The 6-5 Bears will play a legitimate playoff-caliber team this week, and they realize a game in Minnesota against the 6-5 Vikings poses a much greater challenge than a romp over the 2-9 Rams in St. Louis. This week's winner will own first place, thanks to Green Bay's loss to New Orleans Monday night.
"You can say it's the biggest game we've had in our division in a long time," coach Lovie Smith said. "They're a good football team. They've been playing well, especially of late. We know them well; they know us well. It should be a heck of a game."
The Vikings have won five of their past seven, with the only losses coming at Soldier Field against the Bears (48-41) in Week 7 and at Tampa against the Bucs (19-13) in Week 11. They're coming off a 30-12 victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville that was aided by five takeaways. Since losing their home opener to the Colts, 18-15, the Vikings have won four in a row at the Metrodome, the past three by a total of 10 points.
The most noticeable of many differences between the Rams and Vikings is the running game. Without the injured Steven Jackson, the Rams don't have one. The Vikings certainly do - they're No. 5 in the NFL.
"It's different," Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. "St. Louis throws the ball a little more; they don't have Adrian Peterson. He's a monster. He's good. He runs hard. When you've got Adrian Peterson in the backfield, you're going to run the ball. When you have an offensive line like they have, as big as they are, they're going to run the ball.
"We've got to stop the run first and foremost, and when they do throw it, we've got to put pressure on (Gus Frerotte). We've got to sack him. Those are the things we've got to do to have a chance to win. It doesn't necessarily guarantee we're going to win, it just gives us a chance."
Against the Titans and the Rams, the Bears' run defense was phenomenal, allowing a total of 34 yards on 48 carries, barely 2 feet per attempt. But in between those two games, the Packers ran through the Bears for 200 yards on 38 carries. The Vikings ran for 155 yards in their first meeting with the Bears, including 121 by Peterson, who had a 54-yard TD run and is second in the NFL with 1,180 rushing yards.
The Bears' defensive line set the tone for the rout of the Rams, getting all five of the sacks and four of the nine tackles for loss, based on the coaches' review of game film. But the Vikings present a tougher test, especially the left side of their offensive line, featuring tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson.
"Their offensive line is very good; a much better offensive line this weekend than last week," said left end Adewale Ogunleye, who had two sacks vs. the Rams. "So we've got to play stout up front. What we have to do is try to stay in their backfield, get as many (tackles for loss) as we had (vs. the Rams).
"The nose tackles — Dusty (Dvoracek) and (Anthony) Adams — have got to play well. Me and Alex have got to create havoc in the backfield, and Tommie has got to be Tommie Harris. This is a tough game for us. It's one of the biggest games that we've played here in a while."
He was invisible for most of the first half of the season, but the three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle seems to have regained his all-star form. Harris had two sacks Sunday, matching his total from the first 10 games and giving him four in the past five games.
Harris' rejuvenation started shortly after he was suspended for the Oct. 5 game at Detroit because of repeated tardiness, and his teammates have noticed the improvement in his game. Harris still is limited at practice during the week by lingering knee problems, but he's been making a difference on Sundays.
"(Opponents) have to start looking at him. They have to make sure they block this guy," defensive end Alex Brown said. "He's one of the best, if not the best, three technique (tackles) in the league, and when he's healthy and when he's playing at his top level, there's nobody better. (Even) when he's playing at 90 percent, you have to double-team him. If you single block him, he's going to beat that guy every time. When they start double-teaming him, it leaves myself, Wale (Ogunleye), Israel Idonije and Dusty Dvoracek with one-on-ones, and we've got to take advantage of it."
Brown had a sack and two quarterback hurries Sunday, and Ogunleye had two sacks and three quarterback hurries.
"Since he's gotten back from suspension, he's been a different person," Ogunleye said. "He's been very active. He's causing a lot of havoc in the backfield. We're going to do better because now the focus is going to move back to Tommie, rightfully so, and me and Alex and the guys on the edge should have a lot more fun."
"Dez Clark has a mild knee sprain," coach Lovie Smith said. "He should be OK. "Mike Brown has a lower-leg injury. He should be all right. And Nathan Vasher has a hand injury. We're evaluating him more."
Brown walked out of the locker room Sunday without a limp, but Vasher may have aggravated the injury that caused him to miss three games in October and required surgery.
"It makes you mad at first," Forte said. "(Running backs) coach (Tim) Spencer came up to me and said, ‘Forget about it, you've got to go back out there and play.' I just put it behind me."
On his second carry after the fumble, Forte went 47 yards for a touchdown.