CHICAGO -- With two starting offensive linemen injured and out of the lineup, a quarterback playing for the first time after missing five games and facing the NFL's top-ranked defense, the Chicago Bears appeared to face a steep, upward climb.
Instead, the Bears found a way to roll out a complete-game effort.
Cutler, who played for the first time since spraining his thumb in Week 2, was efficient and completed 20 of 31 passes for Chicago (2-6), which snapped a three-game losing streak. But as effective as Cutler was following a rusty start and as much ground as Howard covered, the Bears defense stood tall and didn't allow a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
"Something we talked about as a team is that it was going to be a lot better to go into this bye week 2-6 rather than 1-7," said Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks, who registered two of Chicago's five sacks of Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford. "If that's not enough motivation for you, I don't know what is. We need to start climbing that hill."
Monday night's upset victory of the NFC North Division leaders was a step in the right direction.
Cutler's 11-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery gave the Bears a 20-3 lead with 9:52 remaining in the third quarter. The scoring catch was the first of the season for Jeffery, who had four catches for the Bears as did Howard. Tight end Zach Miller finished with seven catches for 88 yards as the Chicago offense -- engineered by Cutler -- was effective on both the run and through the air.
"We stuck together and played a full 60 minutes," Jeffery said. "We just have to build on it."
Minnesota (6-2) failed to reach the end zone until a little more than five minutes remained in the fourth quarter when Bradford connected with Stefon Diggs on a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-6.
Until the Vikings' late scoring strike, the Bears' defense all but shut down the Vikings, who lost for the second straight week following six straight victories.
"They outplayed us and we've got to get ourselves back on track," said Diggs, who had eight catches for 76 yards. "Our confidence level is still high, we're still a good football team, but now we've got to go out and prove it each and every week."
The Bears led 13-3 at halftime behind a dominating defense that maintained a shutout before the Vikings managed a Blair Walsh 30-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Minnesota's lone first-half scoring drive was extended on a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty against the Bears after Pernell McPhee sacked Bradford, who fumbled on the play. Minnesota receiver Adam Thielen recovered Bradford's fumble, which allowed the Vikings' offense to remain on the field due to the penalty.
Limiting Minnesota to a field goal rather than a touchdown proved to be a big boost for the defense. Offensively, Cutler told his offense to keep pressing forward.
Howard's 2-yard touchdown run earlier in the second quarter provided the Bears with a 13-point lead after Connor Barth connected on field goals of field goals and 30 and 28 yards.
Despite failing to reach the end zone early, Howard's scoring run and Jeffery's third-quarter touchdown catch gave the Bears all the breathing room they'd need.
"I think it's a great team win," Bears coach John Fox said.
Now with the Bears heading to the bye week with a much-needed win, the key to building some momentum will be to string together more 60-minute efforts like Monday night's.
"Every game (this season), we've always been in it," Jeffery said. "We were right there -- we played 30 minutes -- we didn't play 60. Tonight, we played 60. If we keep rolling and keep playing 60 (minutes), we're going to be great."
NOTES: Vikings PR Marcus Sherels (wrist injury) did not play Monday night. Sherels, who is tied for third in the NFL in punt return average, did not practice last week, but was listed as questionable. ... KR Cordarrelle Patterson played after clearing the NFL's concussion protocol over the weekend. ... Bears QB Jay Cutler returned after missing five games with a thumb sprain. ... RG Kyle Long did not play after suffering a quadriceps injury last week against Green Bay. ... LG Josh Sitton missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. ... RB Jeremy Langford was active after missing four games with a high ankle sprain.