Preview: DE Jared Allen will be looking to put pressure on Bears
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (6-4) at Chicago Bears (7-3).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Soldier Field (capacity: 61,500), Chicago.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Coaches: Vikings - Leslie Frazier (2nd season, 12-20); Chicago - Lovie Smith (9th season, 78-60).
Series: The Vikings lead 52-48-2 but are 21-27-2 on the road against the Bears. Chicago has swept the season series the past two years and has won five in a row overall. The Vikings haven't won at Soldier Field since 2007.
Last meeting: Toby Gerhart rushed for 67 yards on 15 carries, and Percy Harvin caught 10 passes for 115 yards but it wasn't enough as the Bears rallied for a 17-13 victory over the Vikings on Jan. 1 in the 2011 regular-season finale at the Metrodome. The Vikings took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but Chicago held Minnesota to only a Ryan Longwell field goal for the remainder of the game. Charles Tillman's 22-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter gave the Bears the lead for good. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had 3.5 sacks, giving him 22 for the season. That was a half-sack behind the single-season record set in 2001 by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants.
At stake: Coming off their bye week, the Vikings are one-game behind NFC North-leaders Chicago and Green Bay. A Vikings victory in Chicago and a Packers loss on Sunday night to the Giants at MetLife Stadium would leave all three teams with identical record. The Vikings might be well rested, but the Bears likely will be in a foul mood after being embarrassed on Monday night in San Francisco. The 49ers dominated Chicago in just about every facet of the game, cruising to a 32-7 victory in a game in which Bears quarterback Jay Cutler did not play because of a concussion. Cutler reportedly will be back for this one, and there is little doubt the Bears' opportunistic defense will be out to prove that Monday's poor performance was a fluke.
Vikings: WR Percy Harvin (ankle) is out. G Charlie Johnson (toe) and Letroy Guion (foot) are questionable. WR Michael Jenkins (foot), CB Antoine Winfield (knee), DE Jared Allen (shoulder), WR Stephen Burton (ankle), P Chris Kluwe (left knee) and RB Adrian Peterson (ankle) are probable.
Bears: WR Alshon Jeffery (knee) is out. QB Jay Cutler (concussion) and TE Kellen Davis (ankle) are questionable. LB Lance Briggs (thumb), QB Jason Campbell (ribs), G Lance Louis (ankle), WR Brandon Marshall (shoulder), DE Shea McClellin (concussion), DT Stephen Paea (shoulder), DE Julius Peppers (thigh) and DT Matt Toeaina (calf) are probable.
Five things to watch
Cutler to the rescue: Cutler's personality and the way he carries himself draws plenty of criticism, but there is no denying the Bears have been a far better team with him than without him the past two years. Last season, the Bears were 7-3 when Cutler suffered a broken thumb while trying to make a tackle against San Diego after throwing an interception. Chicago went 1-5 after that with Caleb Hannie and Josh McCown taking over as the starters. The Bears got off to a 7-1 start this season, but Cutler suffered a concussion on a hit from Houston linebacker Tim Dobbins on Nov. 11 in the Texans' 13-6 win. Jason Campbell got the start last Monday night in the Bears' one-sided loss at San Francisco. Cutler reportedly has been cleared to return against the Vikings, giving the Bears a significant lift. Cutler has passed for 1,814 yards and 12 touchdowns, including seven to wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The Vikings prepared all week as if they would be facing Cutler but probably hoped that wouldn't be the case. No such luck. Now, they will have to deal with the often dangerous Cutler-Marshall combination that got its start in Denver.
In a rush: Vikings Pro Bowl right end Jared Allen had to be salivating last Monday as he watched 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith accumulate a career-high 5.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits. Jason Smith, San Francisco's right defensive tackle, added a half-sack and three quarterback hits. Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb and right tackle Gabe Carimi absorbed much of this abuse. Carimi was benched this week in favor of Jonathan Scott, who was signed last September. The Bears also benched left guard Chilo Rachal and promoted Chris Spencer. Webb, however, still has a job and that's the guy Allen will be facing. The Bears are almost certain to get Webb some help on that side, but that should open up opportunities for others to get pressure. Allen has seven sacks this year and had a season-high two against Arizona on Oct. 21. Odds are he will be looking to top that figure on Sunday. Cutler, by the way, has absorbed 28 of the Bears' 34 sacks this season.
No Percy, big problem? The Vikings entered their bye week hoping that the time off would mean wide receiver Percy Harvin could return from his sprained left ankle after only missing one game. That won't be the case. Harvin left the field Friday after a brief attempt at practicing and on Saturday the Vikings announced he would not even make the trip to Chicago. That means the Vikings will be without their leading receiver, top kickoff return man and all-around playmaker for the second game in a row. Two weeks ago, rookie Jarius Wright made an immediate impact in his first NFL game, catching three passes for 65 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. This included a 54-yard reception on Minnesota's fifth play from scrimmage that setup his touchdown catch. Wright's success proved to be a nice storyline, but there is little doubt the Vikings will miss Harvin in a big way playing against a much better team.
Chaos central: The Bears got a double-dose of good news on Sunday with the information that Cutler is cleared to return and Havin won't be playing for the Vikings. But this has still been a week full of potential distractions around Halas Hall. This included the loss at San Francisco and Rachal walking out midweek after being benched before returning a day later. The Bears are an impressive 7-3 on the season but they have only beaten one team with a winning record (Indianapolis) and that came in the opening week of the season. The Bears' losses have come against Green Bay (7-3), Houston (10-1) and the 49ers (7-2-1).
Protect that football: One of the big positives the Vikings took from their 34-24 victory over the Lions two weeks ago in their final game before the bye was that they did not have a turnover. Quarterback Christian Ponder ended a five-game stretch in which he had thrown at least one interception. That type of success will need to continue Sunday if the Vikings are going to win and that isn't going to be easy against a Bears defense that is very opportunistic. Chicago entered Week 12 leading the NFL with 30 takeaways in their first 10 games, getting 19 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. The Bears defense also has seven touchdown returns in five games, all victories by Chicago. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL record for defensive touchdowns in a season is 10 by the Seattle Seahawks in 1998. Cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs are tied for the team lead with two interceptions returned for scores. Tillman also has forced seven fumbles this season.
Judd Zulgad: The Bears had a rough week, getting embarrassed on Monday night in San Francisco and then having Rachal leave the team after being demoted. Rachal returned a day later to apologize and that day Carimi was benched. So the Bears are a mess, right? Well, on Saturday it was reported that Cutler would start against the Vikings and the Vikings announced Harvin would not even travel with the team to Chicago. So who has the bigger issues? There is little doubt that getting Cutler back under center should give Chicago a boost. Bears 28, Vikings 21.
Tom Pelissero: The Bears' offensive incompetence on Monday night highlighted their flaws, which Cutler frequently covers up with his feet and arm. Having him back in the lineup yields an entirely different challenge for the Vikings -- although Chicago's strength remains a defense that creates turnovers at a high rate. This is a critical game for both teams and the coin flip here goes to the one that has averaged more than 40 points while winning the past four meetings at Soldier Field. Bears 30, Vikings 27.