Bears at Vikings -- Week 14
Where: Where: Mall of America Field, Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minn., (turf, indoors)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: Bears by 3
Records: Vikings (Overall: 6-6, NFC North: 2-2); Bears (Overall: 8-4, NFC North: 2-1)
Past results: Two most recent meetings – Nov. 25, 2012: Bears 28, Vikings 10; Jan. 1, 2012: Bears 17, Vikings 13. Series record: Vikings lead 52-49-2.
What matters: The key to the remainder of the season and the Vikings' playoffs chances is the play of QB Christian Ponder and the effectiveness of the passing game. Getting a decent performance out of RB Adrian Peterson has been a given over the past six weeks, but the difference in ball games has been the lack of a potent passing attack. In the first meeting with the Bears, Ponder did OK and would have done better had his receivers not dropped so many passes in the game. Last week, his ineffectiveness and two red zone picks contributed directly to the loss of a winnable game. So there is equal blame to go around. The loss of WR Percy Harvin to injury has resulted in the re-emergence of TE Kyle Rudolph, but the Bears will certainly work to take his effectiveness away. So someone in the wide receiver corps must step up and make some plays. Ponder says WR Jerome Simpson, who has been suffering from numbness in his leg, is running better, but he needs to show that on Sunday. It starts with Ponder making the right reads and delivering the ball on time, but the receivers have to finish. With LB Brian Urlacher and CB Tim Jennings both potentially out of the game, they should have the opportunity to do so.
Who matters: Bears WR Brandon Marshall killed the Vikings two weeks ago at Soldier Field. He never got in the end zone, but he didn't have to -- he caught 12 passes for 92 yards and extended numerous drives whether the Vikings had him closely covered or not.
“Brandon Marshall is a guy you have to account for on every single snap,” LB Chad Greenway said. “We had an extreme focus on him in that game. He was just able to make some plays especially in those slant balls, the short routes that he had proven what kind of receiver he is. We're going to try to react to what we did a couple weeks ago and try to improve and lean on our home field advantage.”
Vikings CB A.J. Jefferson had the primary job of covering Marshall last game and he often was in good position to make plays. But Sunday in the Metrodome he must finish the plays. The coaches have often said that the difference between wins and losses in this league is making plays, and since Bears QB Jay Cutler relies almost exclusively on Marshall, the opportunity will arise again this week for the Vikings secondary to make plays. If they scheme correctly to limit Marshall, they will take a big part out of the Bears offense and have a legitimate chance to win the game.
Key matchups: Two weeks ago in Chicago, the Bears offensive line was supposed to be limping into the game and he Vikings defensive line was primed to get after Cutler. That never materialized as the Vikings recorded one sack (a gift when Cutler tripped behind the line) and only five quarterback hits. The Bears went to max-protection to give Cutler (who was coming off a concussion) all the room he needed to work. The Vikings can expect more of the same, as the Bears lost G Lance Louis in that game and the unit hasn't improved much. This week the Vikings defense needs to respond. DE Jared Allen and his line mates will be on the faster indoor carpet of the Metrodome and should be able to get to Cutler more often. If they do so, they can affect the entire Bears game plan and disrupt the timing between Cutler and his star receiver Marshall. The Bears are hurting in the running game (both Matt Forte and Michael Bush have been injured in the past two weeks), so they should be able to accomplish their primary goal of stopping the run. But they need to get to the next level and get to Cutler early. He was the difference in the first meeting, and he will be again unless Allen and company gets in his face.
Injuries of note: WR Harvin was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday so his 2012 season is over. That deals the Vikings passing game a hefty blow, but it will be the same Vikings offense that the Bears saw in Chicago two weeks ago. Asked what they will need to do differently this time, WR Jerome Simpson said, “Catch the ball.” The Vikings receivers had eight dropped passes in the game at Soldier Field.
Inside stuff: The Vikings really miss Harvin's production. Despite sitting out three games with an ankle injury (and now the rest of the season), Harvin was still 15th in the NFL with 62 receptions. His 6.9 receptions per game rank 6th in the league and he also leads the league in YAC with 551 yards after the catch.
Vikings K Blair Walsh is fourth in the league with 41 kickoff touchbacks, which is the Vikings
franchise record for touchbacks in a season (previously 40).
Connections: Former Vikings head coach Mike Tice is now the Bears offensive coordinator. And Vikings WR Devin Aromashodu played three years in Chicago before coming to the Vikings two seasons ago. He famously beat injured CB Antoine Winfield for a 39-yard touchdown reception in overtime in 2009 to knock the Vikings out of home field advantage throughout the playoffs—something that might have helped them against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game.
Stat you should know: The Vikings have allowed only 13 kickoff returns of 20-plus yards, which is tied for the fewest in the NFL.
Vikings TE Rudolph is tied for second in the league among all tight ends with eight touchdown catches and is second in Vikings history for touchdowns by a tight end in a season, trailing Visanthe Shiancoe's team record of 11 set in 2009.
Record watch: K Blair Walsh is tied for the 8th most points scored in the NFL with 96. Walsh is poised to break the Vikings rookie scoring record of 106 points held by Randy Moss.
One more interception for rookie S Harrison Smith would move him into a tie for fifth all time by a Vikings rookie, matching Darrell Fullington and Dewayne Washington.
Looking ahead: The Bears return to Soldier Field in Chicago to battle the Green Bay Packers in what will likely be a game for first place in the NFC North. The Vikings hit the road to St. Louis to take on the Rams and try to save any hope for the postseason.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Bears 17
For more Vikings news and notes, follow Joe Oberle on Twitter @CBSVikings and @joeoberle.