The Minnesota Vikings must play perhaps their best yet this season to emerge from the last six games with a playoff spot, let alone a winning record.
The defensive line will have a big part in it.
Minnesota visits Chicago on Sunday and Green Bay the week after, facing the NFC North co-leaders with 7-3 records. The Vikings are right behind at 6-4, and to catch them they're probably going to have to chase down their quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage at least a few times.
The Vikings have mostly been voicing the one-game-at-a-time line like a typical football team, but it's difficult to ignore the magnitude of this closing stretch.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who missed the last game because of a concussion but has been cleared for practice, has taken the second-most sacks in the league with 28. Aaron Rodgers of the Packers is first with 32.
As strong as both of these long-time rivals are in other areas, pass protection is one weakness the Vikings are equipped to exploit.
"That's a big deal for us, to be able to rush the passer. You want to be able to do it every week. It's something we target," coach Leslie Frazier said.
After tying for the NFL lead with 50 sacks last year, the Vikings have slipped a bit. They're tied for 11th in the league with 26. Jared Allen, who nearly broke the all-time single-season record in 2011 with 22 sacks, has seven, tied for 13th in the NFL. Brian Robison has 5½.
With Jason Campbell subbing for Cutler at San Francisco on Monday, the Bears were blown out and gave up six sacks. But defensive coordinator Alan Williams downplayed any new holes the 49ers might have opened for them.
"I think that ballgame was kind of an anomaly in terms of what happened the other night. If you look at that and think that's what Chicago is, that's a huge mistake. It'll be a completely different team this Sunday," Williams said.
Allen has been bothered by minor groin and shoulder injuries, but he said the bye week helped him freshen up. That's what it's for.
"You just work through it. Nobody is 100 percent this time of year," Allen said.
In eight games against the Bears since he was traded to the Vikings in 2008, Allen has 13 sacks. But he has only enjoyed two victories, none of them at Soldier Field. Minnesota's win there in 2007 is the only one since 2000.
"There has to be a sense of urgency, and this game is as big as it gets this week," Allen said. "Might as well be the Super Bowl for this week. Then we'll move on to next week."
For Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota, four of their final six games are intra-division. So as difficult as the remaining schedule is, also including a trip to AFC-leading Houston, at least staying in the race won't require any extra help. The Vikings simply need to win most of these last contests, and they'll give themselves a chance to extend their season into January.
"Who do we want to be? Do we want to be a playoff team or not? You've got to go out there and win on the road and win tough games. We hold our own destiny. We create our own opportunities. And this is where we're at," linebacker Chad Greenway said.