The NFC playoffs may not start for several more weeks, but with both the Vikings and Bears currently on the outside looking in, this Sunday’s game feels a lot like a postseason matchup. The two 6-7 squads need to make up ground on the Cardinals over the final three weeks, so this head-to-head matchup will effectively eliminate one team from the hunt.
“It’s early playoffs for us,” Harrison Smith said. “That’s how I’m looking at it.”
For the Vikings, this is a chance to bounce back from a frustrating loss in Tampa and sweep the Bears for the first time since Matt Nagy arrived in Chicago. Minnesota is 3-1 against NFC North opponents this season and is looking to finish strong in that department with games against the Bears and Lions still to come.
The Bears, meanwhile, are hoping to keep rolling after crushing the Texans last week. If they can win at U.S. Bank Stadium for the third straight year, they would get back to .500 and have a legitimate path to potentially sneaking into the No. 7 seed.
Let’s run through some of the top storylines, players to watch, and injury news for this matchup, with my prediction coming at the very end.
When the Vikings have the ball
Key storyline No. 1: Can the offensive line hold its own?
As is always the case when these two teams meet, one of the most important matchups to keep an eye on is the one between the Vikings’ offensive line and the Bears’ outstanding defensive front. Last week in Tampa, the Vikings couldn’t hold up in pass protection and Kirk Cousins ended up facing relentless pressure in his face late in the game. If that happens again, it’s going to be hard for Minnesota to win this game.
First and foremost, the Vikings need to get better performances from guards Dakota Dozier and Ezra Cleveland. That duo combined to allow 12 pressures last week and is facing another major challenge this week against Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols. They have to be able to give Cousins some time in the pocket, which is easier said than done against the Bears. Hicks, in particular, is such a game-breaking player both as a pass rusher and a run stopper.
“Any time you can set edges like they can set them with their edge players and then when you have a guy as big as him and as powerful as him inside, the ball gets squeezed and now there he is,” Gary Kubiak said of Hicks. “So he’s an exceptional player, great pass rush ability for a very big man, chases the ball very well for a big guy. They’ve been good here for a few years running with that same group of people and last week they were lights out.”
Stopping Khalil Mack – who is listed as questionable for this game – will obviously be a major priority for Brian O’Neill and this offensive line, but Hicks might actually be the most impactful player on the Bears’ defensive line. Expect the Vikings to try to get Dalvin Cook going on runs to the outside, away from Hicks.
Key storyline No. 2: Can Dan Bailey make a kick?
Many expected the Vikings to make a change at kicker this week following Dan Bailey’s historic meltdown in Tampa, but that never ended up happening. They brought in Chandler Catanzaro and Taylor Bertolet for tryouts, but Mike Zimmer decided to stick with Bailey for Sunday’s game, despite the fact that he’s missed seven of his last nine kicks and can’t possibly have much confidence right now.
“He’s kicked good this week,” Zimmer said, via the Star Tribune. “I talked to him a couple times this week about certain things. He’s a very even-keeled guy that has a history of being a terrific kicker in this league. Like I told the team the other day, there’s not one guy on our football team that hasn’t had a bad day. That’s just part of life. We’re not going to dwell on it. Everybody else will, but we’re not.”
Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said Bailey has been working on a couple minor mechanical fixes this week and hopes that he’ll be ready to bounce back on Sunday. Both Zimmer and Maalouf have talked about Bailey’s long track record of success, which includes a stretch of 25 consecutive made field goals from Week 8 of 2019 to Week 2 of this year.
But how many chances will the Vikings actually give Bailey on Sunday? Will Zimmer be more aggressive in calling for the offense to go for it on fourth down in field goal range, knowing that the alternative is trotting out a guy who missed all four of his kicks badly a week ago? If Bailey misses his first kick, would Zimmer pivot to extreme aggressiveness on fourth down and two-point conversion attempts?
It’s going to be very interesting to watch. I bet the Vikings would like to get Bailey an extra point for his first attempt, just to have a short kick to settle the nerves before potentially moving onto a longer attempt. However, even extra points have been tough for Bailey, who has missed three of his past four. Whatever distance his first attempt comes from, the entire sideline (and Vikings fans across the world) is going to be holding its breath when the kick goes up.
Players to watch
Will this be another big game for rookie sensation Justin Jefferson? When these teams met in Chicago, he caught eight passes for 135 yards and was a big reason why the Vikings won that game. Jefferson needs a big outing to keep pace with Justin Herbert in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race, and the Vikings need to get the ball to their most explosive playmaker as much as possible.
Speaking of explosive playmakers, I think tight end Irv Smith Jr. has a good chance to set a career-high in receiving yardage on Sunday. His single-game best is 64 yards, and he nearly matched that with 63 and a touchdown last week on just 28 snaps. Now that he’s healthier and Kyle Rudolph is still out, I’d expect Smith to be nearly a full-time player and see a decent number of targets from Cousins.
Mack and Hicks get most of the attention on the Chicago defense, but linebacker Roquan Smith is a major part of their front seven’s battle against Cook. He’s a dynamic downhill linebacker who can also make plays from sideline to sideline.
When the Bears have the ball
Key storyline: Can the Vikings force Mitch Trubisky into some mistakes?
The Vikings have always been pretty good at shutting down Mitch Trubisky, but that was with a veteran defense that had played together for a long time. In five full games against the Vikings, Trubisky has thrown just two touchdowns with three interceptions and has never exceeded 210 passing yards or an 86 passer rating.
However, the Bears’ quarterback is coming off of his best game of the season and one of the best of his career: a three-touchdown, zero-turnover performance against the Texans. While the Vikings’ young defense dominated Nick Foles earlier this season, Trubisky will present more of a challenge with his ability to make plays outside of the pocket.
But while Trubisky can make some spectacular plays outside of the pocket, he’s also prone to making bad decisions and turning the ball over. The Vikings need to force some takeaways, which is easier said than done without Eric Kendricks.
“We have to make him throw us some [interceptions], co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “The first game last year, on the first series we got him out of the pocket and Danielle chased him down from behind and I think it was Anthony Barr that hit him and he hurt his shoulder and was out of the game. Those are the things we have to make happen.”
The Vikings don’t have Danielle Hunter or Barr this year, but they still have some playmakers. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris have picked off Trubisky a combined three times, and the Vikings need their safety duo to step up and play well on Sunday.
Players to watch
Can the Vikings get a spark from anyone on their defensive line? Rookie D.J. Wonnum might be the best bet to provide it. He has dealt with injuries at times this year but has the length and explosiveness to create some havoc. The Vikings didn’t record a single sack against Tom Brady, but Trubisky doesn’t get the ball out quite as quickly as Brady does. Minnesota needs Wonnum, Ifeadi Odenigbo, or someone else from the D-line to step up and make a play.
Speaking of rookies, this is another big test for Vikings cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. Gladney was arguably robbed of his first NFL interception by an iffy pass interference call last week, but he’s been playing well. He’ll see some of the big, extremely talented Allen Robinson, and he’ll also see some of speedsters Darnell Mooney and Anthony Miller.
The Bears have been getting a lot of production out of RB David Montgomery recently. He went for 155 yards from scrimmage last week and has broken 100 total yards in three straight games, with four touchdowns over that span. He has the potential to create big plays, ripping off an 80-yard run against the Texans last week and a 57-yarder against the Packers three weeks ago. With no Kendricks, the Vikings need Eric Wilson and Todd Davis to fill their gaps against the run and prevent Montgomery from getting loose.
Prediction: Vikings 22, Bears 21
I can’t honestly say I have any idea what to expect from this game. The Vikings have lost two straight December home games to the Bears, and I’m worried about their offensive line holding up in pass protection. Kendricks being out is also worrisome, as Trubisky and Montgomery have been playing fairly well of late. Oh, and will they even attempt any kicks with Dan Bailey? Still, I don’t think the Vikings’ playoff dreams are going to come to an end just yet. They’ll hit some big plays to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and will force Trubisky into a couple mistakes. Vikings win another close, low-scoring game and sweep Chicago on the season.
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