Call Sunday a statement game for Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings.
Few observers thought the Vikings had a chance to compete this season after finishing up 3-13 in 2011 but Minnesota finds itself just one game behind NFC North heavyweights Chicago and Green Bay entering Week 12 of the NFL season.
The Vikings get the first of two shots against the Bears over the next three weeks when they visit the Windy City over the weekend.
Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, an ex-Bear who was on the franchise's 1985 Super Bowl team, has never beaten his old team (0-3) and Chicago has been a house of horrors for the Vikings over the past decade. Minnesota has lost nine of its past 10 at Soldier Field and has allowed an average of 26 points in four straight defeats.
Complicating things for the Bears, however, is the status of quarterback Jay Cutler, who will be attempting to return from a concussion suffered in a 13-6 home loss to Houston back on Nov. 11.
Cutler was forced to sit out this past Monday's 32-7 loss at San Francisco, while backup Jason Campbell went just 14-for-22 with 107 yards and a touchdown along with the two picks for the Chicago, which dropped their second straight overall to fall into a tie with the Packers for first place in the NFC North.
The San Francisco defense held the Bears to just 151 yards total and pummeled Campbell all game. Second-year 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith posted 5 1/2 sacks, and the team finished with six along with two interceptions and a safety in the win.
"It definitely wasn't the way we prepared all week," said Campbell. "You never want to come out and have this kind of performance, but give their defense credit because they came out hard and kept it up. Tonight was probably the worst nightmare."
The Vikings, meanwhile, have had plenty of time to circle this game, last playing on Nov. 11 when Adrian Peterson ran for 171 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries as Minnesota grabbed a big win with a 34-24 victory over the Detroit Lions in NFC North action from the Metrodome.
Peterson eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth time in his career and leads the NFL with 1,128 yards. His 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter sealed the win for the Vikings, who snapped a two-game losing streak despite being without star receiver Percy Harvin.
"I take a lot of pride in the hard work I put in every week," said Peterson. "I just kept pounding today, and knew it was going to be feast or famine. Eventually we were able to break through and get the big plays."
Ponder snapped out of his funk with a solid performance as he passed for 221 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-32 attempts. He was coming off an 11-of-22, 63 yard and one interception performance in a loss to Seattle the week before and had eight interceptions over his previous five games.
"This was an incredibly important win because we were playing a divisional opponent at home," said Frazier. "And if you want to be a good football team, these are the games you have to win."
Harvin, who is dealing with an ankle injury, excepts to return on Sunday.
"It's still a little stiff in certain areas," Harvin said when talking about his injury to ESPN radio in Minnesota. "A little swelling -- it's just not major swelling. So, it's to the point now where I feel like I can do a little something."
The Vikings and Bears have played 102 times overall with Minnesota holding a slim 52-48-2 advantage. Chicago, however, has won five straight, just one short of its longest streak in the series set when Frazier was a Bear (1983-86).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ponder is prone to press when things aren't going his way and no defense in football takes advantage of a player like that better than Chicago's. Minnesota will try and pound the Bears defense with Peterson and use tight ends Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Rhett Ellison to take advantage of the declining Brian Urlacher's lack of mobility in space.
If the Bears get the early lead, however, expect the sharks to start swimming. Chicago enters the contest with the NFL's fifth-ranked defense (311.9 yards per game) and a mind-boggling 30 takeaways, including 19 interceptions and seven interception-return touchdowns. Ponder, meanwhile, has not handled the blitz consistently and his mechanics break down badly when he is hurried.
"Obviously, they're very opportunistic, but I don't think we're going to do anything different," Ponder said. "We can't play scared. We need to go out and be aggressive and be smart. They thrive on turnovers and they score a lot of points off of it. We just have to be smart with the ball."
You can bet the Bears' superb corners, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, are licking their chops thinking about Ponder this week. Jennings currently leads the league with eight interceptions while Tillman has forced seven fumbles.
"It seems like when they have success turning the ball over, it just breeds more confidence," Frazier said. "If one guy punches a ball out, then you see other guys raking and stripping and what Tim Jennings has done at corner, some of the interceptions he's made, it's just been very, very impressive. It's kind of contagious."
For Chicago it's all about handling Minnesota's front with a poor offensive line. On paper Jared Allen and Brian Robison should have their way with the Bears, who have allowed 34 sacks, the second-most in the NFL, but Allen has been slowed by a groin injury and Robison has been nursing a balky elbow. That could make things a little easier for the Bears.
Cutler is also a key since his quick release can alleviate a strong pass rush and the Bears generally rely on short, quick passes to keep those opposing rushes at bay.
"That's a big deal for us, to be able to rush the passer," Frazier said. "You want to be able to do it every week. It's something we target. We need to be able to rush the quarterback."
Cutler, who has generally had the Vikings' number, was given the go ahead to practice on a limited basis but still has to be cleared by an independent neurologist to play on Sunday. As Alex Smith proved in San Francisco that's not just a rubber stamp.
"You trust the doctors and our training staff that we're going to make the right decision for my health, not only in the near future but in my lifetime going forward," Cutler said. "I think everyone's perspective has changed (regarding concussions) because there is just more awareness, there is more information."
With or without Cutler on the field the Vikes think they have a different team and one that can send a message to the rest of the NFC with a strong performance here. That said, it's hard to imagine Ponder playing a clean game against this Bears defense.
"For us, it's a matter of excitement right now," Ponder said. "We're excited at this opportunity, that we're playing for a playoff spot and that we're playing for a lead in the division and to win the division."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 27, Vikings 17