As the Vikings prepare for Sunday's game with the Chicago Bears, both teams are looking to head into their respective bye week with at least a share of the NFC North Division lead. Each team is confident about getting a win and both come into the game wondering what might have been.
The Vikings had a chance to win in the final minutes at Green Bay and had a 15-point lead over Indianapolis that evaporated in little over one quarter. The Bears can kick themselves if 20/20 hindsight is their guide. They lost to the Panthers 20-17 on a touchdown in the final four minutes. The lost 27-24 in overtime to Tampa Bay in a game which the Bucs scored the last 10 points of regulation, including a game-tying touchdown with seven seconds to play, and a field goal in overtime. Even more maddening was a 22-20 loss to the Falcons last week. After taking a 20-19 lead with just 11 seconds left, an improbable reception and subsequent Jason Elam field goal gave Atlanta a 22-20 win as time ran out.
While both teams have their share of regrets, they both come into Sunday's game expecting much of the same – a close game that will be decided by one or two big plays.
"You always know you're going to have a war with Chicago," center Matt Birk said. "They're a team that has always had a big-play defense and it seems like games we have with them are always close."
In the two years since Brad Childress became Vikings head coach, the Vikings are 2-2 against the Bears. Chicago swept the season series in 2006 by scores of 19-16 and 23-13. The Vikings returned the favor last year with wins of 34-31 and 20-13. The only game that was decided by more than a touchdown was the result of a punt return touchdown by the special teams and a TD and a safety by the Bears defense.
While the games have been different in many respects – a field goal fest dominated by the defenses in Chicago's 19-16 win in 2006 and an offensive slugfest at Soldier Field in which the Vikings and Bears combined for more than 900 yards of total offense – they have all been close contests not determined until the final minutes.
"That isn't all that surprising," defensive end Jared Allen said. "When you have these rivalry games, more times than not they're games that are close the whole way through. We had a lot of games like with Oakland and Denver and San Diego. You're familiar with these teams because you play them twice a year and you know what they like to do. You get to know the guys you're lining up against and everyone is familiar with what the other guys do well and where they have problems."
The difference between the Bears of 2008 from Bears teams of previous of years is that the Chicago offense has proved capable of winning games on its own. The Bears struggled badly on offense with Cedric Benson averaging barely more than three yards per rushing attempt and three quarterbacks combined for 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. This year, things have changed. Kyle Orton has averaged 219 yards passing a game and the rushing game has enjoyed a resurgence with rookie Matt Forte. They're not going to remind anyone of the 1998 Vikings, but they have shown a lot of improvement.
"They can beat you a lot of ways," linebacker Ben Leber said. "Kyle Orton has made a lot of plays and Forte has showed he can break off some big runs. They've been known around the league as a grind-it-out offense, but they can make some big plays on offense."
Despite having a couple of the more impressive defenses in the league, many believe the game could come down to which pass offense can create more downfield plays.
"We both have guys capable of making big plays on offense," wide receiver Bobby Wade said. "Both defenses are known for being strong against the run, so it's going to be up to us (the receivers) to make big plays and take pressure off the running game."
Orton, who supplanted Rex Grossman as the starter in the preseason, has been impressive as the starting QB – which hasn't always been the case. The recent history of Bears quarterbacks has been a pedestrian collection of revolving-door players. Over the past decade, 14 different Bears have started games at quarterback and the list is more of a "Who's That?" than a "Who's Who" – Grossman, Brian Griese, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn, Kordell Stewart, Chris Chandler, Jim Miller, Henry Burris, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Erik Kramer, Steve Stenstrom and Moses Moreno.
It has been a long time since any QB stood out for the Bears, but Vikings head coach Brad Childress said he believes that Orton could be the best Chicago has fielded in some time and that he has shown tremendous progress since starting against the Vikings last year.
"I know that they've tweaked their scheme offensively," Childress said. "I see different things that they're doing. I guess it's not fair to say that a quarterback is ever a caretaker because he's going to, in fact, touch the football. They were a strong overall football team running the football and they obviously had an overwhelming defense. He did a decent job as (a rookie). I just see a great evolution in what he's done to where he is right now and even where he was last year when he played against us in December. "
In what may well be a matchup of the two teams that will compete for the NFC North title in December, Sunday's game will have huge implications for both teams heading into the bye week. The winner will have a one-game lead and a win in hand. The loser will have to try to regain momentum after the bye and doing so from a hole. But, as the players were quick to say, isn't that the premise of rivalry games?
"You come into these games just ramped up a little more," Allen said. "We have made a nice comeback, but it won't be enough if we don't do our business in Chicago. We have it in front of us and need to get it done. I'm sure the Bears are probably saying the same thing. One of us is right and we'll find out Sunday which one."
Vikings-Bears 2008: Prototypical rivalry game
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