As with the first time they met this season and both were teams were 2-0, there is no hype needed for a Vikings-Bears matchup. In the first game between the NFC North rivals this season, with six minutes remaining, it looked like the Vikings were going to come away with a win. The Bears were burning timeouts and the team was only one first down away from killing off the clock. But a fumble and a score later, the Bears came out with a 19-16 win and things haven't been the same for the Vikings.
Since that time, the Bears have gone 6-2, while the Vikings have gone 2-6. The Vikings' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread and, if they needed any more motivation, it was provided by Rex Grossman. In what has been called some of the saltiest smack talk in recent memory, Grossman let some of the Vikings defenders have it after his touchdown pass. Unfortunately for him, he was riding high then. Now is a different story. In his last six games, he has thrown 11 interceptions and his passer rating has dropped from 109.0 to 77.6. While he has a strong arm, his lack of height makes it difficult for him to see over defenders and he is liable to being intercepted. If pressured, he will throw the ill-advised pass, so the Vikings need to make it a priority to keep him from getting comfortable or he will pick apart the Vikings defense with short passes like teams have for the last month.
One of the big challenges will be to see if the Bears are willing to abandon what they do offensively out of respect for the Vikings defense. While the Bears passing offense has been the talk of their town this year, they still have one more rushing play than pass attempt (356-355). Thomas Jones has again been steady, averaging more than 20 carries a game and just 55 yards away from another 1,000-yard rushing season. When he gets a rest, second-year pro Cedric Benson gets the call. Benson has alienated some of his teammates with his attitude, but coach Lovie Smith is a big fan and don't be surprised that, if the Bears can establish a running game, he gets a least a series or two. Doing that, however, is going to be trouble. The Vikings have the No. 1 run defense in the league and many opponents have simply abandoned even trying to run the ball. If the Bears find that the route to go, it will be up to their young receiver corps to get the job done.
The veteran of this group is Muhsin Muhammad. A strong possession and red zone target, Muhammad leads the team with 46 receptions. He is joined by third-year pro Bernard Berrian, who has become a legitimate deep threat, averaging 18.7 yards a catch. He stretches the defense and opens up plays underneath for Muhammad. But often enough the Bears will take deep shots and Berrian has become Grossman's top target deep downfield. If the Bears try to spread the Vikings out in multi-receiver sets, Mark Bradley could be a player to watch. He has just 10 catches this year, but is averaging 18 yards a pop and has two touchdowns. Fellow second-year pro Rashied Davis could also see some passes coming his way, as could former starter Justin Gage, who has battled injuries most of the season. At tight end, Desmond Clark has quietly moved into second place on the team with 33 receptions, so he can't be overlooked. While lacking true star power like the Vikings faced last week in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, collectively this group can do some damage.
If the Bears are to be able to pick and choose what they run offensively, it will be up to the offensive line to make holes against the No. 1 rush defense in the league. Up front, the Bears have a veteran group that has been healthy and together for the last two years. At the tackles, Jon Tait has proved to be a wise free agent signing from the Chiefs, as has 11-year veteran Fred Miller, who gave instant respectability to the Bears line upon arrival in 2005. At the guards, 12th-year pro Rueben Brown and sixth-year veteran Roberto Garza are a pair of 300-pounders with good upper body strength. The anchor of the line is center Olin Kreutz. In his ninth year, Kreutz has been a Pro Bowl center and is the key to protecting Grossman and blowing open holes for the running game. While starting to get a little long in the tooth, this group still does everything well from the technical standpoint and will be a handful for the Vikings' defensive front.
While the Bears offense has been a pleasant surprise, their defense has carried the water much of the season. The Bears have held six of their 11 opponents to 10 points or less and are just as likely to score points as give them up. Up front, Chicago is as strong on the line as any team in the NFC. At the ends, Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown are ferocious pass rushers who have combined for eight-and-a-half sacks. But even they have been overshadowed by designated pass rusher Mark Anderson. A fifth-round rookie, Anderson has eight sacks to lead the team and makes the Bears defensive line even more potent. As if it isn't enough to get such production from the defensive end spot, the Bears also boast tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson. Harris is one of the top young DTs in the game and, while not as skilled, Johnson is a solid run stopper who fills gaps nicely. If the Vikings are to beat the Bears, they're going to have to run against this group – which looks to be a tall order.
As good as the front line is, the linebackers are just as strong, if not stronger. Brian Urlacher is a perennial All-Pro at the middle linebacker position and one of the most dominant game-changing defenders in the league. He is flanked by Hunter Hillenmeyer and Lance Briggs. Hillenmeyer is a solid technical defender who chases down plays, but Briggs is a superior athlete who, if not for Urlacher, would be viewed by most teams as a dominant outside linebacker. He chases down plays, can knock teeth loose with hits and has great football instincts to sniff out and diagnose plays before they can get started.
The secondary is the weak link of the defense, but only because the rest of it is so top notch. Even so, most teams would love to have the players the Bears have patrolling the deep zones. At the corners, Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman are adept at physical bump-and-run coverage and are hard to beat when they bring the press. At the safeties, Mike Brown has been lost for the season again, opening a spot for Danieal Manning to move into a starting job opposite Todd Johnson. Both are inexperienced – Manning is a rookie and Johnson is in his third year and first as a starter – and can be exploited, but with the pressure the front seven brings, they are rarely exposed. When the Bears go nickel, Ricky Manning is a solid corner who is capable of starting for a lot of teams.
With all the power the Bears have on defense and an offense that has shown some explosiveness, the special teams are just as dangerous. Robbie Gould has emerged as the league's top kicker, leading all kickers with 109 points – including making good on 26 of 27 field goal attempts. Another player to watch is Devin Hester. He has three returns for touchdowns this season and is a threat to bring back any kick or punt the distance.
It's hard to find many weaknesses in the Bears, so for the Vikings to win in Soldier Field, they will not only have to bring their A game, but make mistake-free football. They didn't do that in the first meeting and came out with a loss. If they don't this time, the Bears will clinch their second straight NFC North title.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Pat Williams vs. Olin Kreutz—Long before Rex Grossman was getting the hackles of the Vikings defense up by shooting off his mouth, there was another feud that fueled the bad blood between the Vikings and Bears – Pat Williams and Bears center Olin Kreutz. Grossman may have stolen the headlines, but Williams and Kreutz will be the Matchup to Watch on Sunday.
Their troubles started a couple of years ago, when Kreutz dissed Pat Williams when his name was brought up as a potential Pro Bowl player. Essentially saying Williams was middle of the road as far as nose tackles go, it got Big Pat's attention and the two have had epic battles lined up from one another ever since. That battle should be ratcheted up a notch this time around.
The Vikings come into the game with the top run defense in the NFL and, in the last two weeks, have set team records for least yards allowed vs. Miami and least rushing attempts by an opponent vs. Arizona. Teams have abandoned the run in several games over the last month-plus and the Vikings have built something of a swagger that teams can't run on them. Don't expect the Bears to become one-dimensional, especially with the recent troubles QB Rex Grossman has had throwing the ball.
Unlike other teams, the Bears will attempt to assert their will by running the ball often and early to see if they can dent the Vikings defensive front wall. Most times they run between the tackles, meaning that Kreutz will have to neutralize Williams in order for that to be effective. Whoever wins this battle will go a long way to determining who wins the game. If Williams can overpower Kreutz and make the inside running game ineffective, the Bears may join a growing list of teams that have been forced to stop even attempting to run. If Kreutz can keep Williams at bay and the Bears can grind out yards on the ground, they will look to assert their will and continue doing it as long as they can – making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
Preview: Let the Game Begin
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