Each of these participants has fallen well behind in the division race just five weeks into this 2011 season, with reigning world champion Green Bay and suddenly-resurgent Detroit both getting off to sizzling 5-0 starts. The defending NFC North titleholder Bears presently stand three games off the pace in the standings, while 1-4 Minnesota already faces long odds to capture the crown and sorely needs a win on Sunday to realistically remain in the conference playoff chase.
The Vikings will be heading to the Windy City with a bit of momentum, however, after finally nabbing their first victory of the season with a 34-10 blowout of Arizona last Sunday at the Metrodome.
After losing each of its first four contests by seven points or less and blowing double-digit leads in three of those tilts, Minnesota managed to put it all together against the Cardinals. Star running back Adrian Peterson rushed for three first-half touchdowns en route to a 122-yard outburst, while the defense forced four Arizona turnovers that were converted into 17 points.
"We found a way to play a complete game," said defensive end Brian Robison, who came up with two of the Vikings' four sacks on the afternoon. "We really needed to get this win, it was a must-win game. It's going to be the same thing [this] week."
Chicago, on the other hand, limps home having lost three of its last four outings after opening the season with an encouraging 30-12 besting of 2010 playoff participant Atlanta. The latest defeat, a 24-13 setback at Detroit this past Monday, dropped the Bears to 0-2 in division play.
The Bears continue to be plagued by troubles along an offensive line that's surrendered 18 sacks through the first four weeks, while a usually sturdy defense that helped carry the team to last season's NFC Championship Game has been surprisingly submissive in the early going.
Chicago enters Sunday's tilt ranked near the bottom of the league in every major defensive category, currently standing 27th against the pass, 28th versus the run and 29th in total yards allowed. The Bears were gashed for 181 rushing yards by the run-averse Lions on Monday, one week after permitting 169 yards on the ground in a home win over Carolina.
"Defensively, we stink," Bears middle linebacker and team captain Brian Urlacher remarked after the Detroit game. "If we stop the run, we can't stop the pass. If we stop the pass, we can't stop the run. We're just all over the place."
The Vikings own the NFL's third-best rushing attack, averaging 160 yards per game, and are tied for second overall with 16 sacks at the moment.
While Minnesota seems to hold advantages in those two categories, that could be negated by its recent woes on the road as well as a lack of success at Soldier Field in years past. The Vikings have lost 11 of their last 13 games in enemy venues and are 1-9 in their past 10 trips to Soldier Field, including a 27-13 defeat there during Week 10 of last season.
Minnesota last prevailed in Chicago via a 34-31 verdict in 2007.
The Vikings lead the regular-season series with the Bears, which dates back to 1961, by a 52-45-2 count, but Chicago has inched closer towards drawing even by winning the last three meetings between the teams. The Bears recorded their first season sweep of Minnesota since 2006 last year, following their home victory in November with a 40-14 rout in Week 15 in a game held at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium due to unplayable conditions at the Metrodome. As previously noted, the Vikings have dropped three straight and nine of their last 10 tests at Soldier Field.
Chicago and Minnesota have also squared off one time previously during the postseason, a 35-18 road win by the Bears in a 1994 NFC First-Round Playoff.
The Bears' Lovie Smith owns an 8-6 record against Minnesota during his tenure as a head coach, while the Vikings' Leslie Frazier -- a former cornerback for Chicago from 1981-85 -- is 0-1 lifetime against both his ex-team and Smith.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret that the Vikings intend to put the ball in the hands of Peterson (498 rushing yards, 6 TD, 9 receptions) as much as possible this week, and that would likely still be the case even if the Bears weren't struggling so much in run defense. The powerful back leads the NFL in carries (110) this season and is unquestionably Minnesota's best offensive player, not to mention one of the premier rushers in the league, and is coming off his most productive and utilized game of the year with last week's 29-touch, 122-yard, three-touchdown display against the Cardinals. Peterson's presence is one reason why Minnesota has the second-fewest passing attempts thus far, another has been the inconsistent play under center from quarterback Donovan McNabb (849 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT). The established veteran and Chicago native has endured his trials in his first season in Minnesota, having completed just 56.8 percent of his passes and averaging a subpar 6.4 yards per throw while directing an offense that's next to last in yards through the air (155.8 ypg), and was an off-target 10-of-21 for 169 yards in this past Sunday's win. McNabb has done a good job of protecting the football, however, tossing just two interceptions in the Vikings' five contests, and the team's four giveaways are tied for the fewest in the league. The receiving corps has also been pedestrian save for proven playmaker Percy Harvin (18 receptions, 153 rushing yards), who's expected to suit up despite dealing with bruised ribs, though ex-Bear Devin Aromashodu added a bit of spark by amassing 81 yards on only two catches while subbing for suspended malcontent Bernard Berrian last week.
Peterson could be looking at big numbers in a matchup with an uncharacteristically porous Chicago defense that's giving up a league-worst 5.7 yards per rush attempt on the year and has allowed a troubling 350 yards on the ground over the past two weeks. The Bears haven't been very proficient at slowing down enemy quarterbacks either, having yielded an average of 284 passing yards per game (27th overall), and the unit has come up with just four sacks in a four-game span after netting five against Atlanta in the opener. The performance of the safeties has been perhaps the biggest culprit to Chicago's lackluster showing on that side of the ball, which has prompted Smith to bench regulars Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather (19 tackles) for this week's showdown and insert the less-experienced tandem of second-year man Major Wright (16 tackles) and rookie Chris Conte in their place. There's also a big concern on the defensive line, with All-Pro end Julius Peppers (12 tackles, 2 sacks) sustaining a sprained MCL in Monday's loss that could have him limited for this game.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The Chicago offense had been noticeably skewed towards the pass in the first three games of this season, but it's predictability and the line's inability to adequately protect quarterback Jay Cutler (1209 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) has led to a more balanced approach as of late. Running back Matt Forte (440 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 2 total TD) has carried the ball 47 times over the past two weeks and responded with two big efforts, following up a career- high 205-yard eruption against Carolina with Monday's 116-yard output in the loss to the Lions. The versatile catalyst has also been Cutler's primary passing target, in part due to the lack of time the oft-battered signal-caller has usually had to survey the field, and leads all players at his position in receiving yards (345) as well as yards from scrimmage (785). The wideout positions have undergone a revolving-door scenario over the course of this campaign, with undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (16 receptions, 2 TD) taking over in the slot and generally handling his own and special-teamer Sam Hurd (6 receptions) getting a lot of snaps opposite return dynamo Devin Hester (12 receptions) in last week's defeat and finishing with 50 yards on four catches. Cutler has been up and down as well, but comes in on a high note after hitting on a sharp 28-of-38 throws for 249 yards and no turnovers against Detroit in spite of being under constant duress.
It wouldn't be surprising if Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz returns to his pass-happy roots this week, as the Minnesota defense has been awfully tough to run this season. With perennial Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams anchoring things up front and a high-caliber linebacker crew of E.J. Henderson (30 tackles) in the middle and Chad Greenway (33 tackles) and Erin Henderson (23 tackles, 1 sack) on the outside behind him, the Vikings have held opponents to a mere 76.4 rushing yards per game (tied 4th overall) and stifled Arizona's Beanie Wells (20 carries, 60 yards) last Sunday. Minnesota also sacked Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb four times, two by Robison (12 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and two from pass-rushing terror Jared Allen (20 tackles, 1 INT), while registering three interceptions on the day. Allen has been playing like his hair's on fire this year, with last week's outing giving the energetic end 8 1/2 sacks in just five games. The secondary possesses two fine cornerbacks in Antoine Winfield (35 tackles, 1 INT) and Cedric Griffin (25 tackles, 6 PD), though there's a good chance the former sits out a second straight contest due to a neck injury.
KEYS TO THE GAME
With Minnesota's defense performing at a high level against the run, the Bears simply have to allow Cutler more time to stand in the pocket and take his shots against a Vikings' secondary that can be vulnerable. It's not going to be easy, however, considering how well Allen and Robison have been in pressuring the quarterback and Chicago's obvious issues in pass protection.
Peterson. The Bears have done a good job of keeping the elite running back in check in recent meetings, holding him under the 100-yard mark in three straight games and limiting him to just 51 yards on 17 carries in last season's win at Soldier Field. This isn't the Chicago defense of years past, however, and if Peterson can run wild, it could be another long night for the home team. The Bears have to make a shaky McNabb beat them to have their best chance of coming out on top.
The home field factor. Minnesota has won just once in Chicago during the past decade and the Bears are pretty good at defending their home turf, having recorded victories in eight of their last 12 regular season games at Soldier Field. Though the Vikings have been better on the road since Frazier took over late last season, they've yet to come up with a win in two tries as the visitor this year.
With both of these teams still trying to work out glaring early-season problems, it's difficult to put a whole lot of faith that either one will be able to get the job done here. The Vikings have shown there are two things they do quite well, however, and that's run the football and pressure the passer. Unfortunately for the Bears, stopping opposing rushers and keeping Cutler upright have been two of their greatest sore spots, and those liabilities could certainly be a factor in this game. With a superior defense and a difference- making back in Peterson, Minnesota seems to have a golden opportunity to erase its missed chances in September and get itself more on solid ground with a much-needed intra-division win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 20, Bears 17