MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS OFFENSE VS. VIKINGS DEFENSE
TE Greg Olsen vs. Minnesota Linebackers: It's been a few games since the Vikings have faced an accomplished pass-catching tight end. Early in the season, a few solid tight ends had big days against the Vikings. Now that E.J. Henderson is out for season, they seem more vulnerable than ever in the middle of the field, but Olsen could provide their biggest test since losing Henderson. Holding him under 80 yards would be an accomplishment since Jay Cutler should be looking for him early and often in a late-season outdoor game. No doubt Cutler will want to get rid of the ball early with the Vikings' pass rush, and Olsen should be one of his primary quick-read targets.
LT Chris Williams vs. DE Jared Allen: It's no secret that the Bears have had trouble blocking Allen off the edge, and now the sack specialist will be facing his third different left tackle in his last three matchups with Chicago. Williams, a first-round draft pick two Aprils ago, was essentially redshirted as a rookie because of a back injury and has been hit-and-miss thus far in 2009. With Allen obviously being his biggest challenge of the season, Monday could be an indicator as to whether or not Williams is indeed the left tackle of the future for this franchise.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: VIKINGS OFFENSE VS. BEARS DEFENSE
RB Adrian Peterson vs. LB Hunter Hillenmeyer: Peterson has had some big games against the Bears, but the Vikings' running game has been sorely lacking of late. Peterson hasn't had a 100-yard game in five contests, and the Vikings need to get back to the run-first philosophy that they had before Brett Favre. They need to get Peterson effective in the middle of the field, and that means blocking better up front and allowing Peterson to make a linebacker miss on his way to a big gain. He hasn't been very explosive recently, and he and the running game could use a big shot of confidence. In five games against the Bears, Peterson has averaged 127.8 yards. Breaking past that mark would go a long way in helping the offense reclaim its identity.
WR Percy Harvin vs. SS Craig Steltz and FS Josh Bullocks: The Bears have had all kinds of trouble in coverage at both safety positions this year, and it looks like minor injuries to Kevin Payne and Al Afalava have given the coaching staff the reason they were looking for to make more changes. Steltz has been inactive for a month and Bullocks hasn't made much of an impact since coming from New Orleans as a free agent, but both Payne and Afalava graded out poorly last week when Joe Flacco of the Ravens threw for a career-high four touchdowns. Since Harvin had a big day out of the slot in Week 12 against Chicago with six catches for 101 yards and a score, Steltz and Bullocks will have their hands full between the hash marks.
THE VIKINGS WIN IF ...
… they can establish their running game. Their three losses have all come on the road, and they struggled with footing early against Carolina. After they got that figured out, they just plain struggled. One of the reasons for that was not establishing their running game. Peterson has only 123 yards rushing total in the Vikings' three road losses. That can't happen if they want to re-establish themselves as a run-first offense as the playoffs approach. Peterson needs a big game, and the Vikings need a big win to get momentum back on their side.
THE BEARS WIN IF ...
... Favre mails in his performance and wants nothing to do with the bitter-cold weather, as was the case the last time he faced the Bears at Soldier Field on Dec. 23, 2007, as the quarterback of the Packers. Granted, the game meant nothing in the standings because Chicago was already out of playoff contention and Green Bay couldn't help or hurt its postseason seeding, but Favre wanted to get out of the below-zero wind chill as fast as possible and delivered a 40.2 passer rating in a 35-7 defeat. Monday night's temperature is expected to be in the mid-20s, and it should be quite windy, too.
THE VIKINGS LOSE IF ...
... they are careless with the ball. Late December. Outdoors. The Bears' accomplished ball-hawking defense. Peterson's penchant for fumbles. All of those factors have the potential to add up to a game in which the Vikings suffer from a turnover bug. Clearly, the Vikings have more talent, but turnovers are the great equalizer in the NFL. There are a lot of reasons the Vikings should win, but there are also reasons they should be concerned. Favre hasn't played well on the road in the cold in a long time. If he starts throwing interceptions or Peterson starts trying to do too much and turnovers become a factor, the Vikings have a shot at being upset on the road again.
THE BEARS LOSE IF ...
... they are just as bad on third down, both offensively and defensively, as they were in their first matchup with the Vikings last month. During that 36-10 embarrassment, Cutler and Co. converted only two of eight third-down opportunities, which was a big reason why Chicago only managed 169 yards of total offense and eight first downs. Minnesota, on the other hand, moved the sticks on third down 12 of 18 times, leading to 537 yards of total offense and 31 first downs.
Tim Yotter: This isn't the easy, blowout win many Vikings would like it to be. It's still a division game, on the road, on grass, outdoors, in the cold. The Vikings have shown they are a different team in the Metrodome than they are in the not-so-great outdoors. Their offense hasn't been as explosive lately, and their defense has shown some vulnerability. This could be a sloppy affair where points – even field goals – are at a premium. This might not be a game that restores the confidence of Vikings fans in any facet of their game, but just getting out with a win will be important to the team's hopes of securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They need to do that, even if it isn't pretty. – VIKINGS 20, BEARS 16.
John Crist: Since they entered their bye with a 3-1 record, the Bears are 2-8 in their last 10 games and have only beaten the 3-11 Browns and 1-13 Rams. Coach Lovie Smith's seat is getting hotter, especially after general manager Jerry Angelo refused to give him a vote of confidence during an impromptu Q&A in the press box before last week's 31-7 beatdown in Baltimore. Minnesota proved to be better than Chicago in all three phases back in Week 12, and there is little reason to assume anything has changed in this rivalry aside from the venue. – VIKINGS 23, BEARS 13.