Behind Enemy Lines: Vikings-Bears, Part III

The Vikings and Bears have had many strange bounces of the ball in their series lately, making Sunday's matchup a tough one to call. What isn't as tough is figuring out some of the key matchups to watch. There are several of them on both sides of the ball, as John Crist of Bear Report and Tim Yotter of Viking Update further dissect an all-important NFC North midseason matchup.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON OFFENSE
QB Jay Cutler vs. Vikings' secondary

Starting right cornerback Asher Allen, who is hoping to recover from a concussion, said Cutler is no more uneven than any other quarterback in the NFL from a game-to-game basis. But Cutler can still go from dominating to dog. Last year, when the Vikings and Bears met in Chicago, Cutler was truly dominating. He helped propel the Bears to a 16-0 lead and eventually finished it in overtime with a touchdown pass to Devin Aromashodu. Cutler hit on 20 of 35 passes for 273 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception. This year, the Vikings are trying to patch together their corner position. Antoine Winfield remains the savvy veteran, but with Cedric Griffin knocked out for the season after another torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Vikings are vulnerable. Allen, rookie Chris Cook and two veteran newcomers this year – Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker – have all had their inconsistencies and injuries. If Cutler can gain confidence early, it would be a bad sign for the Vikings.

Gs Chris Williams and Roberto Garza vs. DTs Kevin Williams and Pat Williams
Chris Williams may have played the best football of his career last season against the Vikings at Soldier Field, holding defensive end Jared Allen at bay from his left tackle position, but his play has gone straight downhill ever since and now he's lining up at left guard. The former first-round pick has been totally manhandled by Washington's Albert Haynesworth and Buffalo's Kyle Williams his last two games, which suggests he doesn't have the strength or leverage required to battle inside. He and Garza now face potentially their toughest matchup of the year, as Minnesota's "Williams Wall" still defends the run at an elite level.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON DEFENSE
DE Julius Peppers vs. OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt

McKinnie played so poorly against Peppers last year when the veteran defensive end was still with the Carolina Panthers that McKinnie was pulled from the game. Fans can argue if McKinnie deserved his first Pro Bowl recognition last year, but facing Peppers was clearly the lowlight of McKinnie's last five years in the league. He gave up one sack, a few other pressures, had a false start and a holding call. Peppers was in his head, and it showed. If Peppers moves to the other side of the line, his prospects might be just as good – if not better. Loadholt doesn't have the foot quickness of McKinnie and has struggled at times in his second season, presumably because he is recovering from offseason surgery. Either way, the Vikings will have to contain Peppers and Israel Idonije if they want to keep Favre upright so he can take advantage of the Bears' defensive weakness: their pass defense.

CB D.J. Moore vs. WR Percy Harvin
After a total disappearing act his rookie season, Moore won the job at nickel back in training camp and has played a lot better at that all-important position than most of the experts figured he would. Currently leading the Bears with three interceptions, one of which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown against the Redskins in Week 7, the 5-foot-9, 183-pounder faces one of the more explosive slot receivers in the game Sunday in Harvin. While he has again been struggling with migraine headaches this week and missed some practice time, Harvin is now Minnesota's primary weapon in the passing game with Randy Moss gone, Sidney Rice injured all season and Bernard Berrian never truly clicking with Favre.


RB Adrian Peterson
Scott Boehm/Getty

THE VIKINGS WIN IF...
... they avoid turnovers. Vikings coach Brad Childress has talked multiple times this week about how good Chicago's defenders are at raking and stripping the football. Adrian Peterson appears to have a handle on the fumbling problem that plagued him early in his career, and especially last year, but the Bears will certainly test his resolve in that regard. Peterson isn't credited with any fumbles this year, but the Vikings have a new turnover problem with Favre's erratic play. Last year, Favre had only seven interceptions. At the halfway point this year, he has 13 and Minnesota is tied for second to last in the league with a minus-9 turnover margin. The Vikings are the more talented team – sorry, they just are – but the Bears know better than anyone that turnovers can be the great equalizer.

THE BEARS WIN IF...
... Cutler wins his matchup with the opposing "river boat gambler," as Favre put it Wednesday when talking to the Chicago media. In the four starts Cutler has won, his passer ratings have been 108.3, 136.7, 82.5 and 97.6. In the three starts he has lost, his passer ratings have been 40.7, 69.4 and 54.3. Because the Bears are a passing team more than ever, no matter how balanced the offense was last week against the Bills, they simply can't win if they get poor play at the quarterback position. Plus, Favre has thrown 13 INTs already after only seven all of 2009, so an opportunistic Bears defense needs to take the ball away two or three times.

THE VIKINGS LOSE IF...
... they can't handle the quirks of the road. It's been more than a year since the Vikings have won on the road. The last time was Nov. 1, 2009 at Lambeau Field. Since then, they have lost to Arizona, Carolina, Chicago and New Orleans to close out their 2009 season. This year, the trend continues with losses to the Saints again, the Jets, the Packers and the Patriots. Minnesota now has an eight-game road losing streak. Oftentimes, it has been penalties and turnovers that deny them the win. In last year's overtime loss at Soldier Field, the Vikings suffered a blocked extra point in the third quarter that contributed to the loss, as did lost fumbles by Favre and Peterson. If they want to make a run at the playoffs, they will have to win at least two of their four remaining road games, and they'd do well to start reversing the trend in Chicago.

THE BEARS LOSE IF...
... their third-ranked rush defense can't contain Peterson. While Chicago may only be allowing 83.9 yards per game on the ground, Peterson has 66 carries for 439 yards and seven touchdowns in just three career outings at Soldier Field. If "All Day" has another monster day along Lake Michigan, that means the Bears will have to creep their two safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. Therefore, Favre can potentially kill them downfield with the play-action pass. Minnesota is questionable at receiver right now, even if Rice plays his first game of the year Sunday, so ganging up on Peterson is Job 1.

FINAL PREDICTIONS
Tim Yotter:
The Vikings' road woes are hard to ignore. They shouldn't be ignored. But neither should the Bears' quality of opponents this season. They have only one win against a top team. Put those two conflicting trends together, pair them with a divisional matchup and a history of strange things happening in this series recently, and you can create any number of scenarios for how this game could go down. The Vikings are desperate the rest of the year and don't want to waste what will likely be Favre's last season – no, really, he means it this time. Flip a coin on this one, because it could be a blowout for either team, but history has shown tightly-contested matchups in Chicago. The potential return of Rice could make a difference and we'll go with the oddsmakers here, predicting a tight Vikings win. ... VIKINGS 30, BEARS 27.

John Crist: It's so hard to get a read on either of these teams this season. Yes, the Bears beat the Packers at home in Week 3, but their other three victories have been over clubs with a combined record of 3-21. The Vikings lost three of four games after acquiring Moss, and then in their first game without him in Week 9, they needed a miracle comeback late in the fourth quarter just to push an awful Cardinals team to overtime – they eventually won on a field goal. Can the Bears bury a division rival, or will the Vikings get back in the race? Either way, expect some weird bounces because this series has produced a bunch of them lately. ... VIKINGS 27, BEARS 20.

To go back and read Part I of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answered five questions from Tim, Click Here. To read Part II, where Tim answered five questions from John, Click Here.


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John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Tim Yotter is the publisher of VikingUpdate.com.


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