The Chicago Bears (8-4) currently hold the fifth seed in the NFC. On Sunday, they will play their fourth NFC North matchup of the season, squaring off against the Minnesota Vikings (6-6) in Minneapolis. It will be the second of four divisional contests for the Bears over the final six weeks of the season, and the fourth of seven consecutive games against NFC opponents to close out the year.
Chicago is on a six-game win streak over Minnesota, which includes a 28-10 victory two weeks ago at Soldier Field. It is the Bears' longest win streak against the Vikings. In the all-time series, Minnesota has a 52-49-2 advantage. The home team has won 17 of the last 21 meetings.
-The Vikings placed WR Percy Harvin (ankle) on injured reserve this week. Everyone else on Minnesota's injury list is probable.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 13th (24.5)
Total offense: 30th (304.0)
Rushing offense: 10th (122.8)
Passing offense: 31st (181.3)
Minnesota's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 18th (22.7)
Total defense: 13th (344.8)
Rushing defense: 14th (115.1)
Passing defense: 14th (229.8)
Turnover ratio: 22nd (-6)
Matchups to Watch
LT J'Marcus Webb vs. DE Jared Allen
Against Minnesota, this is always the biggest matchup for Chicago's offense. In the past, Allen has made mincemeat of Webb, including a 3.5-sack performance in last year's season finale. Yet two weeks ago, Webb didn't give up a single sack. That had as much to do with the play calling – which utilized a quick-passing attack – as it did Webb's performance. Still, Webb has shown a lot of improvement this season. If he can again step up and keep Allen at bay, QB Jay Cutler should have plenty of time to pick apart Minnesota's 14th-ranked pass defense.
WR Alshon Jeffery vs. CB A.J. Jefferson
The Vikings will put their best cornerback, Antoine Winfield, on Brandon Marshall for most of the game. That leaves Jefferson to cover Jeffery, who is returning after a three-week absence following arthroscopic knee surgery. He has missed six games his rookie season, yet no one has stepped up in his absence. Expect him to see plenty of reps in his first game back, with the Bears trying to quickly work him back into the fold as the No. 2 option in the passing game. If Jeffery can get going, things will open up for Marshall, which should be a recipe for success.
Keys on Offense
-While Allen gets most of the publicity, Minnesota's other starting defensive end, Brian Robison, is no slouch. He's a quality pass rusher – he has 5.5 sacks this season – as well as a strong run stopper. Bears RT Jonathan Scott has been hit or miss the last two games, his first as a starter with the team, while Gabe Carimi will be starting only his second career game at right guard. These two must be able to communicate and work effectively as a tandem to keep Robison, as well as DT Kevin Williams, out of the backfield.
-On each and every play, Chicago's offense must be aware of LB Chad Greenway, who leads the league in tackles. The Bears have struggled to run the ball the past few games, averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry. Establishing RB Matt Forte will be a priority in this game, which will allow Chicago to keep control of the ball and Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, as well as a banged up defense, off the field. The offensive line, particularly G Edwin Williams, must get better on their pulls and traps in order to open holes in the run game and help win the time-of-possession battle. That all starts, though, with making sure Greenway is accounted for.
-The passing attack starts and ends with Brandon Marshall. Two weeks ago, the Vikings had no answer for him, allowing Marshall to catch 12 passes for 92 yards. The Bears utilized a short and intermediate passing attack that slowly chewed up Minnesota's Cover 2 shell. The Vikings will obviously be keying on Marshall again, which could create some opportunities to capitalize on the aggressiveness of the secondary. Double moves could get Marshall open for some big plays down the field, as Minnesota might be quick to jump on the underneath stuff. If the Bears can convert a few of those plays, that should be enough for the victory.
Bears on Defense
WR Alshon Jeffery
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 2nd (16.5)
Total defense: 5th (319.7)
Rushing defense: 10th (103.5)
Passing defense: 7th (216.2)
Turnover Ratio: 2nd (+14)
Minnesota's offensive rankings
Points scored: 18th (21.8)
Total offense: 22nd (335.5)
Rushing offense: 3rd (154.9)
Passing offense: 32nd (180.6)
Matchups to Watch
S Major Wright vs. RB Adrian Peterson
Peterson leads the league in rushing (1,446 yards) and is running like a man possessed. The best running back in the league is even stronger this year after blowing out his knee late last season. He's a one-man wrecking crew whom the Vikings will lean on during Sunday's contest. With a reshuffled starting linebacker crew – WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Nick Roach and SLB Geno Hayes – the Bears will want to keep an eighth man in the box to limit Peterson. Wright will be that extra player. He's been very good against the run all year and will again need to step up and be a sound tackler if Chicago has any hope of stopping AP – who ran for 108 yards against the Bears two weeks ago.
LB Geno Hayes vs. TE Kyle Rudolph
Since Harvin first went down with his ankle sprain a month ago, Minnesota's passing attack has been in shambles. No wide receiver has stepped to fill the void. Only Rudolph has raised his level of play. He's now QB Christian Ponder's favorite target, having caught 18 passes for 170 yards and 3 TDs the past three weeks. Hayes steps in as the strong-side starter with Urlacher on the shelf. On 1st and 2nd down, Hayes will be called upon to cover Rudolph. By limiting Minnesota's biggest threat in the passing game, the Bears will be able to comfortably keep an eighth man in the box throughout the contest.
Keys on Defense
-Nick Roach's play in the game will be huge. He's been the strong-side starter the past two years but will step inside to middle linebacker in place of Urlacher for the remainder of the season. In only his fourth ever starter at MLB, Roach gets the task of trying to stop AP. If there was ever a week in which Roach needs to be sound, it's this one. He must be confident in his reads and play smart, physical, gap-control football. If he gets pushed around, misreads or overruns plays, Peterson could have a field day. Roach must quickly adapt to his new position.
-Minnesota's best run-blocking offensive lineman is C John Sullivan, who can maul with the best of them. NT Stephen Paea is suffering from a foot injury and is questionable. If he can't go, that puts extra onus on defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nick Collins to hold their ground against Sullivan. If they fold and holes open up in the middle of the field, that will allow Peterson to get a full head of steam heading into the second level, which is a surefire way for Chicago's defense to get horribly gashed. If Paea sits, NT Matt Toeaina will likely be active for the first time in eight weeks.
-With Harvin out, the Vikings have a serious lack of talent at wide receiver. Michael Jenkins is the leading receiver behind Harvin, with 30 catches for 324 yards. If there was ever a good game for Tim Jennings to miss, it'll be this one. Starting cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Kelvin Hayden should be able to corral the wide players. In the slot though, D.J. Moore will have his hands full with Jarius Wright, who has taken over Harvin's role as Minnesota's slot receiver. Wright was targeted 10 times against the Bears two weeks ago. Expect him to again see a lot of looks, with the Vikings using his speed to try and exploit the middle of Chicago's defense. Moore, who has been benched since Week 9, must be solid in his return to duty.
-Chicago's pass rush has tapered off recently. The Bears haven't had a game with more than two sacks since Week 6 against the Detroit Lions. During that six-game stretch, Chicago has fallen from first in the league in total sacks, down to eighth. Every front-line player deserves some of the blame. A strong performance against the Vikings will not only rattle Ponder and force some errant throws, but it will also give the Bears' defensive line confidence heading into next week's crucial matchup against the Packers.
PREDICTION: Bears 23, Vikings 13
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.