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NFL Preview - Chicago (9-4) at Minnesota (5-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - NFL outdoor football will return to Minnesota for the first time in 29 years this coming week, though that wasn't the intended plan.
With their normal facility still undergoing repairs, the Minnesota Vikings will take on the Chicago Bears this Monday night at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium in a Week 15 divisional showdown that could declare this year's champion of the NFC North.
A severe winter storm that dropped 17 inches of snow on the Minneapolis area last week caused the roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome to collapse and damaged the stadium's ceiling in several places. As a result, the Vikings will move Monday's tilt to the nearby college venue for the franchise's first outdoor home game since Dec. 20, 1981, when Minnesota dropped a 10-6 decision to Kansas City in the final contest held at Metropolitan Stadium.
The Metrodome's unplayable conditions had forced the Vikings to play last week's originally-scheduled home date with the New York Giants at the neutral setting of Detroit's Ford Field, where Minnesota had a two-game winning streak under interim head coach Leslie Frazier halted with a 21-3 loss in a game that will be best remembered as the one that ended Brett Favre's epic run of 297 consecutive regular-season starts.
It appears Favre is about to begin a different sort of streak this week, as the sprained shoulder the legendary quarterback suffered in a Week 13 victory over Buffalo isn't expected to heal sufficiently enough to allow him to play on Monday. Backup Tarvaris Jackson is definitely out after landing on injured reserve Thursday with a sprained toe he sustained in the loss to the Giants, meaning the Vikings will likely put the offense in the hands of unproven rookie Joe Webb.
Webb, an athletic sixth-round pick of Minnesota in April's draft who rushed for over 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns during his senior year at UAB, completed 2- of-5 passes for eight yards and added a 16-yard scramble after taking over for Jackson in the latter stages of last week's setback. His understudy for Monday's matchup will be journeyman Patrick Ramsey, signed by the Vikings on Wednesday.
The raw 24-year-old's first extended NFL action will come against a Chicago defense that's been one of the league's best this season, but was shredded for 475 total yards by Tom Brady and the high-powered New England Patriots last Sunday in a 36-7 thrashing at Soldier Field that ended the current NFC North leaders' five-game unbeaten streak.
One of those wins came at the expense of the Vikings in Chicago during Week 10, with the Bears limiting their longtime rivals to 240 total yards and intercepting Favre three times en route to a 27-13 verdict.
Chicago does remain in good position in its quest for a first NFC North title and postseason appearance since 2006, and can clinch the division crown by defeating the Vikings and if second-place Green Bay loses at New England on Sunday. The Bears enter this week's slate with a one-game edge on the Packers in the standings.
The Vikings lead the regular-season series with the Bears, which dates back to 1961, by a 52-44-2 count, with Chicago moving closer with the above-mentioned 27-13 victory at Solider Field last month. The Bears have lost in each of their last three stops at the Metrodome, however, including a 36-10 setback last season, and haven't won there since a 19-16 triumph in 2006. That year also marked the last time Chicago swept a home-and-home set from the Vikings in the same season.
The longtime foes have also met once in the postseason, a 35-18 Bears road win in a 1994 NFC First-Round Playoff tilt.
Frazier, who played five seasons as a cornerback for the Bears from 1981-85, will be facing his former team for the first time as a head coach. Chicago's Lovie Smith is 7-6 all-time against the Vikings but has never previously opposed Frazier.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago's season-long inconsistency on offense was on full display in its last outing, when the team mustered a meager 185 total yards against the Patriots to stagnate the steady progress it had been making on that side of the ball in recent weeks. The Bears fumbled twice and punted five times on their first seven possessions, while quarterback Jay Cutler (2697 passing yards, 17 TD, 12 INT) had three turnovers and hit on a subpar 12-of-26 passes as he struggled to handle the cold and windy conditions. Cutler had been extremely sharp in his prior two starts, however, including a four-touchdown, zero-turnover effort in a key late-November win over Philadelphia, and came through with three scoring strikes in this season's earlier meeting with Minnesota. Wide receiver Johnny Knox (45 receptions, 2 TD) compiled 90 yards on five catches in that game and serves as the primary deep threat of a serviceable corps of pass catchers, with third-year pro Earl Bennett (42 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (31 receptions, 5 TD) the main underneath targets and return specialist Devin Hester (34 receptions, 2 TD) often in the mix as well. Chicago also possesses two good receiving backs in leading rusher Matt Forte (773 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 8 total TD) and ex-Viking Chester Taylor (247 rushing yards, 3 TD, 20 receptions), who combined for 102 of the 130 rushing yards the Bears generated against Minnesota in Week 10.
A Minnesota defense that's usually quite stout against the run will be seeking to atone for an uncharacteristically brutal performance in that area from last week, when the Giants pounded out 213 yards on the ground and averaged a whopping 7.6 yards per attempt. Such prolific results are atypical, though, from an accomplished front seven anchored by the Pro Bowl tackle tandem of Kevin Williams (31 tackles, 1 sack) and Pat Williams (24 tackles) and backed up by the strong linebacking duo of E.J. Henderson (89 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) in the middle and leading stopper Chad Greenway (120 tackles, 1 sack) on the weakside. Minnesota's most impactful defender, however, has been end Jared Allen (49 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 1 INT), a terrorizing pass rusher who's racked up 8 1/2 sacks over the past six games. The three-time All-Pro could be licking his chops at the prospect of facing a Chicago offensive line that's surrendered a league-worst 47 sacks, and counterpart Ray Edwards (24 tackles, 5.5 sacks) may have a chance to add to that total as well, as he's close to ready to returning from a two-game absence caused by an ankle sprain.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Webb has an intriguing set of tools and brings an added dimension with his impressive running skills, but the rookie's lack of game experience and polish as a passer leads one to believe the Vikings will employ a run-heavy game plan on Monday. And that's not a bad idea, considering the team sports the NFC's second-leading rusher and a multiple All-Pro on its roster in running back Adrian Peterson (1149 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 12 total TD). The standout carrier was held in check by the Giants, however, managing a season-low 26 yards on 14 carries and missing the presence up front of perennial Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson, who's slated to miss a second straight game with a broken thumb. Minnesota should have wide receiver Percy Harvin (51 receptions, 5 total TD) back after sitting out two straight weeks with migraine-related issues, however, and look for the team to get the ball in the dynamic sophomore's hands as much as possible to further ease the burden on Webb. Harvin and talented wideout Sidney Rice (14 receptions, 2 TD), now all the way back from offseason hip surgery that's limited him to only four games so far, give Minnesota's neophyte quarterback two excellent options to throw to in his anticipated NFL starting debut.
Chicago comes in to the Vikings' temporary home fielding the NFL's third-best stop unit in terms of points allowed (17.5 ypg) and stands fourth overall in pass efficiency defense, but you wouldn't know it if you tuned into last week's disaster. Brady erupted for 369 yards and two touchdowns while hitting on 27- of-40 throws against a secondary that stymied Favre last month, picking off three of the grizzled veteran's throws and holding Minnesota to 170 yards through the air. The Bears have permitted only 11 touchdown passes on the year, the second-fewest in the league, and own two difference-making edge rushers in ends Julius Peppers (44 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT) and Israel Idonije (41 tackles, 7 sacks) that will test Webb's scrambling ability. Chicago can also be a force against the run, as Peterson found out by gaining a modest 51 rushing yards on 17 attempts in the previous meeting, and accomplished linebackers Brian Urlacher (104 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (70 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) will take the field on Monday aiming to show off the team's No. 2 ranking in run defense (87.9 ypg) in front of a national audience.
An expected faceoff with an unseasoned quarterback makes the Chicago defense a very attractive play this week, and Webb's insertion has the potential to wreck the fantasy prospects of Rice, Minnesota's best receiver. Harvin's value may be less affected, though, as the Vikings may look to get him the ball on screens and reverses to take advantage of his playmaking skills, and the change under center shouldn't deter Peterson owners from keeping the workhorse back in lineups. Forte is the one must-start on the Chicago side, with Taylor offering moderate appeal at the flex position as the Bears' main goal-line back who's scored a touchdown in two straight games. Cutler's a riskier choice than the top-level quarterbacks, but still a better one than most, while no Chicago receiver with the exception of Knox has been productive enough to warrant a starting spot in a playoff week. Those in IDP leagues have a number of really good options to choose from in the Bears' trio of Urlacher, Briggs and Peppers and Minnesota's Allen.
While last week's flop showed the Bears are still a work in progress in several areas, they're still more consistent and sound at this point than a Minnesota team that's once again in disarray and dealing with a multitude of key injuries, including one at the most important position. The Chicago defense shouldn't have much of a problem rendering the depleted Vikings one- dimensional, giving the Bears a good chance of winning both the turnover and field position battles necessary to come out on top of what has the makings of being a low-scoring contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 24, Vikings 10
12/17 14:11:34 ET