss of the season, Minnesota has held opposing quarterbacks well under its average of 192.4 yards per game. Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was 20-of-36 passing for 178 yards and finished with a passer rating of 69.0.

Sunday’s 23-10 win was just a piece of the bigger picture for Minnesota. The Vikings will face the NFC’s highest remaining seed from the wild-card round in two weeks. Outside of Carolina, Minnesota has had notable success against its three other potential opponents.

The Vikings held Atlanta to 1-of-10 on third down. New Orleans converted once in five tries inside the red zone. The Rams came to U.S. Bank Stadium boasting the most prolific scoring attack in the NFL and were held to just seven points.

While the Vikings' offense has fizzled at times this season, the defense has consistently been able to pick up the slack and dismantle its opponents.

This defense has been eyeing greatness all season by playing like a Super Bowl-caliber unit. As the Vikings enter the postseason with the top defense in the NFL, reaching the big game in February is an expectation.