Vikings enter ‘the most important game'

There was no denying the importance of Sunday night's game this week at Winter Park. It's prime time. It an NFC North rival. And it could be for the division. See what several players had to say about the magnitude of the Vikings and Bears.

It's kind of a cliché to ask NFL players if they believe one game is more important than any of the others. The typical answer is something to the effect of "the most important game is the next game." That's how NFL players answer media questions heading into a week of practice for a new opponent.

But there was no denying the magnitude of Sunday's rematch with the Chicago Bears on Sunday night. The teams are tied atop the NFC North and, coming off a wild 48-41 shootout win by the Bears in Week 8, Chicago would have a chance to stick a dagger in the hearts of the Vikings – having a one-game lead with four to play and the tie-breaker advantage that would require the Vikings to make up two games in the standings.

As much as they might try to downplay the importance of some games, there's no getting around how critical Sunday's game will be to the Vikings playoff hopes.

"It's the most important game of our year," defensive end Jared Allen said. "The winner has sole possession of first in the division. This late in the season, that's a good place to be. It's a huge game and we need to win. If we focus and play our game, we'll be fine."

While the scoring in the first meeting wasn't expected – 11 touchdowns and four field goals resulting in a scoring play on average of every four minutes – the way the game played out wasn't all that unexpected. When the Vikings meet the Bears, it seems that you always count on the winner being up in the air until the final minutes, whether it's a low-scoring defensive struggle or a high-scoring shootout like we saw in October.

"If you look over the last few years, the games are always tight," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "I don't think anyone is expecting another 48-41 game, but those are the types of games we have with Chicago. Most of them are lower scoring and close, but even when a lot of points are put up, the game is still close. With first place on the line, I think we're expecting another game that will come down to the fourth quarter. They all seem to work out that way."

Each game has its own pace and rhythm. It became clear in the first meeting that both teams were going to take chances and air out the ball. Both quarterbacks threw for more than 280 yards and had two touchdowns apiece. The stars came out to shine as well. Adrian Peterson ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Bernard Berrian caught six passes for 81 yards and a TD. Bears rookie Matt Forte ran 20 times and scored a touchdown. The Bears' special teams produced two scores. Although the score was much higher than expected, the intensity was the same. The expectation is for more of a typical type of Vikings-Bears matchup – one that ends with a score around 20-17 – but the Vikings believe the key will be minimizing mistakes.

It could be argued that the Vikings gave the Bears that first game. Two touchdowns were scored on special teams mistakes and the offense had five turnovers, including four interceptions from Gus Frerotte. The Vikings see their key to victory as being able to execute on both sides of the ball and keep the mistakes to a minimum.

"It's a critical game," linebacker Dontarrious Thomas said. "We have to take care of business. Games like this come down to a few big plays one way or the other. There's a lot at stake and we expect we're going to get their best. We're going to do the same and they'll have to be ready for our best."

What has made this rivalry on par with the Vikings rivalry with Green Bay is that the players are intimately familiar with one another. Playing twice a year, both teams are aware of the others' strengths and weaknesses and have found ways to exploit those.

Perhaps the biggest advantage the Vikings have is that the game will played at the Metrodome. In the recent history of this series, possibly nothing has been more important than the location of the game. Chicago has won six of the last seven meetings at Soldier Field. The Vikings have won five of the last six games played in the Metrodome. As a result, having home field advantage in this series is about as big as it can possibly be.

"We know what they know about and we know what they do," Berrian said. "The big difference is that we're at home. We've got our fans on our side this time and they have to play us here. We play a lot better at (the Metrodome) than we do down in Chicago."

The mistakes of the past and recent history of the series points to a Vikings win. But the players know that every game is different and unique. To a man, the Vikings believe that they were the better team on the field in the Week 8 loss to the Bears. The numerous mistakes that allowed Chicago to roll up 48 points still sits in the backs of their minds and they expect to see a vastly different game Sunday, as the offense and defense look to impose their wills on the Bears and come away from the game in sole possession of first place heading into the final month of the regular season. If it turns out to be another scoring shootout, so be it. If it turns out to be a 9-6 win, so be it. At this point, all that matters to the Vikings is being ahead when the final whistle blows – no matter how they get there.

"We can't allow yards after the catch and make the little mistakes we made in the first game," Allen said. "We played on a short field the whole game. We have to take advantage of the opportunity. It is what it is – it's going to be physical, it's going to be violent, it's going to be fun. If we can win with one second on the clock or blow them out or come from behind to win, we'll take it however we can get it."

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