A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Vikings on Jan. 1, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
A pair of Bears just may have made enough of an impression last week against the Packers to to move up the depth chart when the 2012 season rolls around. After four weeks of misery under the guidance of Caleb Hanie, Josh McCown stepped in at quarterback and played admirably. More than anything, he appeared poised in the pocket and didn’t look to get happy feet when the pass rush closed in on him. He received good protection from the offensive line and when the pocket did collapse, he showed enough recognition to step up and out and also scramble for big gains. The other player looking to make his ascension up the depth chart is running back Kahlil Bell, who finished with 121 rushing yards on the day. Why would the Bears consider paying Marion Barber good money to come back and do the same role that Bell fulfilled for less money? Sure, McCown had two interceptions and Bell two fumbles, but they’re backups, after all. We should get our second look at extended action from the two this week against the Vikings, a considerably worse opponent. The Vikings have a better run defense than the Packers, so it should be interesting to see how Bell fares against the team with which he entered the league. Bell has made his feelings public that he doesn’t think too highly of the Vikings and he’ll be playing with an extra edge on Sunday. McCown should — well, let’s rephrase that: could — have a good day through the air against a Vikings pass defense ranked fourth-worst in the league. The Vikings rank last in the league with just seven interceptions, this coming despite the fact that they’re a good pass rush team. It lets you know just about poorly their secondary has played this year. The Vikings have missed veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who played in just five games this year before suffering a broken collarbone. Cornerback Cedric Griffin has struggled and was benched by head coach Leslie Frazier a few weeks back. They’ve shifted and rotated defensive backs regularly. The strength of the defense has always been their defensive line and the linebackers. Defensive end Jared Allen leads the league with 18.5 sacks and he plays opposite a pretty good end in Brian Robison, who has seven sacks of his own. Remi Ayodele plugs the middle of the line at nose tackle. At linebacker, Chad Greenway was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate and E.J. Henderson has had a long, steady career with the Vikings.
Bears defense vs. Vikings offense
I’m betting that last week’s performance against the Packers was more the exception than the rule for the Bears defense. The defensive line failed to generate any pressure on Aaron Rodgers, but the Packers quarterback is one of the best in the league at avoiding pressure and getting rid of the ball quickly. Zack Bowman failed miserably in his first start at cornerback in place of Tim Jennings, but the Packers receivers are among the best in the league and Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli didn’t do Bowman any favors leaving him isolated in the red zone. There’s no question the Bears have issues on the defensive side of the ball, but they’re strong enough to finish out the season on a good note. The biggest concern this week is with the health of Brian Urlacher, who missed two days of practice with a knee injury. He did return on Friday, though, but he’s listed as questionable for the game. He should be able to play, as should Lance Briggs (ankle) and Nick Roach (shin) who are both listed as probable. The last time the Bears faced the Vikings, the Bears beat up on Donovan McNabb in a prime time game before the Vikings yanked him and replaced him with rookie Christian Ponder. Ponder stepped into the game and was able to move the ball fairly effectively, completing 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards. My guess is that was a product of the Bears not having prepared for him. With a week to do so this time around, the defense should be able to contain him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of backup quarterback Joe Webb, who filled in for Ponder last week after Ponder suffered a head injury. The biggest game-changer this week is that the Bears will not have to face Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Toby Gerhart will get the start and he has had a modicum of success in his short career. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry and serves a role in the passing game as well. The emphasis for the Bears will be on stopping the run and forcing the Vikings to beat them through the air. With as poor as the Bears secondary has been playing, that’d be the smartest game plan, anyway. Overall, the Bears have the edge because of the strength of their front seven.
Devin Hester loves to play against the Vikings; at least, that’s the message conveyed by the way he has performed against them throughout his career. And after not getting voted to the Pro Bowl and acknowledging that he was upset about it, he’ll be playing with an extra chip on his shoulder. The question is, is he healthy enough to contribute? For the past month, Hester has been struggling with not only returning kicks, but fielding them, too. He’s been battling an ankle injury for a while and one has to wonder whether it’s not affecting his judgement and the mental aspect of returning kicks. Across the field, the Bears will face a pretty good returner in Percy Harvin, who leads the NFL with a 32.5-yard average on kickoff returns, although he’s been returning less kicks in favor of Marcus Sherels. Sherels is averaging 27.6 yards per kickoff return but only 8.4 yards per punt return. Kicker Ryan Longwell and punter Chris Kluwe have been mainstays with the Vikings for quite some time. Longwell has missed five field goals this year and has converted on 80% of his kicks. He still has the leg strength at his advanced age to make longer field goals but his accuracy from longer range is fading. Kluwe ranks 28th in the NFL with a 37.4 net punting average and is tied with Bears punter Adam Podlesh with 20 punts downed inside the 20.
As I sit here and ponder the last game of the Bears’ 2011 season, I find myself facing a difficult prediction once again. Bad teams are consistent at being inconsistent and it’s the inconsistency that makes their performance difficult to predict. By all measures, the Bears should win this game if both teams play as well as they’re capable because the Bears have the better talent at this point, at least on defense. Neither Ponder nor Gerhart scare me and they shouldn’t have big games against the Bears defense. On a similar note, McCown and Bell shouldn’t scare the Vikings but they were impressive against the Packers. The Bears have traditionally played poorly in Minnesota and the home crowd will definitely play to the Vikings’ advantage. Say what you want about Frazier as a former Bear, but the Vikings head coach has not had a good season coaching. Similarly, criticize Lovie Smith if you will, but the Bears coaching staff is more experienced and a better all-around staff. Smith should have his team prepared both physically and mentally, which is a necessary component when two teams play a meaningless season finale. Smith chose not to start rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle this week because he wants to see more of what McCown can do, but he also wants to finish the season on a high note with a win. I’m not exactly sure how high that “note” can be by defeating a 3-12 Vikings team, but he’s adamant about it. I swore that after the loss to the Seahawks, I wouldn’t be predicting a Bears victory again, and in the middle of a five-game losing streak it seems a bit farfetched to say this, but I’ve somehow talked myself in to believing the Bears can win this game and take a .500 record into the offseason.
Final Score: Chicago 16, Minnesota 13