Preview: Vikings vs. Bears
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (3-5) vs. Chicago Bears (5-3).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Soldier Field (capacity: 61,500), Chicago.
Line: Vikings by 1.
Coaches: Vikings -- Brad Childress (5th year, 40-35); Bears -- Lovie Smith (7th year, 52-44).
Series: Vikings lead 52-44-2.
Last meeting: The Bears blew a 16-0 halftime lead, then squeaked out a 36-30 win on Dec. 28 at Soldier Field to split the season series.
At stake: The situation may be less dire than it was a week ago, but the implications of this game can't be overstated. Win, and the Vikings would move within two games of the NFC North-leading Packers entering a home game against Green Bay next week. Lose, and the Vikings would be three games back of the division lead and probably the wild card, moving them to the brink of realistic postseason elimination with seven games to go. Chicago would pull even atop the division with a win. A loss would be the Bears' fourth against NFC opponents, hurting their wild-card chances.
Vikings: CB Asher Allen (concussion) and backup SS Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) didn't practice all week and are doubtful. WR Percy Harvin (ankle/illness) returned on a limited basis Friday, while WR Bernard Berrian (groin) was a late addition to the injury report -- both are questionable. QB Brett Favre (ankle/foot/calf), NT Pat Williams (elbow), DE Everson Griffen (shoulder), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), CB Lito Sheppard (hand) and CB Frank Walker (hamstring) are probable. WR Sidney Rice (hip surgery) was not activated to the roster from the PUP list, meaning he will not play.
Bears: C Olin Kreutz (hamstring) and CB Zackary Bowman (foot) were limited in Friday's practice and listed as questionable. Three players, including veteran LB Hunter Hillenmeyer (concussion), are on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Bringing the heat: A Vikings pass rush that came alive late in last week's comeback win against Arizona has another favorable matchup against the Bears, who have allowed a staggering 32 sacks -- four more than the Cardinals for the highest total in the league. Chicago has myriad issues along the offensive line, and OC Mike Martz has drawn criticism for failing to adjust and protect QB Jay Cutler. There's no question Vikings DC Leslie Frazier was more aggressive with his blitz patterns last week, rushing at least five on 46.7% of Arizona's dropbacks after halftime, and the approach shouldn't change against Cutler, who has an elite arm but becomes a fundamental mess when he feels pressure. Much focus is placed on DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, but an interior nickel rotation primarily featuring Kevin Williams and Brian Robison also has an opportunity to make a big impact against struggling LG Chris Williams. Allen has eight of his 32½ sacks (24.6%) as a Viking on natural turf, including two at Chicago in 2008.
Favre watch: Last week provided a reminder the Vikings can go as far as QB Brett Favre can take them. The 41-year-old was at his best down the stretch, completing his last seven passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. But was it a mirage, or is Favre finally finding the rhythm, timing and tempo he's lacked since his three-weeks-late arrival in August? The numbers suggest he's trending upward, his passer rating improving from 60.4 in September to 77.9 in October to 101.9 in the first game of November. The past two games have been his most even this season. Childress said Favre had one of his best practices last week, and TE Visanthe Shiancoe said Favre's "aura and energy" finally have returned. Facing a Bears defense that's ranked third against the run (83.9 yards per game) but 19th against the pass (225.8), the Vikings may lean more heavily than ever on Favre and the air attack -- despite limited reps during the week for the quarterback and his top two receivers. And if the Vikings get into a pass-heavy game, it's on LT Bryant McKinnie and company to avoid the sort of big mistake against a Bears front led by DE Julius Peppers that led to a turnover last week.
Special assignment: The Vikings' kick-coverage unit had been solid before last week, when LaRod Stephens-Howling went untouched for a 96-yard touchdown. A similar breakdown this week by the punt-coverage unit could prove damaging against the Bears and Devin Hester, who has reemerged with two touchdowns this season as one of the NFL's most dangerous return men. Improved hang time and directional punting has P Chris Kluwe among the NFL's leaders in net average (42.2), return yards against (45) and inside-20 punts (18). But this is his toughest test yet in terms of the return man and the conditions, since Soldier Field is notoriously unpredictable for specialists. Forecasts for Sunday call for a high temperature of 50 degrees, some clouds and winds at 20 mph. Playing without Sanford wouldn't help -- he has developed into the Vikings' top gunner.
Beating the best: The Vikings' skid away from the Metrodome stands at eight games, dating to a 30-17 defeat at Arizona last Dec. 6. They haven't won a road game in more than a year since winning at Green Bay last Nov. 1, getting outscored 222-153 (9.9 average). And there's really no rhyme or reason to the slide, other than noting the Vikings' four road losses this season have come against four opponents with a combined record of 24-10 -- and their three wins, all at home, have come against teams that are a combined 6-18. At this point, neither the challenge of playing away from home nor the quality of the opponent can be an excuse. The Vikings' remaining foes are a combined 33-32, but that's skewed by games against Buffalo (0-8) and Detroit (2-6). The other six are .500 or better, meaning there will be few gimmes the rest of the way.
Give it away now: One common theme in the Vikings' early-season struggles has been losing the turnover battle. Their minus-9 turnover margin is tied for second-worst in the league, while Chicago (plus-1) is in the middle of the pack. Favre's 17 turnovers -- eight more than he committed in all of 2009 -- are well-documented, though primary responsibility for two interceptions last week falls elsewhere. More troubling the past two weeks have been the way the defense has squandered takeaway opportunities, most notably FS Madieu Williams and OLB Chad Greenway dropping interceptions. Consider this: Cutler is 12-12 in 1½ seasons as the Bears' starting quarterback. When he commits one turnover or fewer, Chicago is 11-3. When he commits two or more, they're 1-9. Cutler almost surely will give the Vikings chances. They need to capitalize.
The line tells the tale. The Vikings are the more talented team, but they've found a lot of ways to lose. The Bears have the superior record, but they've lost three of five since their 3-0 start and have all sorts of issues, particularly on the offensive line. The guess here is last week's incredible rally means the Vikings -- and Favre -- might finally be done giving in against inferior foes.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Bears 21.