The Chicago Bears travel to Minnesota for a critical NFC North matchup in Week 14. The Bears have lost three of the past four games, and are coming off an overtime loss to the Seahawks at home. At 8-4, they are even with Green Bay for first place in the division with a host of teams, including Seattle, jockeying for two Wild Card spots with just four games to go. At 6-6, the Vikings have an outside shot to get back in the postseason discussion but they'll need to run the table against a tough December slate.
Chicago has sustained a slew of injuries in the second half of the season. While they have Jay Cutler back under center, they'll play the Vikings without Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings on the defensive side of the ball and without Earl Bennett on offense. Helping fill the void created by Bennett's absence should be Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery, who are both expected to return.
The Bears handled the Vikings just two weeks ago, but Adrian Peterson managed to find running room against a touted rush defense. Minnesota is also 5-1 at home this season and desperate to avoid a third straight division loss.
Meet the Vikings
Minnesota is a starkly one-dimensional team on offense, and Peterson is simply a force of nature out of the backfield. No one really knew what to expect out of the veteran running back after he tore his ACL last December, but he made his way back for the start of the 2012 season and has ripped through the league again. The Vikings are third in the NFL averaging 154.9 yards per game, and that's been largely done on the back of Peterson. With 1,446 yards through the first three quarters of the season, he's well on his way to his second rushing title.
Peterson started the season somewhat slowly as he recovered from the ACL injury, but he's dominated opponents in the second half. He's broken the 100-yard mark in his last six games, including a 210-yard peformance last week against the Packers. Chicago's rush defense has been vulnerable over the past month, and Peterson will have another opportunity at a 100-yard day this week. He tallied 108 yards two weeks ago against this same Bears defense. If the Vikings pull it off, they'll need Peterson to gain traction on the ground and maybe break a big one for a quick strike.
If there's one back who can carry the league's worst passing offense, it's Peterson. The Vikings, with second-year QB Christian Ponder taking the snaps, are throwing for just 180.6 yards per game -- dead last in the NFL. Ponder has been healthy all year and has taken every snap, but the Vikings pass game has been stuck in neutral. Part of this is Ponder's ineffectiveness, and part is the dynamism of Peterson, who should be appropriately emphasized in the offense. Ponder has played much better in the second half of the season, but he took a step back in Green Bay last week. He'll need to at least threaten the Bears defense outside the numbers and down the field.
Meet the Bears
This is a crucial game for the Bears, who will host the Packers next week with the division likely on the line. Chicago is nursing injuries all over the field, and the defense that was this team's identity has suffered several key blows. Urlacher's season is likely over, and Lance Brigg and Charles Tillman have also been banged up in recent weeks. Jennings, the team's leader in interceptions, is a big loss in the secondary.
Chicago has defeated their division rival six straight times, but they'll need their defense to step up and slow down Peterson in order to keep that streak alive. That defense was exposed last week in the loss to Seattle, yielding nearly 460 yards against an offense led by rookie Russell Wilson. Chicago is still among the best in the NFL at forcing turnovers, and there will certainly be opportunities against Ponder.
Jay Cutler has had a solid season leading the Bears offense. The turnovers created by the defense have often spotted the Bears leads, and they rarely fail to capitalize on opportunities. Cutler repeatedly targets Brandon Marshall on the outside, who should have a significant size advantage this week. Cutler has a propensity for forcing the ball but he's limited his turnovers this season, and he'll need to do that again on the road.
The Bears have established a solid run-pass balance, mixing in Matt Forte and Michael Bush to support the Cutler-to-Marshall threat. Forte is probable after playing with a gimpy ankle last week, while Bush is questionable with injured ribs. The Vikings are in the top half of the league against both the pass and run, but they still give up over 115 yards per game. Chicago will have their hands full up front, however, with Jared Allen and Brian Robison flying off the edge. The Bears held their own last week, but expect the Vikings to putt consistent pressure on Cutler and force him to get rid of it quickly. The battle along the Bears offensive line is likely the key to the game.
Local Takes: Vikings
Ted Glover of Daily Norseman writes about where the Vikings might turn on offense:
Who will step up on offense?: With Percy Harvin out for the rest of the year, Ponder's job got harder, and somebody needs to step up. My hope is that it's Jarius Wright, who's flashed some talent in his first few games, and he has the longest reception of the year for the Vikings. Bill Musgrave needs to find answers besides Adrian Peterson, and he needs to find them right now.
Local Takes: Bears
With injuries piling up, Dave Gilbert of Windy City Gridiron looks at the remaining schedule and wonders if it's time to panic -- starting this week in Minnesota:
This week sees them take on the Vikings again in what needs to be seen as a must win game. Slipping to 8-5 with a game against the Packers around the corner would put them in a really tough position and even though their last two matchups are against Arizona and Detroit, they really can't afford to lose games against teams like Minnesota.
The Vikings main threat remains running back Adrian Petersonwho should receive comeback player of the year, coming off a big ACL injury that many thought would hinder his ability. That hasn't been the case and he leads the league in rushing yards with 1446. After looking good earlier in the season, the play of Vikings quarterback, Christian Ponder has greatly diminished, and with wide receiver Percy Harvin ruled out, the Bears shouldn't have too many problems with the Vikings' offense.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
@DaneNoble - Windy City Gridiron
DJ Moore will have a rare opportunity this week versus the #Vikings to play himself out of Lovie Smith's dog house.— Dane Noble (@DaneNoble) December 7, 2012
@StribDW - Dan Wiederer, Vikings beat reporter
Also, Vikings aren't the only team whose season went from promising to frustrating. Quick: bit.ly/RccVxS We see you Chicago.— Dan Wiederer (@StribDW) December 7, 2012
@VxMcClure23 - Vaughn McClure, Bears beat reporter
Urlacher expected to be sidelined 3 weeks with Grade 2 hamstring strain. Hopes to be fully healthy for playoffs. trib.in/TG0J6C— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) December 4, 2012
If there were a database of NFL player injuries tracking the time it took each payer to come back from an ACL tear, you would take Adrian Peterson's recovery timetable and throw it out because it would screw everything up. He's a freak of nature and there's no reason he should be playing this well after tearing his ACL late last season. That said, the rest of his team isn't on his level. Christian Ponder is struggling, which is horrible timing with the Bears coming to town.
The pick: 14-10, Bears
The Bears are favored by two to three points on the road, according to OddsShark.
The Vikings hit the road for their final game against the NFC West, a Week 15 date with the St. Louis Rams. The Bears will host the Packers at Soldier Field in what could be the deciding game in the division.