MINNEAPOLIS -- From Herschel Walker's return of the opening kickoff to Mike Merriweather's final sack, the Minnesota Vikings thoroughly dominated the Chicago Bears yesterday in the Metrodome.
By midway through the second quarter, the Vikings led, 27-0, more points than the Bears had allowed in a game all season.
The Vikings (5-6) coasted to a 41-13 victory, their fourth consecutive, to keep them in the playoff picture.
The Vikings also prevented the Bears (9-2), who had won six in a row, from clinching a playoff spot. Chicago also entered the game with a chance to clinch the National Football Conference Central title.
"Each game for us these past few weeks has been a playoff game," said nose tackle Henry Thomas, who had one of the Vikings' season-high seven sacks of the Bears' Jim Harbaugh. "If we win next week, we get to go on to another level of the playoffs."
The Vikings, who were 1-6 when November started, will try to reach .500 Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers, who are a game ahead of them in the division at 6-5.
"We're playing better," Vikings coach Jerry Burns said. "I've said all along we're getting better."
The Vikings especially have gotten better at making big plays and at getting the right bounces.
"We'd make the exact same plays six, seven weeks ago, and the bounce would go the other way," said defensive end Chris Doleman, who had 2 1/2 sacks. "Life is balancing out for us."
Walker's 64-yard return of the opening kickoff quickly shifted the balance the Vikings' way. John Mangum's tackle at the Bears' 31 prevented Walker from going all the way.
The Vikings, though, had to settle for Fuad Reveiz's 41-yard field goal. Moments later, after Al Noga sacked Harbaugh and forced a fumble, recovered by Ken Clarke at the Bears 25, the Vikings settled for another field goal, a 45-yarder by Reveiz that caromed through after hitting the left upright.
"I was disappointed when we could have been up, 14-0, but got only the two field goals out of that great field position," quarterback Rich Gannon said. "But we came on after that, scored some points and really took control of the game."
The Vikings scored touchdowns on their next four drives to take a 34-3 halftime lead. They scored on all six possessions in the first half, a club record.
Walker scored on a 2-yard run to make it 13-0, the 51-yard drive set up by Leo Lewis' season-best, 30-yard punt return.
The Bears, who like to play ball control with their top-ranked running game, had just one first down and 5 rushing yards in the first quarter. It got better, but by then it was too late.
In the second quarter, Gannon went to work, completing all nine passes he tried, including three for touchdowns -- his first three-touchdown game.
First, he hit Walker in the right flat with a short flip, and Walker juked past safety Mark Carrier and followed Anthony Carter's block to complete a 17-yard scoring play.
After Merriweather sacked Harbaugh and forced a fumble, recovered by Joey Browner, it took the Vikings three plays to score for a 27-0 lead. Gannon rolled right and hit Hassan Jones, who deftly cut inside the pylon for the touchdown.
The Bears finally scored on their next possession. They reached the Minnesota 14, but had to settle for Kevin Butler's 40-yard field goal.
Finally, Gannon capped the first-half dominance with a 22-yard pass to Carter, who made a leaping catch in the left front of the end zone with two Bears defending.
"Gannon was a little shaky early on, but then he threw well, stayed in the pocket to find the receivers and made a couple of big runs," Burns said.
Gannon was 12-for-19 for 146 yards and was not intercepted. He was sacked once for a 1-yard loss.
"I kept on saying to myself, 'No mistakes. Don't make mistakes,' " Gannon said. "The Bears thrive on the other guys' mistakes, and I didn't want to get us in trouble by making any."
He didn't. For only the second time this season, the Vikings didn't have a turnover.
Meanwhile, the Vikings recovered three Bears fumbles, which led to 17 points.
In the third quarter, Bears halfback Neal Anderson was tackled by Clarke on a run up the middle. Merriweather came in, threw a shoulder into Anderson, then stole the ball from his left arm and headed for the end zone, barely making it into the left corner with a dive to complete a 33-yard scoring play.