Preview: As usual, Devin Hester is X-factor for Bears against Vikings
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (1-4) at Chicago Bears (2-3).
When: 7:20 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Soldier Field (capacity: 61,500), Chicago.
Line: Bears by 3.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 4-7); Bears -- Lovie Smith (8th year, 68-55).
Series: Vikings lead 52-46-2. Bears are 26-21-2 in Chicago.
Last meeting: Brett Favre's surprise start -- probably his career, too -- ended on a big hit by Corey Wootton, and Jay Cutler threw for three touchdowns as the Bears rolled 40-14 on Dec. 20 at TCF Bank Stadium.
At stake: Either the Bears get back to .500 and stay in the thick of the playoff race, or the Vikings pull even for third place in the NFC North Division with a second consecutive win.
Vikings: CB Antoine Winfield (neck) missed a second consecutive week of practice and was listed as doubtful. WR Percy Harvin (ribs) was listed as questionable but is expected to play with a padded undershirt as protection. MLB E.J. Henderson (knee), FS Husain Abdullah (pelvis), LB Kenny Onatolu (hamstring) and RE Jared Allen (eye) are probable.
Bears: RT Gabe Carimi (knee) and DT Matt Toeaina (knee) are out. DE Julius Peppers (knee) is doubtful and, like Carimi and Toeaina, missed practice the entire week. WR Earl Bennett (chest) is questionable but participated fully in practice on Friday. CB Charles Tillman (hip) and Wootton (hand) are probable.
Five things to watch
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has promised adjustments this week to protect Cutler, who has played as well against the Vikings as almost any opponent. In five career matchups, Cutler has completed 64.9% of his passes for 1,097 yards with 13 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 97.8 rating, with his team winning four times. That includes six touchdown passes and a 96.1 rating in two Bears victories last season, and the Vikings' defense hasn't changed much since. The question probably isn't whether Cutler can pick apart the secondary. He has an elite arm and excellent ability to extend plays outside the pocket, which can spell trouble against the Vikings' two-deep zones. The question is how often the Vikings' red-hot rush can get home against a beleaguered protection unit that's on pace to give up 58 sacks -- two more than their league-leading total last season.
Get in the zone: Vikings QB Donovan McNabb finally fired back at questions about his accuracy. But it will take more than words for McNabb to erase the memory of the bounce passes and boos in last weekend's win over Arizona. His completion rate (56.8%), average per attempt (6.4) and passer rating (80.0) all rank among the NFL's worst, and he still has completed only one pass that has traveled more than 24 yards downfield in the air. The Vikings don't need McNabb to create a ton of vertical plays, though, especially against a Bears defense that drops into Cover-2 more often that not. The Vikings just need McNabb to function within the offense, make the easy throws and let his playmakers go to work against the mismatches they're able to create when the box is stacked against HB Adrian Peterson. So far, that's still been easier said than done.
The X-factor: Time and again, Devin Hester has proven he can change a game -- including against the Vikings, who have given up three punt-return touchdowns in nine meetings against the sixth-year veteran from Miami. Last season alone, Hester had kick returns of 68 and 79 yards as well as punt returns of 42 and 64, the latter for a touchdown, in two Bears victories. And Hester struck again in an Oct. 2 win over Carolina, setting up one touchdown with a 73-yard kickoff return and scoring another on a 69-yard punt return. The Vikings rank sixth in the NFL in kickoff coverage (21.4 average on 20 opponent returns) and 27th in punt coverage (12.4 average on 14 returns). They'll surely try to keep the ball away from Hester altogether -- but if he gets his hands on it, the Vikings have to find a way to keep him from getting loose.
Run, run, run: Last week, Lions HB Jahvid Best gained 163 yards on 12 rushing attempts (13.6 average), including an 88-yard touchdown. The week before that, Panthers HBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 134 yards on 18 carries (7.4 average). These Bears are pregnable against the run, and now they're likely going forward without two of their starting defensive linemen, at least for this game. What the Vikings do best is pound the ball with Peterson, who is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has gotten the ball more than anyone (110 carries). The offensive line is showing signs of progress, too. Even if things get off to a rocky start, don't expect OC Bill Musgrave to get discouraged. The Vikings know that pounding the ball with Peterson is their best shot.
On the road again: The Vikings have won only one of their past 10 games in Chicago, and they're 2-10 away from the Metrodome since the start of last season. The latter is less a trend than the product of a struggling team that is 7-14 overall in that stretch. But it remains to be seen if this group can solve Soldier Field -- the venue with the smallest seating capacity in the NFL, as well as its most notorious playing surface and a reputation for trapping swirling winds. The Bears are 8-5 there over the past two seasons, with two of those losses coming against the Green Bay Packers. Sunday's forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s, winds in the mid-teens and a 30% chance of rain.
It's one coin flip after another for the Vikings, who had been favored by three or 3½ in their past four games -- and lost three of them. This time, the guess here is the oddsmakers have it right.
Prediction: Bears 23, Vikings 20.