MATCHUPS TO WATCH: VIKINGS ON DEFENSE
Bears Receivers vs. CB Asher Allen
The Vikings are looking to regroup in what was easily their worst run-defending performance of the season against the Giants. Not only did they allow a rarity for them, giving up a 100- yard rusher, but they allowed two of them, as Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both got loose against a normally stout run defense. If the Vikings can rebound there, the other formula for success against Minnesota has been working over Allen at cornerback. He has been the consistent target of offensive game plans with Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook both on injured reserve. Allen is better suited as a nickel back, but because of injuries he has been starting – and struggling – more than ever. No doubt the Bears will go after him when they need a key third down, and his ability to make a few plays could be the difference.
LT Frank Omiyale vs. DE Jared Allen
After a slow start to the season, Allen has 7.5 sacks in his last five games, including two the first time he faced Omiyale and the Bears back in Week 10. Chicago seemed to repair its wretched offensive line at the season's midpoint, with Omiyale's switch from right tackle to left tackle a big part of said repair, but all of a sudden quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked 15 times in his last five outings and lost a fumble due to premature pressure in the pocket each of the last two weeks. Even if the Vikings have nothing left to play for and may as well mail in the rest of the year, Allen's motor is always running at 100 percent and could present some problems off the edge.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: VIKINGS ON OFFENSE
Bears Defense vs. QB Joe Webb
For all of intrigue of a surging Julius Peppers against the Vikings' two mammoth offensive tackles and how effective Adrian Peterson can be against the No. 2 rushing defense, if the Vikings are going to have a chance to win this one, it will come down to the decision-making of a very raw rookie quarterback. Webb has thrown five passes in his young NFL career. All of them came last week. He has double the number of rushing yards (16) as passing yards (8), and yet he's going against a defense that loves to live on turnovers. If Webb can avoid them – and that's a big if – then the Vikings will have a chance. But if Webb is pressured and forces the issue instead of using his legs, then the Bears should notch another NFC North win.
CBs Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings vs. WR Sidney Rice
With Webb making his first career start, the Vikings will no doubt lean on Peterson and the running game to take some of the pressure off the rookie signal caller. But when he does look to throw, rest assured that Rice is going to be his primary weapon since he's a matchup nightmare for most cornerbacks and doesn't necessarily need the ball to be delivered perfectly on target to come up with the catch. Tillman has struggled mightily in coverage the last few weeks and hasn't recorded one of his signature forced fumbles since he had two of them in Week 7 against the Redskins, plus the 5-8 Jennings gives up eight inches to the 6-4 Rice.
WR Sidney Rice
THE VIKINGS WIN IF...
... they can avoid the costly turnover. That's usually true, but against an overly opportunistic Bears defense, that even more true. For a while, the Bears were the bane of Peterson's fumbling problems, but he hasn't been credited with a fumble yet this year. If he can keep that streak alive against the Bears, he should push his streak to more than 300 touches without a lost fumble. The last time he lost one? Dec. 28, 2009 – against the Bears. As mentioned above, Webb will also have to be wary of the Bears when he's scrambling around and looking for a receiver to target. Chicago will be relentless, and the Vikings have to keep their focus – and their grip on the ball – during a cold-weather game that likely tempts them to check out at the first sign of adversity.
THE BEARS WIN IF...
... they are patient both offensively and defensively, meaning they stay committed to the ground attack and wait for Webb to inevitably make a crucial mistake or two. The Minnesota rush defense isn't nearly what it once was, as everyone saw last week in the Giants game, and the fact that the field will be hard and slippery makes it tougher for the likes of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams to stay in their gaps up front. If the Bears take the lead early and keep Peterson relatively in check, no way should a rookie passer from Birmingham, Alabama, have a whole lot of success with game-time temperatures expected to be in the single digits.
THE VIKINGS LOSE IF...
... they can't get Peterson loose. Ever since Leslie Frazier took over as interim head coach, he has wanted to emphasize the running game more. That was a little easier to do when he had a veteran quarterback that defenses had to respect. When Tarvaris Jackson played the majority of the Bills game after Brett Favre was hurt at the end of the first series, they were going against one of the worst run defenses in the league. Peterson got more than 100 yards, and Toby Gerhart played a big role as well. But going against a more stout defense in the Giants last week, the Vikings struggled in the running game and Jackson was rendered ineffective. Now that they are entering the game with an even less experienced quarterback, the running game is paramount. Webb will have to make some plays with the perimeter passing game, but the onus will be on the offensive line and Peterson to cut through a crowded line of scrimmage and try to get the hard yards.
THE BEARS LOSE IF...
... they don't come out firing on all cylinders in the first half and end up trailing early. Chicago hasn't been a very good football team this season playing from behind, as that gives offensive coordinator Mike Martz all the ammunition he needs to throw on every play and the Bears defense is then forced to bring its safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to slow down the enemy ground assault. However, if the Bears can make it a double-digit advantage before halftime, they'll be able to speed up the game by handing off liberally to both Matt Forte and Chester Taylor after intermission and, therefore, render Peterson utterly useless.
Tim Yotter: Minnesota doesn't have a lot going for it right now. The Metrodome collapse is a metaphor for the season. Players were inflated with high expectations at the start of the season, but eventually the weight of their distractions ripped their hopes and collapsed their season. This is the first game they will play knowing they are officially out of the playoffs. They don't know who their coach will be next year. They are playing outside for a "home" game, the third straight "home" game that is in a different stadium, and they are playing in front of a crowd that could be irritated with the way the move to TCF Bank Stadium was handled. They have a rookie quarterback who has never played a game in freezing temperatures and he's making his first start in the NFL, having thrown only five passes. Almost nothing looks favorable for the Vikings as they enter this game. Can they respond to playing for pride instead of the playoffs? Can Webb beat the odds and perform like a pro in his first start with all the adversity and a tough defense? The Vikings will need to need to overcome a lot of negative indicators to do right in front of dozens of their 50 greatest players being celebrated. ... BEARS 23, VIKINGS 13.
John Crist: This is another big game for the Bears, as a win over Minnesota coupled with a Green Bay loss at New England gives them the NFC North title and a playoff berth for the first time since 2006. The Vikings, on the other hand, have nothing left to play for, although Frazier should have his team ready to play since he's auditioning to have the word "interim" removed from his current job title. Injuries are once again a factor, as Chicago is incredibly healthy at this point of the season, and don't forget that Webb was originally drafted to be a receiver. ... BEARS 20, VIKINGS 10.
John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Tim Yotter is the publisher of VikingUpdate.com.