Cutler back under center for Bears as 'Black Monday' looms

(SportsNetwork.com) - The two afterthoughts in the NFC North, Minnesota and Chicago, will finish their seasons in a battle to avoid the cellar of the division.

The Vikings can at least hang their hat on the development of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has had an impressive 105.7 passer rating over his past four starts.

The embattled Jay Cutler, meanwhile, will be back under center for the Bears after a concussion ended Jimmy Clausen's one-game tenure at the helm.

Cutler's future in Chicago remains murky as does the fates of general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman as the Bears missed the postseason for the seventh time in eight years.

"Jay gives us the best chance this week," Trestman said. "That's why he'll be out there. "I believe that Jay can work his way out of this. And I've enjoyed coaching him and working with him. And we had dialogue last week. And we worked together last week. It was a tough week on him. I empathize with him on that. But we're moving forward."

Both teams are coming off losses in Week 16 with Minnesota inventing a new way to come up empty in South Florida when Terrence Fede blocked Jeff Locke's punt out of the end zone for a safety with 41 seconds left, lifting the Dolphins to a 37-35 win.

The blocked punt, a direct result of Vikings' long snapper Cullen Loeffler decision to deliver a ground ball back to Locke, came after Damien Williams' 3-yard TD catch tied the game for the Dolphins. The fourth quarter featured a combined 41 points between the two non-playoff participants.

Bridgewater connected on 19-of-26 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for the Vikings, who have lost two in a row and will finish under .500 in Mike Zimmer's first year as the team's head coach.

Matt Asiata carried the ball 16 times for 58 yards and two touchdowns. Greg Jennings caught three passes for 56 yards and a score but Minnesota's defense allowed a season-worst 493 yards of total offense.

"One of the worst defensive performances I've seen in a long time," said Zimmer. "All of the things I've been trying to preach for 11 months, we didn't do."

The Bears, meanwhile, fell to Detroit, 20-14, when Joique Bell's touchdown run in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference.

Clausen played admirably in the start in favor of the benched Cutler. The former Notre Dame star finished the game 23-for-39 for 181 yards and a pair of touchdown passes along with an interception for the Bears, who have lost their past four games. Matt Forte rushed for 55 yards on 19 carries, and added six catches for 40 yards.

"I just went out there and competed, that's the biggest thing that I think I did," said Clausen. "I showed that I could compete in this league. But it's not about me or what I do, it's about winning football games and that's what we wanted to do. We just came up a little short."

Clausen, however, was diagnosed with a concussion after experiencing delayed symptoms on Sunday night and has been ruled out of the season finale. He suffered the concussion on Chicago's final offensive possession when Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah made helmet-to-helmet contact with him as the quarterback slid at the end of a short scramble.

The Bears said Clausen didn't exhibit symptoms after the hit or following the game. He contacted trainers after experiencing delayed symptoms later Sunday night and was taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.

The Vikings lead their all-time series with the Bears by a 54-51-2 margin but have dropped two of three, including a 21-13 setback in Chicago on Nov. 16 when Cutler passed for 330 yards and three TDs. The Vikes have won nine of the last 12 played in Minneapolis, however.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Confidence is a funny thing. Despite all his troubles and there have been plenty, Cutler almost always plays well against Minnesota, winning seven of his past eight starts against the Vikings with 20 TD passes in those games.

The problem is he can't play the Vikings for all 16 games and Cutler leads the NFL with 18 interceptions and 24 turnovers overall, yet he is owed over $15 million next season after signing a big-money extension in January. That contract and his hiring of Trestman has put Emery in the cross hairs with "Black Monday" looming.

Some think the talented Cutler has been treated unfairly, though, and there is clearly a divide in the locker room, which also could contribute to Trestman's ultimate fate.

"I feel really bad for Jay," injured kicker Robbie Gould told a Chicago-area radio station this week. "When you're having a tough season like this, he's not the guy to be the scapegoat. There's a lot of guys you can put that blame on.""

One of those is the offensive-minded Trestman, who is 13-18 as the head coach since replacing Lovie Smith in 2013. Trestman did indeed improve Chicago's offense last season when Chicago averaged 27.8 points per game, second in the NFL, but that has dipped to 20.7 points this time around. The defense, meanwhile, has been a disaster in both seasons under Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is all but out the door.

The Bears have been outscored by almost two touchdowns (13.0 ppg) during their current four-game losing streak, the franchise's longest since a five-game hiccup in 2011.

Zimmer's first season in Minnesota has been hampered by injuries and off- the-field issues with what turned out to be an almost year-long suspension to star running back Adrian Peterson for child abuse, a development that essentially doomed the campaign.

Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 draft, has been a bright spot, really amping up his game over the past month or so. The University of Louisville product has found the end zone at least twice in four of his last five games and the Vikings offense has averaged over 26 points a game over that stretch.

"It's pretty incredible to me what he's done," Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "How he has handled (the adversity), the things he's gotten done and what he's really done is made everyone around him better and that's a quality that you're looking for (in a quarterback)."

"He's very calm all the time," Zimmer added. "He's very even-tempered. I'm trying to think if I've ever seen him upset that you can visually see, and I have not seen it."

The Vikings' defense has a very difficult time handling the flats in general without standout rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, who is done of the season with a knee injury. The group then imploded against Miami last weekend when veteran linebacker Chad Greenway went down with a knee injury.

Greenway hasn't been able to practice this week so keep an eye on Forte, who is fourth in the NFL with 118.1 yards from scrimmage per game.

The game also marks the return of veteran defensive end Jared Allen to Minnesota, where he spent the previous six years before signing with Chicago as a free agent.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Expect the Vikings to close out the first of their two years at TCF Bank Stadium with a field-goal win in what could be the swan song for the trio of Emery, Trestman and Cutler in Chicago.

"It's important for this football team that we go out and we play good, we play smart, we win because I appreciate all of the effort and focus and everything that this team has done since I've walked in here," Zimmer said. "It's good. To me, it's more about reaping the benefits of the things that we've tried to do throughout the course of the year."

Sports Network predicted outcome: Vikings 20, Bears 17