Vikings vs. Bears 2012 game preview: Critical NFC North matchup in Week 12

Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE

The Bears will look to avoid losing a third straight game and allowing the Vikings to pass them in the divisional standings.

One of only three games between teams with winning records on Sunday, the battle between the Vikings and Bears is a big one in the extremely close NFC North. The 7-3 Packers and 7-3 Bears sit atop the division standings with the Vikings just one game behind with a 6-4 record.

With a win, the Vikings would take a trip to Lambeau for a chance to take the division lead, but would fall two games behind with a loss. The big question of the game though, is whether or not Jay Cutler will be the starting quarterback for the Bears.

After limited practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Cutler is listed as questionable for Sunday and would likely be replaced by Jason Campbell in the event that he cannot play. In Cutler's absence, the Bears have struggled mightily, losing back-to-back games since a concussion forced him out of the lineup at halftime of a loss to the Texans.

Meet the Bears

During the 2012 season, the difference for the Bears with Cutler in the lineup and Campbell in the lineup has been obvious. Although Campbell has thrown a higher percentage of completed passes, he has just one touchdown with two interceptions. Cutler has 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, despite playing behind an offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked 28 times. Leading the way for the passing offense has been Brandon Marshall, the veteran receiver that has hauled in 69 receptions for 925 yards and eight touchdowns.

The top 5 defense of the Bears has been the true story of the season in Chicago, though. With seven interceptions returned for touchdowns through 10 games, the Bears have the third most in a season in the history of the NFL. Charles Tillman has two of those interception returns and had a 22-yard interceptions return in his last game against the Vikings. The other starting cornerback, Tim Jennings, leads the NFL with eight interceptions.

Meet the Vikings

The Vikings bounced back from losses in three of four games with a 34-24 win against the Detroit Lions. In that game, second-year quarterback Christian Ponder finished with 221 yards passing, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He'll need a similar mistake-free performance against the ball-hawking Bears defense. He can certainly be helped by the efforts of Adrian Peterson, though. The Vikings running back leads the league with 1,128 yards rushing on only 195 carries, including seven touchdowns, despite tearing an ACL late in the 2011 season.

The defense of the Vikings is on the precipice of being ranked in the top 10 in the league, despite not many superstar names. Among the players that are well-known is defensive end Jared Allen. He leads the team with seven sacks, but has made quite the impact against the Bears in his career. In eight meetings with the NFC North rival he has 13 sacks, including 3.5 sacks in the last matchup. In the secondary, Antoine Winfield leads a team that doesn't force many turnovers with two interceptions .

Local Takes: Bears

Sam Householder from Windy City Gridiron says that the recent absence of Cutler could prove advantageous for the quarterback in contract negotiations:

For the team, this means Cutler is clearly the franchise-level QB the Bears expected him to be when they traded for him, even without winning Super Bowls or throwing for 4,000 yards. He wins games and that is all that matters in this league.

With his contract setting to expire after next season and extension discussions looming, perhaps these numbers will creep into the conversation between his agent and the team. Clearly, Cutler is worth more to the Bears than his back ups.

Local Takes: Vikings

Ted Glover from Daily Norseman says that this is a very important stretch of games for the Vikings, beginning with Sunday's game against the Bears:

This is the biggest three week stretch of football for the Minnesota Vikings since the 2009 season. Over the first 10 games, they have shown they can be one of the most fundamentally sound football teams in the NFL to give believers hope that they can come through this stretch unscathed--but they have also shown some vulnerabilities that give plenty of ammunition to skeptics that think this is the Vikings swan song, and 0-3 is a foregone conclusion.

Follow the Fun

Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Windy City Gridiron and Daily Norseman, for more analysis and highlights from the game.

Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:

@DailyNorseman

@Official_WCG

Vikings beat writer, @StribDW

Bears beat writer, @MikeCWright

Prediction

From the Week 12 picks:

This game is off the board at sportsbooks because we don't know yet whether Jay Cutler will play. If you saw Monday's game with Jason Campbell starting for the Bears, then you know just how important Cutler is to the offense. It's early in the week but I'll make a guess that Cutler plays, and plays well.

The pick: 14-9, Bears

Odds

After the Bears opened as 6.5-point favorites, the game's odds were pulled from many sportsbooks due to the uncertainty of the status of Cutler, according to OddsShark.

Next Week

The Bears will host the Seahawks in Week 12, while the Vikings will continue NFC North play with a trip to play the Packers at Lambeau Field.

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