Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
Minnesota has the No. 4 run defense whereas the Bears have the second-worst rushing offense. Expecting the Bears to get anything going in this department would be unfair, even if a bitterly cold game time temperature dictactes the run game necessary. Misdirection and counters as well as extended handoffs off tackle seem to be the only way to run against this Vikings defense that features three Pro Bowl linemen and a fourth that would probably be the best defensive lineman on the Bears at this point. Running up the gut — no pun intended — into the waiting Buddha bellies of 300-pound tackles, Pat and Kevin Williams, will accomplish nothing. The Bears aren’t strong enough at the three interior offensive line positions to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and move those guys even an inch. Unless they try a few outside runs and off tackle plays, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears all but abandoned their run game. The passing game is a little bit more even as the Bears rank No. 19 in the league and the Vikings’ defense is No. 20 at defending it. Those numbers are a little skewed as Antoine Winfield, one of the top cornerbacks in the league who is as physical as a linebacker, sat out six of the Vikings’ games this season. He’s still hampered by a foot injury and I’d say it’d be worth challenging him deep with the speed the Bears have at receiver, but Jay Cutler won’t have enough time to throw deep with Jared Allen bearing down on him. The Bears once again will have to resort to the short passing game, but they’ll have one less guy in that department because they’ll have to keep an extra guy in to help Chris Williams block Allen.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
How the Bears perform in this phase of the game will ultimately determine if they have the unthinkable chance at upsetting their division rival in prime time. For the past few years, Brett Favre has struggled in December games. Some felt that for as good a team as the Vikings have this season and for as well as Favre has been playing — his seven interceptions are the fewest of his career — that he wouldn’t break down this year. Those who felt that have been wrong as the Vikings have dropped two of their last three games largely due to Favre’s decline in performance and production. Favre’s aging body is doing him no favors. Legs and footwork are a large part of quarterbacking and they have been one of the main reasons Favre has had so much success in his career. But as he’s drawn closer to 40, his legs have been giving out on him late in the season and his escapability is disappearing. Cold weather, which used to be an advantage for Favre as he held a 43-6 record with the Packers when the kickoff temperature was 34 or lower, is now affecting his game. Favre admittedly hates cold weather and he’ll have to battle it Monday night against the Bears as the temperature around kickoff could be 23 degrees, according to weather.com. The difference between the Bears’ offense and the Vikings’ offense — one of them, anyway — is that the Vikings have a good run game to fall back on if the passing game doesn’t work. The Vikings only rank No. 13 in that department as Adrian Peterson has looked far from spectacular the past five games. He failed to record a 100-yard game during that stretch and only averaged 3.1 yards per carry during those games. The Bears did a decent job containing him during the first meeting, holding him to 85 yards on 25 carries (3.4 average) but their run defense has been bad all season.
I gave the special teams edge to the Vikings in the first matchup and will do the same in this one. The Bears’ Johnny Knox and the Vikings’ Percy Harvin are neck and neck for second and third place, respectively, in kick return average. Devin Hester is questionable for the game and Earl Bennett lacks explosive speed but he returned a punt for a touchdown last week and averages 12.5 yards per return, one of the highest totals in the league. Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell has converted 92% of his field goals this year, second-best total among kickers with more than two field goal attempts. Robbie Gould has converted on 86% of his kicks with two of his three misses having been blocked. Chris Kluwe has had the advantage of punting inside a dome and has a slightly-better net average than Brad Maynard, but Maynard has done a better job pinning the ball inside the 20-yard line and preventing returns. Where the Vikings set themselves apart from the Bears is with their blocking and kick coverage.
The fact that his is a cold-weather game and will be played outdoors bodes well for the Bears as “The Ancient One”, Favre, has been noticeably worse in December games the past few years. It’s for this reason alone that I believe the game will be closer than the one the teams played on Nov. 29 in Minnesota, when the Vikings trounced the Bears, 36-10. I can’t, in good conscience, predict an upset even though I won’t rule it out because the Vikings are far superior to the Bears. They also have a lot more for which to play. Because the New Orleans Saints were upset by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday — the Bucs’ second straight loss — the Vikings are just one loss behind them in the chase for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Pride may be the only thing on the line for the Bears, but it’s on the line for the Vikings, too. The Packers enjoyed defeating the Bears twice this season and you have to figure that the Vikings would like to do so as well. The fact that Favre is a lot slower and easier to bring down than he used to be is encouraging for a Bears pass rush that needs all the help it can get. Peterson’s five straight games without a 100-yard performance is also encouraging. But for as much as the Vikings’ offense has struggled as of late, their defense is still terrifying and plays nearly flawless football. It should be a close game, but I don’t like the Bears chances of pulling off the upset.
Final Score: Minnesota 24, Chicago 17
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