The Chicago Bears will be trying to close out a season that plagued NFC North members square off Sunday at the Metrodome.
Though this Week 17 clash won't harbor any playoff implications for a pair of division rivals that had been enjoying success in the recent past, both teams should still be entering their 2011 season finales with some measure of motivation.
Chicago comes in desperate for a win after having a promising year sabotaged by a five-game losing streak triggered by a host of pivotal players getting hurt. The Bears entered December sporting a 7-3 record and appeared to be in strong position for making a second consecutive postseason trip, but a fractured thumb suffered by quarterback Jay Cutler in a 31-20 victory over San Diego on Nov. 27 sent the club into a downward spiral it wasn't able to overcome.
The 2010 NFC North champions also lost Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte (sprained knee) and wide receiver Johnny Knox (fractured vertebrae) to season- ending ailments during the stretch run, which also played a part in Chicago's longest in-season skid since an eight-game drought from Sept. 22-Nov. 18, 2002.
"We got hit by the injury bug really bad this year," said linebacker Lance Briggs. "It's still no excuse for not being able to get in the playoffs, but when those injuries started mounting up, we were rolling. The defense was playing well, the offense was rolling and special teams were rolling too."
The Bears were officially eliminated from playoff contention with last Sunday's 35-18 loss at NFC front-runner Green Bay. But despite the negative result, there were a couple of encouraging performances from the fill-in cast to take from.
New quarterback Josh McCown completed 19-of-28 passes for 242 yards in his first NFL start since 2007, while running back Kahlil Bell did his best Forte impression by rushing for a career-best 121 yards and adding 38 more on four catches.
McCown will get the call again this week in place of Caleb Hanie, demoted back to second string after four ineffective starts substituting for Cutler.
The Vikings return home with some significant injuries of their own, the most serious of which was a torn ACL and MCL that prized running back Adrian Peterson sustained this past Saturday against Washington. Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder also exited early in the second half with a concussion, while veteran guard Steve Hutchinson was placed on injured reserve Tuesday due to a concussion he incurred in a loss to New Orleans one week prior to the game against the Redskins.
Despite those defections, Minnesota managed to come through with a 33-26 triumph over Washington thanks to excellent relief efforts from quarterback Joe Webb and running back Toby Gerhart. The former threw for two touchdowns and ran for another to lead the Vikings to 23 second-half points, while Gerhart did his part by rushing for a personal-best 109 yards and a score on 11 attempts in Peterson's absence.
"A lot of guys contributed to that win on Saturday, which really should be a springboard for us as we prepare for this ball game against Chicago," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier.
Ponder was cleared to practice this week and will draw the start under center for Sunday's tilt. The 2011 first-round pick made his pro debut in a 39-10 road setback to the Bears on Oct. 16, hitting on 9-of-17 throws for 99 yards after taking over for the since-released Donovan McNabb.
The Vikings had dropped six in a row prior to last weekend's breakthrough, but still remain in jeopardy of matching a franchise record for losses in a season set in 1984.
The Vikings lead the regular-season series with the Bears, which dates back to 1961, by a 52-46-2 count, but Chicago has inched closer towards drawing even by winning the last four meetings between the teams. The Bears recorded their first season sweep of Minnesota since 2006 last season, following a 27-13 home decision 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. Chicago has lost in three straight trips to the Metrodome, with the most recent being a 36-10 ousting in 2009, and last prevailed at the venue via a 19-16 score during its NFC championship season of 2006.
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 a 9-6 record against Minnesota during his tenure as a head coach, while Frazier -- a former cornerback for Chicago from 1981-85 -- is 0-2 lifetime against both his ex-team and Smith since taking over in Minnesota.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Though McCown (254 passing yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) did throw a pair of interceptions against the Packers and couldn't lead the Bears back into the win column, the offense was considerably more productive under the 32-year-old journeyman's hand than in Hanie's four ill-fated starts. Chicago compiled a season-high 441 total yards in the loss, in no small part due to the outstanding work of Bell (283 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 1 TD) as both a runner and receiver, and the onetime third-stringer in is line for another audition this week with Forte now on injured reserve and veteran Marion Barber doubtful to return from a strained calf. McCown's presence also seemed to inspire wide receiver Roy Williams (33 receptions, 1 TD), with the enigmatic ex-Cowboy amassing season highs of 81 yards and six catches versus Green Bay. He's part of a three-man corps that also contains rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (25 receptions, 1 TD) and fourth-year pro Earl Bennett (21 receptions, 1 TD), but will be missing its best field-stretcher in the speedy Knox. The Bears rank just 27th overall in third-down conversion percentage (32.1 percent), but made good on 6-of-12 tries in last week's outing.
McCown will get to go up against one of the league's most porous pass defenses in the finale, with the Vikings having surrendered 260.1 yards per game via the air (29th overall) as well as an NFL-high 33 passing touchdowns, and the team's seven interceptions are the fewest of any team this season. To help protect a depleted secondary that started rookie Mistral Raymond (18 tackles, 1 INT) at one of the safety spots and former practice-squad member Marcus Sherels (27 tackles, 1 sack) at nickel back against the Redskins, Frazier will be counting on a dependable pass rush headed up by Pro Bowl end Jared Allen (61 tackles, 18.5 sacks, 1 INT) and counterpart Brian Robison (41 tackles, 7 sacks) to make its usual impact. Minnesota is fourth in the league with 43 sacks, with the energetic Allen leading all individuals in that category. Despite possessing three proven stoppers along the front seven in tackle Kevin Williams (36 tackles, 4 sacks) and linebackers Chad Greenway (144 tackles, 1 sack) and E.J. Henderson (102 tackles, 2 sacks), stopping the run has been a problem for the Vikings as of late. The team allowed unknown Washington rookie Evan Royster to rush for 132 yards on just 19 attempts on Christmas Eve, one week after permitting 161 yards on the ground to New Orleans.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The unavailability of Peterson (970 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 13 total TD) shouldn't prevent the Vikings from sticking to their run-first mentality come Sunday, as Gerhart (464 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 4 total TD) has shown himself to be capable of handling a starter's workload in spot duty. The former Stanford standout is averaging nearly five yards per carry and demonstrated good hands out of the backfield as well, having recorded three touchdown catches in the past three weeks. He'll serve as a reliable outlet for Ponder (1825 passing yards, 13 TD, 12 INT), with versatile wide receiver Percy Harvin (77 receptions, 7 total TD) the focal point of a passing attack that ranks just 28th in the league (182.3 ypg) at the moment. Ponder's rookie campaign has been predictably up-and-down, with the 23-year-old delivering a 381-yard, three- touchdown outburst against Denver in Week 13 but tossing nine interceptions in his last six games. If he struggles in this matchup, Frazier may not hesitate to turn to Webb (176 passing yards, 3 TD, 0 INT), who gave the offense a spark both last Saturday and in a near-comeback at playoff-bound Detroit three games back and brings an additional dimension with his terrific scrambling ability.
Minnesota may have a tough time getting its fourth-rated ground game (149.3 ypg) against a stern Chicago defense that's sixth in the league against the run (97.5 ypg) and rendered Peterson a non-factor in the first meeting, with the dynamic back limited to a pedestrian 39 yards on 12 attempts. The Bears also generated five sacks in that Week 6 rout, two of which came from accomplished end Julius Peppers (36 tackles, 10 sacks), while holding the Vikings to a modest 286 total yards. Three members of the unit were chosen to this year's NFC Pro Bowl squad in stalwart middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (92 tackles, 3 INT), weakside starter Lance Briggs (100 tackles, 1 sack) and veteran cornerback Charles Tillman (93 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT), while Peppers made a case to join the trio in Honolulu after registering a seventh season with double-digit sacks. With Urlacher and Briggs leading the way, the Bears have yielded 80 rushing yards or fewer in seven of the past 10 games, though the secondary was burned for five touchdown passes by Green Bay marksman Aaron Rodgers a week ago.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. The Bears were able to stonewall Minnesota's running game in the first matchup mainly because McNabb posed little threat of attacking the defense vertically. Ponder certainly has the talent to make plays with his arm, but the rookie will need to be smart, poised and accurate to beat a seasoned Chicago stop unit that isn't going to be fooled by anything the Vikings do. While McCown wasn't bad off his four-year layoff, he'll be dealing with a Minnesota pass rush that's more formidable than the one he faced in Green Bay and must be quick and decisive with the football. Whichever of these two gunslingers makes the fewer mistakes, his team likely wins.
Minnesota's run defense. McCown's job would be made far easier if Bell is as much of a factor as he's been the last two games, therefore the Vikings must be less submissive against the run then they've displayed of late. The Vikings have allowed 302 yards on the ground over the past two weeks, and Forte and Barber combined for 119 yards against their defense in Chicago's Week 6 win.
Special teams. This could turn out to be a huge advantage for the Bears with return-man extraordinaire Devin Hester on the roster. The reserve receiver had a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Vikings in October and leads the NFL with a 17.3 average on punt runbacks, and Minnesota hasn't been great in either kick or punt coverage this season.
In games like this where nothing but pride is on the line, generally the more determined team is the one that comes out the victor. And with the Bears stewing over a winless drought that's lasted since before Thanksgiving, they'll have plenty of incentive to come out with a purpose. The Vikings should have motivation as well, as closing out with back-to-back positive results would surely help take the bitter taste out of a season that's for the most part been a nightmare, but the coaching staff may also use this contest as a means to get an extended look at some of the young players on the roster. Since Chicago's defense is more capable of making Ponder look bad than Minnesota's is at exploiting McCown's limitations, go with the visitors in this war of attrition.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 23, Vikings 20