NFL Preview – Minnesota (3-5) at Chicago (5-3)
Sports Network | November 12, 2010
(Sports Network) – Brad Childress was given a reprieve from what seems to be an inevitable divorce from the Minnesota Vikings this past week, but the embattled head coach still has plenty of work to do before he finds himself off the hot seat.
The same can be said for Childress’ team, which will once again find itself competing under a sense of desperation when it heads to historic Soldier Field this Sunday for a pivotal mid-November showdown with the rival Chicago Bears.
With its season — and Childress’ immediate future as well — possibly hanging in the balance, Minnesota staged a stirring fourth-quarter comeback to get past the Arizona Cardinals in a 27-24 overtime thriller last weekend. The reigning NFC North champions scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 3:34 of regulation to force an extra period, then came up with a key defensive stop in additional time before moving into range for kicker Ryan Longwell’s deciding 35-yard field goal.
Rumors had been swirling prior to the game that Childress was on the verge of being fired, with his hasty and surprising decision to waive mercurial wide receiver Randy Moss shortly after the Vikings’ Week 8 loss at New England the impetus for the intended move. The decision was reportedly made without consulting team owner Zygi Wilf, who was said to be furious over having his authority usurped over the matter.
The saga was temporarily overshadowed by another memorable episode in the legendary career of Brett Favre, with the 41-year-old quarterback dipping into the Fountain of Youth and emerging with a personal-best 446 passing yards and two touchdown strikes.
While the improbable victory certainly resuscitated Minnesota’s dying postseason hopes, it remains to be seen whether it will have a galvanizing effect with word continuing to surface over the players’ growing discontent with Childress. But with still two games to make up in the NFC playoff chase, the 3-5 Vikings will need to put aside their differences if a strong second- half charge is to take place.
The scene is a bit more harmonious in Chicago, where the Bears stand at 5-3 at the season’s midway point and trail first-place Green Bay by only a half-game in the NFC North standings. Head coach Lovie Smith’s crew will also be entering Sunday’s divisional clash with a momentum surge, having rallied for a much-needed 22-19 triumph over still-winless Buffalo last week in Toronto to halt a two-game losing streak.
Chicago also trailed in the fourth quarter of its matchup with the lowly Bills, but cornerback Tim Jennings came up with a critical interception with just over nine minutes to go that led to quarterback Jay Cutler’s two-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett that put the Bears ahead to stay.
Cutler atoned for a brutal five-turnover display (four interceptions, one fumble) in a 17-14 home loss to Washington on Oct. 24 by throwing for 188 yards and two scores without a pick, while a maligned offensive line that surrendered a troubling 19 sacks over the strong-armed signal-caller’s previous three starts allowed just one in Chicago’s first outing off a Week 8 bye.
The Bears will now set their sights on ending a two-game skid at home when they take on a Minnesota team that could get one of its top offensive weapons back into the fold on Sunday. Wideout Sidney Rice, who amassed 83 catches and 1,312 receiving yards with eight touchdowns during a breakout 2009 campaign, appears close to returning from a preseason hip procedure that has kept him out of the Vikings’ first eight contests. The fourth-year standout has been practicing during the week and is considered a game-time decision.
The Vikings lead the regular season series with the Bears, which dates back to 1961, by a 52-43-2 count. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split of last year’s series, with Minnesota earning a 36-10 rout at the Metrodome in Week 12 and Chicago returning the favor with a 36-30 upset victory in overtime at Soldier Field in Week 16. The Vikings are 0-2 at Soldier Field since last winning there in 2007, and have allowed 115 points in their last three trips to Chicago combined.
The clubs have also met once in the postseason, a 35-18 Bears road win in a 1994 NFC First-Round Playoff tilt.
Smith is 6-6 against the Vikings as a head coach, while Childress is 4-4 against both Smith and the Bears as a head man.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Favre (1896 passing yards, 9 TD, 13 INT) also matched a career-high by completing 36 of his 47 pass attempts in last week’s epic performance, while workhorse running back Adrian Peterson (857 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 8 total TD) had a season-low 15 carries for 81 yards with the Vikings saddled with a sizeable deficit for much of the Arizona game. Expect the play-calling to be considerably more balanced this time around, with Minnesota getting the NFL’s second-leading rusher more involved in the game plan to better utilize his remarkable skills. The wide receiver situation is somewhat unsettled heading into Sunday, with Rice a possibility to make his 2010 debut but leading pass-catcher Percy Harvin (40 receptions, 519 yards, 3 TD) a question mark for the game after he experienced a recurrence of migraine headaches during this week’s practice sessions. The Vikes would be hard-pressed to replace the dynamic sophomore if he can’t go, as he’s delivered back-to-back 100-yard efforts and is one of the league’s premier return men as well. Favre will still have a few capable options regardless of Harvin and Rice’s statuses, however, as wideout Bernard Berrian (18 receptions) posted season- bests of eight catches and 89 receiving yards last week and both tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (24 receptions, 2 TD) and reserve receiver Greg Camarillo (10 receptions) had identical lines of four receptions and 66 yards against the Cardinals.
Keeping the powerful Peterson in check is no small task, but the Chicago defense may be one that’s up to the challenge on Sunday. The Bears are permitting just 83.9 rushing yards (3rd overall) and 3.5 yards per attempt on the season and limited Buffalo to a paltry 46 yards on 18 carries in last week’s win. A stout front seven is headed up by three players with multiple Pro Bowl citations in middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (55 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), weakside starter Lance Briggs (40 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sacks) and domineering end Julius Peppers (20 tackles). Chicago’s prized free-agent acquisition during the offseason, Peppers has managed a rather pedestrian two sacks thus far, but the athletically-gifted lineman’s ability to draw double teams has freed up counterpart Israel Idonije (25 tackles) to record five quarterback takedowns over the team’s last five games. The Bears have been tough against opposing aerial attacks as well, ranking second in pass efficiency defense and having yielded a league-low five touchdowns through the air. Cornerbacks Jennings (34 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Charles Tillman (47 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) are both having strong seasons, while nickel back D.J. Moore (20 tackles, 5 PD) has snared three of the club’s total of 11 interceptions.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
While the Chicago defense has been exceptionally steady all season long, the offense is still trying to find itself under first-year coordinator Mike Martz. The Bears are currently 29th in the NFL in total yards (289.5 ypg) and 27th in scoring (18.5 ppg) and have gotten scant production out of the running game, with top rusher Matt Forte (401 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 6 total TD) having found it hard to discover open lanes behind the team’s shaky line. Protection for Cutler (1671 passing yards, 9 TD, 7 INT), who’s had his difficulties fully mastering Martz’s intricate scheme, has been a major issue as well, with the front wall having given up a league-worst 32 sacks through the eight games. Cutler has often been forced to dump the ball off to Forte, whose 315 receiving yards is the second-most on the team behind wideout Johnny Knox (27 receptions, 527 yards, 1 TD), a dangerous big-play threat who’s averaging 19.5 per catch on the year. Bennett (24 receptions, 1 TD) has been coming on of late as the No. 2 receiver, having averaged slightly over 60 receiving yards over the past three tests.
A vaunted Minnesota pass rush that topped the NFL with 48 sacks a year ago is finally beginning to come around after a inexplicably-slow start to this season. The Vikings amassed six sacks against the Cardinals last week, matching the team’s entire total over the first seven games, with All-Pro end Jared Allen (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) breaking through for 2 1/2 takedowns of Arizona’s Derek Anderson and linemate Ray Edwards (18 tackles, 3.5 sacks) getting two sacks on the opposite side. Forcing turnovers remains a sore spot for a defense that’s allowed the fifth-fewest yards in the league (304.6 ypg), however, with the Vikes having compiled a lackluster 10 takeaways so far. Chicago’s struggles in running the football figure to continue for another week against a unit ranked seventh overall versus the run (96.3 ypg). Led by active outside linebacker Chad Greenway (83 tackles, 1 sack) and the Pro Bowl tackle tandem of Kevin Williams (18 tackles, 1 sack) and Pat Williams (17 tackles), Minnesota held the Cardinals to a mere 53 yards on the ground in Week 9.
The most reliable sources of fantasy points in this game will likely come from the running backs. Although Peterson failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in both his 2009 meetings with Chicago’s sturdy run defense, the All-Pro back did total three touchdowns and is an every-week starter regardless of the opponent, while Forte’s prowess as a receiver helps offset his lackluster rushing numbers and is a solid choice as well. While Favre proved with last week’s outburst he’s still able to put up big stats, the three-time MVP’s overall inconsistency should have his owners proceeding with caution, and the same mantra applies to the often-erratic Cutler as well. Harvin’s status needs to be monitored up until game time, but give him the go-ahead if active, while those with Rice on their rosters should still hold off on playing him until he shows he’s ready to take on a full allotment of snaps. All other Minnesota receivers carry considerable risk, while Knox is the only recommended member of the Chicago corps. Neither of these teams have been lighting up the scoreboard with regularity, which makes Longwell and Bears kicker Robbie Gould less than appealing options but both defenses worth a long look.
Last week’s uplifting victory may be just what the underachieving Vikings needed to jump-start their fortunes, but having to sweat out a win at home over a mediocre Arizona team still brings a red flag into the equation. The Bears haven’t inspired much confidence as well despite their good overall record, so this one really could go in either direction. Count on a hard- hitting battle that will be dominated by the defenses and should be decided by whichever club does a better job of keeping its mistakes to a minimum. Minnesota’s current seven-game road losing streak and minus-nine turnover margin are clear warning signs that could sway the outcome in Chicago’s favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Vikings 16