There is always hype and hyperbole that surrounds most NFL games. Over Thanksgiving, the NFL was able to sell the idea of Detroit being the ultimate David in a Goliath matchup with Tenneessee – the story of a kid with a rock that lasted all of about eight minutes into the game. But no such hype is needed for tonight's game between the Vikings and Bears. While neither team is playing at an elite level at 6-5, they are tied for the NFC North Division lead and to the winner will go all the advantages heading into the final month of the 2008 season.
For the Bears, a win would have twice the implications, since it would give Chicago a one-game lead over Minnesota, but also a two-game sweep in their head-to-head series. For the Vikings, a win would give them a one-game lead and take away all of the previously held tie-breaker disadvantages they had a month ago with wins over Chicago and Green Bay. The hype can be made in the media, but the players know that this game could make or break the season for both teams.
One of the primary focuses of the Vikings defense will be to force mistakes out of Bears QB Kyle Orton. He has thrown 299 passes this year and only four of them have been intercepted. He has built a passer rating of 88.1 based in large part on not throwing picks. He is what has been described by coaches and scouts as a "game manager" – he isn't dynamic, but he makes enough plays to keep his offense on the field and doesn't make the critical interceptions that can cost his team a game. His numbers through 10 starts are relatively pedestrian (2,049 yards, 11 touchdowns). But his willingness to throw passes away or throw in spots that only his receivers can catch them have made him a moderately dangerous quarterback. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last six games or in the last 185 passes. The Vikings will need to pressure him, but to expect much in the way of game-changing mistakes may be a tall order.
The Bears had plenty of question marks heading into this season at the running back position. A year after trading away Thomas Jones to the Jets, the Bears released former first-round lottery bust Cedric Benson. The load was expected to be shouldered by rookie Matt Forte – a second-round pick out of Tulane. Forte has more than lived up to expectations. In fact, he has more touches through 11 games than Adrian Peterson. He has 225 rushes for 909 yards and six touchdowns and leads the team with 45 receptions for 336 yards and three more TDs. He has displayed the quickness to make the big play and the durability to be an every-down back. He has averaged 20 carries a game, while backup Kevin Jones is second on the team averaging three carries a game. In the first meeting, Forte carried 20 times for 56 yards and was effectively bottled up. While the Bears may give limited opportunities to Jones and "the other" Adrian Peterson (six carries, 42 yards, no TDs), look for Forte to be the man throughout the game barring an injury. If the Vikings can again keep Forte in check, the Bears offense could have to become one-dimensional – which would be a huge advantage to the Vikings defensively.
The Bears have a non-descript receiver corps that doesn't have a true go-to receiver like they had last year in current Viking Bernard Berrian. No Bears receiver has topped 400 yards and none of the wide receivers or tight ends has more than two touchdowns. Rashied Davis leads the wide receiver corps with 379 yards and Devin Hester leads the group in receptions with 31 for 375 yards and two TDs. There is some depth with veterans Marty Booker, who dropped a pair of touchdown passes in the first meeting with Minnesota, and Brandon Lloyd, who is averaging 15 yards a catch. The players are all interchangeable and being listed as a starter means virtually nothing. They all see playing time and rotate in and out of the lineup. One thing for fans to keep an eye on will be Hester. Last week, the Bears unveiled their version of the Wildcat offense, lining Hester up in the shotgun position and trying to get him in space. With so much on the line tonight, expect to see that formation on a handful of occasions.
What should concern the Vikings is how the Bears use their tight ends. Second-year pro Greg Olsen is second on the team in receptions (33) and leads the team in receiving yards (391) and showed his ability in the first meeting by catching six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Desmond Clark isn't far behind with 30 receptions for 379 yards and two TDs. In the first meeting, they accounted for nearly half the receptions and yardage the Bears gained passing the ball, so linebackers Ben Leber and Chad Greenway are going to have their hands full, since both of the tight ends can catch passes down the deep seam and the Bears aren't shy about throwing to them.
The Bears have a veteran offensive line that has been a mainstay of the team for several years. Although they used a first-round pick on left tackle Chris Williams, he has yet to completely unseat nine-year veteran John St. Clair. With St. Clair on the field, the Bears have a veteran presence throughout the line – with St. Clair at left tackle, 11-year vet Olin Kreutz at center, eight-year man Roberto Garza at right guard and 10-year vet John Tait at right tackle. The only youth on the line is second-year left guard Josh Beekman. While he and Williams are the future on the left side of the line, the Bears aren't likely to let Williams play the entire game against a relentless pass rusher like Jared Allen. If anything, he may well spell St. Clair for a series or two. This is a matchup that will be waged all day, and if the Bears O-line can neutralize Allen and the Williams Wall, it could play heavily in Chicago's favor.
Most people think of the Bears defense as its primary source of offense and there has been good reason for that assumption. While far from dominating, there is talent across the front four and depth when needed. At the ends, Adewale Ogunleye leads the team with 4.5 sacks and seven-year man Alex Brown isn't far behind with four. Both are bull rushers that can break down the pocket and force the quarterback to move and take him off his rhythm. On third down, Mark Anderson, who shocked the football world with 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006, gets the call and goes all out on every snap. In the middle, the Bears have one of the best defensive tackles in the NFC in Tommie Harris. A three-time Pro Bowler, Harris can stuff the run as well as collapse the pocket on pass plays. At nose tackle, Dusty Dvoracek, who played his college ball at Oklahoma with Harris, is a good athlete for his size that has surprising speed off the snap. This is a solid group, but one that has been carved up by the Vikings ever since Adrian Peterson arrived. In three games, he has never been held under 100 yards and has scored seven rushing touchdowns. If Chicago is going to have a chance to get the road win that could pave the way to the division championship, stopping A.D. will have to be on the top of that list – something to date that they have been unable to do.
The strength of the Bears defense since their glory days in the mid-1980s has been at linebacker. Players like Mike Singletary and Wilbur Marshall made the Bears defense as feared as any in that time and, while the names have changed, the results have by and large remained the same. In middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, the Bears have two of the game's top playmaking linebackers. Urlacher is a tackling machine that, even in his ninth season, can chase plays from sideline to sideline. Briggs is the total package at the Will linebacker spot – able to take backs and tight ends in coverage as well as blitz the quarterback. On the strongside, Hunter Hillenmeyer is viewed as the weak link, not because he doesn't have talent, but because Urlacher and Briggs are perennial Pro Bowl selections. He is strong against the run and decent in coverage. Third-year man Jamar Williams is a solid backup at both outside spots, but he has been banged up and is questionable for tonight's game, which could deplete what little depth the Bears have – adding to the need for big games from the Big Three starters.
The secondary suffered a blow when Nathan Vasher injured his hand last week against St. Louis. He has been placed on injured reserve – he and fellow starter Charles Tillman both missed the shootout at Soldier Field. Tillman is back at the left corner spot, where he is expected to lock up with Berrian for most of the game. With Vasher out, second-year man Trumaine McBride will take his place and likely be asked to deal with Sidney Rice or Bobby Wade on the right side of the defense. At safety, the Bears have one of the game's big playmakers in free safety Mike Brown. Although injuries have slowed him down considerably, few players have the ability to return interceptions for pick-six touchdowns like Brown. On the other side, Kevin Payne, a second-year man from Louisiana-Monroe, has taken over in place of Danieal Manning and has done a solid job – tying for the team lead with three interceptions. Despite not having Vasher available, the Bears still have solid depth. Manning can fill in at both safety positions, and when the Bears go to nickel defense, second-year man Corey Graham has proved to be adept at covering slot receivers.
If there is ever a team to be worried about on special teams, it is the Bears. In the first meeting, Chicago scored two touchdowns on fluke special teams plays, but few teams emphasize the special teams aspect of the game as much as Chicago. With so many low-scoring games, a big play from the special teams can be the difference between winning and losing. Although they removed him from return coverage last week, few with the Vikings actually believe that Hester won't be returning kicks or punts. With Vasher – the No. 2 punt returner – out for the game, it's all but certain he will be returning punts. He and Manning have shared kick return duties, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him back in that role as well.
There doesn't need to be much more buildup for this game. If the Vikings win, they will stand alone atop the NFC North with four games to play. If Chicago wins, they will be alone at the top of the division and have every tie-breaker on the Vikings, essentially giving them a two-game lead with four to play. Nobody expects to see a repeat of the 89-point scoring fest that we witnessed in the first meeting of the season, but most believe this will be another game that comes down to one score late in the game to determine the winner. The Vikings have won five of the last six meetings at the Metrodome and may need the 12th man to help put them over the top in this make-or-break matchup that will likely determine who wins the NFC North.
Bears preview: Hype unnecessary
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