Preview: Lots at stake for Vikings, Christian Ponder in Bears rematch
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Who: Chicago Bears (8-4) at Minnesota Vikings (6-6).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Line: Bears by 3.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd year, 12-22); Bears -- Lovie Smith (9th year, 82-64).
Series: The Vikings lead 52-49-2, including 31-21 at home.
Last meeting: Jay Cutler completed 23 of 31 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown as the Bears took advantage of two first-half turnovers to rout the Vikings 28-10 on Nov. 25 at Solider Field.
At stake: It's now or never for the Vikings, who can stay in the NFC playoff chase by pulling the upset. The Bears enter tied with Green Bay for the North Division lead but are nicked up and have lost three of their last four, making this a potentially pivotal game for them, too. If the playoffs began this week, Chicago would be the No. 5 seed in the NFC, with Seattle (7-5) taking the other wild-card spot. The Vikings are in a four-way tie with Tampa Bay, Dallas and Washington.
Vikings: RE Jared Allen (shoulder/back), TE Kyle Rudolph (shoulder), MLB Jasper Brinkley (shoulder), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), C John Sullivan (ribs/knee), CB Antoine Winfield (knee), P Chris Kluwe (left knee) and NT Letroy Guion (shin) are probable (virtual certainty of playing). WR Percy Harvin (ankle) was placed on injured reserve. CB Chris Cook (broken arm) returned to practice on Thursday but isn't eligible to rejoin the active roster until Dec. 20.
Bears: WR Earl Bennett (concussion), MLB Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and CB Tim Jennings (shoulder) are out. HB Michael Bush (ribs), DT Stephen Paea (foot) and G Chris Spencer (knee) are questionable (50% chance of playing). T/G Gabe Carimi (hamstring), WR Devin Hester (concussion) and WR Alshon Jeffery (knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Ponder's time: Four weeks ago, Vikings QB Christian Ponder was in a similar spot, coming off two poor performances that had the Metrodome crowd prepared to boo him off the field. He never allowed it to happen, completing his first six passes -- including a 54-yard bomb and 3-yard touchdown to WR Jarius Wright -- to help propel the Vikings to a wire-to-wire win over Detroit. The blame for last week's loss at Green Bay rested primarily on Ponder, who threw two damaging interceptions in the third quarter. And for as committed as the Vikings have been to their former first-round draft pick, it's not beyond reason backup QB Joe Webb could get a chance if Ponder struggles with playoff hopes hanging in the balance. OC Bill Musgrave has to do what he can to help Ponder overcome a depleted receiver group, get in a rhythm and bounce back before it's too late.
Wright time?: The Vikings rank dead last in the NFL in net passing (180.6 yards per game) and now know their best receiver isn't coming back. It's not a stretch to say Wright, Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton constitute the worst receiver group in the league. But the Vikings know there are places they can attack the Bears, especially if Peterson keeps rolling and forces the linebackers to worry about the run. Attacking outside the numbers and between the safeties is the way to beat Cover-2 -- the latter especially tempting with LB Nick Roach playing the mike in Urlacher's absence -- but why not give Wright a chance to take some of the manufactured touches Musgrave used so extensively with Harvin? It wouldn't be a surprise to see the rookie move all over the field, perhaps even into the backfield, simply because he's the only other speed threat capable of taking some heat off Peterson and has a chance to do something after the catch.
Rush hour: The Bears increasingly have gone to a short passing game to cover up their depleted offensive line. The Vikings' best chance for combating that -- and accomplishing their goal of hitting QB Jay Cutler enough to let him know they're there -- is to play physical coverage that takes away the in-breaking routes with which he destroyed them last time. Throw of the timing of all that underneath stuff, and the Bears inevitably would look to go downfield, giving the pass rush extra time to get home. That's easier said than done, of course. Their best press player is CB A.J. Jefferson, who can't seem to make a play on the football. And the Bears have a unique talent in WR Brandon Marshall, who caught 12 passes for 92 yards in the first meeting. At some point, Allen, LE Brian Robison and company need to win the one-on-ones they do get and make something happen.
Get special: So solid much of the season, the Vikings' special teams have been complicit in the past two losses, too. They had a kick blocked at Chicago, let the Bears steal a two-point conversion, missed another field goal in the fourth quarter at Green Bay and really haven't turned a game on a return since they took two back for scores on Sept. 30 at Detroit. They have to contain Hester, who may not be the same player at age 30 -- he doesn't have a touchdown on a return this season -- but has burned the Vikings plenty of times in the past. And with Harvin out for the season, it's worth wondering if the Vikings will look for a spark by giving Wright, Josh Robinson or perhaps even Jefferson a shot. Then again, Marcus Sherels has been nothing if not sure-handed, and the last thing the Vikings want to do is get burned by getting cute.
Hang onto the ball: It can be said every week, but after what happened in Green Bay, it needs repeating -- the Vikings must hang on to the damn ball. A drop by Simpson and a Peterson fumble turned the tide last time against the Bears, with two more turnovers killing whatever chance the Vikings had for coming back. Ponder's two interceptions proved deadly against the Packers. They've been better at home but are tied for 22nd in the NFL in turnover margin (minus-6), with 21 giveaways and only 15 takeaways in 12 games. The surest way to let the Bears grab momentum and turn the crowd is to cough up the ball again. If there's one message coaches should be hammering home, this is it.
Tom Pelissero: The Vikings were in a similar spot four weeks ago and kept their season alive by beating Detroit at the Metrodome, where they're 5-1 this season. It can be a difficult place for opposing offenses to function, and for all the Bears' success so far, scoring points hasn't been a strength. The guess here is the Vikings find some way, any way, to fight another day. Vikings 23, Bears 20.
Judd Zulgad: As was the case the last time these teams met two weeks ago, the Bears are coming off a loss. The Bears beat the Vikings at Soldier Field last time and will do so again. They're without Jennings and Urlacher but won't have to worry about Percy Harvin. If Ponder gets off to a poor start, the Metrodome could turn toxic for the home team. This will be the game that the Vikings fall under .500 for the first time this season. Bears 24, Vikings 21.