Preview: Vikings vs. Bears
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (5-8) vs. Chicago Bears (9-4).
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805), Minneapolis.
TV: ESPN/KSTP (Ch. 5).
Line: Bears by 7½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (interim, 2-1); Bears -- Lovie Smith (6th year, 63-50).
Series: Vikings lead 52-45-2.
Last meeting: Jay Cutler threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears erased an early three-point deficit and rolled 27-13 on Nov. 14 at Soldier Field.
At stake: Last week's 21-3 loss to the New York Giants eliminated the Vikings from playoff contention. So, the second half of Frazier's six-game audition will require him to hold together a locker room that knows its season is over on Jan. 2. And that could prove challenging on a cold and snowy night, especially given seemingly widespread concerns among players about the safety of the playing surface at the University of Minnesota's on-campus facility. The Bears, on the other hand, can clinch their first NFC North Division title since 2006 with a win. Motivation should be no problem for them.
Vikings: QB Brett Favre (chest/ankle/right shoulder), LG Steve Hutchinson (thumb) and S Tyrell Johnson (knee) are out. HB Adrian Peterson (ankle/knee), LE Ray Edwards (ankle) and S Jamarca Sanford (concussion) are questionable. CB Asher Allen (ankle) and QB Joe Webb (hamstring) are probable. QB Tarvaris Jackson (toe) was placed on injured reserve on Thursday.
Bears: LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) is questionable. CB Charles Tillman (foot) and RB Chester Taylor (knee) were removed from the injury report on Saturday. OLB Hunter Hillenmeyer (concussion) is one of three players on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Field of nightmares?: Complaints about the playing surface resurfaced after the Vikings' walkthrough on Sunday, with P Chris Kluwe posting on Twitter that the field is "hard as concrete" and "unplayable." The NFL and the Vikings repeatedly have countered those concerns -- but both have a vested interest in selling the point, since it's too late to make another venue change, the marketability of the game revolves around its novelty and coaches don't want anyone playing in fear of getting hurt. Either way, it's certain to be cold (projected temperatures in the mid-20s at kickoff) and likely snowy (90% chance of snow beginning around 8 a.m.), making equipment and hydration important issues to monitor. The Vikings plan to bring three sets of shoes for every player and are prepared for in-game adjustments as the weather and field conditions evolve. The training staff also has to push hydration, which can be an even bigger issue in frigid weather than heat, since players' natural instinct upon arriving at the sideline isn't to grab a cold drink. Cramping and muscle strains have to be avoided for a Vikings team that enters with razor-thin depth at several positions.
Webb's chance: In April, the Vikings drafted Webb to play receiver, where he stayed for all of one rookie minicamp. In late August, Webb was splitting third-string reps with QB Sage Rosenfels, who was traded on cutdown day to clear room for the rookie on the roster. As recently as 2½ weeks ago, Webb was impersonating opposing quarterbacks on the scout team, and he only made his NFL debut on Dec. 5 because the Vikings were desperate for help at receiver and on kick returns. But injuries to Favre and Jackson have left the Vikings no choice this week but to start Webb, only seven days after he threw his first NFL pass and finished 2-of-5 for 8 yards. There's no question he's a freakish athlete -- at his pro-day workout in March, Webb (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) bettered all scouting combine participants in the broad jump (11-5½) and the shuttle (3.91 seconds), recorded 21 bench reps of 225 pounds, ran two 40-yard dashes in 4.45 and 4.43 seconds, respectively, and had a 42½-inch vertical jump. He has a strong arm and throws a nice deep ball, too. Still, it's anyone's guess if Webb can be a starting-caliber NFL quarterback, much less do the job after only three days' worth of starter reps, against a solid Bears defense, behind a depleted Vikings offensive line and against the coldest temperatures the Birmingham, Ala., quarterback has played in.
Staying the execution: Vikings OC Darrell Bevell drastically scaled down the game plan this week for Webb, newly signed backup Patrick Ramsey and practice-squad call-up R.J. Archer, who is expected to be in uniform as the No. 3 quarterback. That'll put a premium on execution against a Bears defense that's among the NFL's best in rush defense (second, 87.9 yards per game), scoring defense (third, 17.5 points per game), third-down efficiency (sixth, 35%), pass defense efficiency (seventh, 6.5 net yards per play) and total defense (eighth, 313.8). Logic says the Vikings' best chance is to grind things out with Peterson. But the Bears have held Peterson to fewer than 100 yards on less than 4 yards per carry in three consecutive meetings, including his 17-carry, 51-yard performance on Nov. 14 -- before injuries felled Hutchinson and RG Anthony Herrera. Considering Peterson is banged up, it wouldn't even be a surprise to see the Vikings delegate some of his workload to rookie HB Toby Gerhart and HB Lorenzo Booker, who showed some juice on kick returns in his debut last week. The bottom line is somebody has to make plays for the Vikings, and Frazier made a point this past week of emphasizing that Webb can't do it all himself. The return of WR Percy Harvin after a two-week absence sure can't hurt.
Bear essentials: Then again, it remains to be seen whether the Bears can generate any offense themselves. No one would have believed before the season a Mike Martz-directed unit would rank 24th in scoring (19.5), 26th in passing (192.8) and 30th in total offense (291.5). The Bears also have allowed a league-high 47 sacks. But Bears QB Jay Cutler has drastically reduced his interceptions (12 in as many starts, compared to 26 last season), HB Matt Forte (4.2-yard average) is running more efficiently than he has in his career, and Chicago has gotten a huge boost from WR Devin Hester, who has two return touchdowns, gashed the Vikings for three big returns in the teams' first meeting and ranks among the NFL leaders in kick-return average (30.8) and punt-return average (15.5). The Vikings' coverage units have been depleted by injuries since last month and will be at a disadvantage if the field becomes slick. It's on Kluwe and PK Ryan Longwell, who kicked through plenty of bad weather during his days in Green Bay, to execute the game plan and limit Hester's chances to tilt the field in the Bears' favor.
Playing for pride: The Vikings will honor their 50th-anniversary team at halftime, meaning a large percentage of the franchise's all-time greats will be in attendance for the team's first outdoor home game in 29 years. It's a virtual given Frazier will point out those facts in his pregame speech, reminding players that the guys in the presidential suite wouldn't have complained about cold or snow or a frozen field. Will it make a difference? Maybe not. But it can't hurt to invoke the glory of the past -- and the responsibility to honor it -- when the present is so bleak and the future so uncertain. Anything to get a little more emotion out of a team that sure didn't seem to play with much fire against the Giants.
All that said, the Bears have something to play for and the Vikings don't. Combine that with a first-time starting quarterback, a banged-up roster and conditions more familiar to the visitors, and it's hard to imagine the Vikings pulling this one out unless the weather gets so bad neither offense can function and turnovers go their way.
Prediction: Bears 23, Vikings 13.