Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
The game plan for the Bears offense surely changed this week when they found out they’d be playing outdoors instead of inside the Metrodome in a controlled climate. Although, the news came early enough in the week that Mike Martz probably hadn’t started installing anything yet. We can expect to see continued concentration on the run game and Chester Taylor may get a boost out of playing in front of his former fans. During the Bears’ five-game win streak, Jay Cutler was playing efficiently and under control. Last week, while trailing by a big deficit, he got a little careless while trying to force plays and was intercepted twice. This week I expect him to be more poised and careful with the football despite the “night-game jinx” many want to pin on him. Expect he and Earl Bennett to continue their rapport, especially since the Vikings have the seventh-ranked defense. When facing a tough defense, it’s best for the quarterback to go to his safety valve as much as possible and that’s exactly what Bennett has become. The Vikings are not a ball-hawking defense by any means. They’ve intercepted just 12 passes this season which ranks them No. 18 in the league. Part of that might be because their sack total has dipped so low this season and they’re not getting enough pressure on the quarterback. They rank No. 26 with just 23 sacks in 13 games. The strength of the Vikings defense is their front seven. The defensive line features Jared Allen and Ray Edwards at ends and the mammoth tackles of Pat and Kevin Williams. One of the reasons the Vikings have been struggling this season is that the “Williams Wall” is breaking down and the run defense isn’t as dominant as it once was (ranked No. 1 from 2006-2008, and ranked No. 2 last year). This year the run defense is a respectable No. 10, but Taylor and Matt Forte should be able to find running room, if for no other reason than the Bears avoid the middle of the defensive line for the most part. Behind the defensive line is a talented trio of linebackers that makes up one of the top units in the league. Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson, and Ben Leber have been playing at a high level for several years now. Greenway and Henderson are 1-2 in tackles and Henderson leads the team with three interceptions. The Vikings have some holes in the secondary (obviously, if their middle linebacker leads the team in picks), but cornerback Antoine Winfield is still solid. He is second on the team with two interceptions and third on the team in tackles. Tackling has always been his strong suit as he tackles like a linebacker and has always been one of the best cornerbacks in the league at doing so.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
The Bears have been fortunate to face quarterbacks the likes of Jimmy Clausen, Tyler Thigpen, and Drew Stanton. This week, they will likely face Joe Webb, a rookie sixth-round pick out of UAB. What that means is that Adrian Peterson could get 30 carries this week, and that could play into the hands of the Bears, who rank second in run defense. When the two teams met on Nov. 14 at Soldier Field, Peterson rushed 17 times for just 51 yards and no touchdowns. But Peterson remains a deadly back because if he had carried the ball 18 times, who’s to say that 18th carry wouldn’t have gone for a 66-yard touchdown? He’s such a dangerous back and can break a long run on any carry. The Vikings also could be without one of their best offensive linemen in guard Steve Hutchinson, who missed multiple practices this week and is questionable on the injury report. The Bears are mostly healthy on defense. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa had full participation at practice this week two weeks after his arthroscopic knee surgery, but he still might not go this week. Charles Tillman, who is battling a foot problem, had full participation as well. Because this game is being played outdoors, there is some concern about how the defense will respond. Last week on a sloppy, snowy field, the Bears failed to generate a pass rush from their front four, and thus their base defense was rendered ineffective. The main difference between the Patriots and Vikings, however, is that the Vikings don’t have Tom Brady dropping back to pass. The only thing in common between Tom Brady and Joe Webb is that both were picked in the sixth round at No. 199 overall. I don’t think we’ll be seeing the same kind of meteroric rise from Webb that we saw from Brady following an injury to the starting quarterback. Unlike in the first meeting between these two teams, the Vikings are expected to have a full complement of receivers this time around as Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and Percy Harvin are all expected to play. However, the Bears have to focus their attention on the run game and stopping Peterson before they worry about the passing game of the Vikings.
Assuming Harvin is healthy enough to play on Monday against the Bears, the special teams battle should be a close one. Harvin is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the league and is averaging 23.3 yards per return, which is actually low for him. He also has one return touchdown this year that went for 95 yards. Greg Camarillo has been handling punt returns for the Vikings this season and is averaging 10.2 yards per return with a long of 52 yards. He doesn’t quite have the breakaway speed to make him that dangerous, but a well-blocked return can still go to the house. The Bears have alternated Devin Hester and Danieal Manning at kickoff return duties and both are extremely dangerous returners. Hester has been affecting field position all season long while returning punts, even when he hasn’t had the opportunity to field them when opposing punters have kicked it directly out of bounds. Ryan Longwell has converted just 14 field goals this season, ranking him No. 27 in the league. But he’s only missed one kick compared to Robbie Gould’s four misses. It should be a tight battle between the two kickers. Brad Maynard is still very accurate at pinning opponents deep in their end of the field and that could come in handy in what should be a close game. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, however, has the third-most punts downed inside the 20 and has the third-best net average in the league at 40.9 yards per kick. Kluwe gives the Vikings the edge in the punt department but the Bears get the slight edge in special teams.
The Vikings have been a solid team at home for many years now. Even in this terrible year for them, four of their five victories have come in the confines of the Metrodome. Due to the collapse of the dome, though, this game will be moved to the University of Minnesota and will be played outdoors and on grass. Clearly, that’s an advantage for the Bears. Despite what happened last week in a blizzard against the best team in the NFL, the Bears are better prepared to play in the conditions that will be present Monday night than the Vikings will. And although I expect this game to be close, it could just as easily be a blowout like we witnessed in 2007 when the Bears smacked the Packers, 35-7, at Soldier Field in bitterly cold temperatures. The Vikings don’t have anything to play for but pride in this one, and pride will only take you so far when you’re a bad football team playing in frigid temperatures against a good team. If the Bears come out and smack them in the mouth early, the Vikings could hide in their shells and count the minutes until they get into the warm locker room. On the flip side, if the Bears don’t shut down the Vikings’ offense and allow Peterson to sprint all over the field, that could give the Vikings enough momentum to possibly pull off the upset. The Bears have the coaching edge in experience as Vikings interim coach Leslie Frazier is still learning the ropes. I expect Bears fans to travel as well as they usually do and the smaller crowd at TCF Bank Stadium shouldn’t be much of a factor for the home team. They’ll have to learn to deal with the weather as much as the team will. Sunday night during the 10 p.m. hour, we should see a Patriots victory over the Packers and the Bears will know that they could clinch the division with a victory over the Vikings on Monday night. That motivation will be enough to see that the job gets done.
Final Score: Chicago 23, Minnesota 17