One thing that has become pretty apparent over the last few weeks is that the Vikings know the position they're in as one of the elite teams in the NFL and are trying their best to remain focused on the little things from one week to the next and not focus on the fact that they're being discussed as one of the two top dogs in the NFC – with the other 14 teams being viewed as considerably behind both.
As they enter Sunday's game with Chicago, the Vikings have a chance to officially eliminate the Bears from NFC North possibilities. Considering how many NFL analysts established the Bears as the preseason favorite after trading for Jay Cutler, it seems hard to believe that, in just the 11th game of the season, the Vikings could mathematically eliminate the Bears with a win or a tie.
While most of the Vikings have been hesitant to talk about things that haven't taken place yet – like winning the division or fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs – defending their NFC North title was a goal they set about five minutes after losing to the Eagles in the playoffs last year and that has carried over into training camp, the preseason and the regular season. The Lions have already been dispatched – to the surprise of nobody. The Packers, while still very much alive for a wild card spot, have been crippled by being swept by the Vikings and would require a monumental collapse by Minnesota and a continued Packers surge for them to have a realistic chance of winning the division. But, the Vikings hold the fate of the Bears' division title hopes in their own hands. If the Vikings get the job done, two of the three teams in the way of defending their division title will have been dispatched.
"From Day One, I think every team sets its first goal as winning your division," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. "Most teams don't get there, but you can't win a Super Bowl without getting to the playoffs, and winning your division is always the first goal you reach for. If we can eliminate them on Sunday, all that leaves is Green Bay and we're done playing them for the regular season. We're looking at it as just another game, but being able to eliminate them with a win would be another big step toward our goal of repeating as division champions."
The consistency of the Vikings is a stark contrast to the Bears, who started the season 3-1 with a home win over Pittsburgh and a victory over Seattle on the road, but have lost five of their least six games and had their clocked clean by division leaders Cincinnati (45-10) and Arizona (41-21). Their recent swoon has started rumors that head coach Lovie Smith may have his head on the chopping block, which some Vikings think makes Chicago a dangerous – albeit desperate – team coming into the Metrodome.
"It's a huge game for us," wide receiver Sidney Rice said. "It's a division game and we really need it. They're going to come in here and give us all they've got. We know they're not going to lay down for us. We've got to mentally and physically prepared for them."
The history of the Vikings-Bears rivalry has been marked over the years by close, physical games that are typically decided in the fourth quarter. Thanks to their explosiveness, the Vikings haven't played many games that are tight in the waning moments – the only three being San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Regardless of the Bears' record, that is their style of play. If the Vikings fall into that type of game, the Bears can do some damage.
"When it's a rivalry game, it may sound cliché, but you can throw out the records," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "They always tend to be tight games. You are so familiar with each other's personnel and what works for them that you work your game plan to attack that. Chicago's style is to take the air out of the ball on offense, not take a lot of chances and count on their defense or special teams to make big plays. More times than not, games with Bears end up being those low-scoring, tight games. Not always – we had one last year where we scored 89 points – but usually they're close in the fourth quarter until someone pulls away."
Perhaps the knowledge that this is a make-or-break game for the Bears will have them pulling out all the stops – from trick plays to fake field goals to takings risks they might not otherwise make. The Vikings are preparing for anything and everything because they've been on the other end of such games and have pulled out some of their best performances with their backs squarely against the proverbial wall.
"You can look at it from the big picture, but you don't know what teams are going to come out there on Sunday," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We're expecting their best and are going to give them the same. If that puts us over the top, that's great. But we're concerned about where their offense is going to throw at us. Maybe after the game, it will be a different story."
The Vikings formula for success this year has never lost sight of the initial goal of defending its NFC North crown. It has worked to perfection thus far – four games, four wins over Detroit and Green Bay. Linebacker Ben Leber said that winning divisional games has put them in the position they're in and a win over the Bears could all but slam the door behind them on putting that initial goal to rest.
"Every time we face a division opponent we know that those wins count as two," Leber said. "It has been a focus with both Green Bay and Detroit and it has put us a couple games up in the division. If we get this win, I think it will pretty much seal the deal."
While the Vikings are showing the Bears a lot more respect than most of the fans or media types for both teams are willing to concede, they are mindful of what a win Sunday can do for their chances of reaching the next in a series of goals that will be put in front of them in the coming weeks. While at times the players may sound more like lawyers than NFL athletes, the point is clear – win Sunday and the rest will fall into place.
"We've been different this year in that we have a group of guys looking at the big picture without looking ahead – if that makes sense," Longwell said. "Guys understand what's at stake each week and not looking too far ahead, but understanding in the grand scheme of things what we need to do to get where we want to go. It has given us a chance to end things (in the division title chase) earlier than maybe we thought, but knowing it's there for the taking is part of our bigger goal."
Translation? A win Sunday can all but wrap up the NFC North before the calendar flips to December.
The division before December?
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