It’s setting up to be a nerve-wracking Week 17 for both Chicago and Minnesota. While the NFC North champion Bears (11-4) already have their playoff invitation set in stone, their exact placing in the postseason is still undecided. Meanwhile, the Vikings (8-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives. What more could a football fan ask for as a belated Christmas gift? It’s a traditional Black and Blue division matchup with playoff pairings on the line, it doesn’t get any better than that.
The Bears have already defeated the Vikings once this year. It was that memorable Sunday night game back in Week 11, the Bears 25-20 victory over Minnesota at Soldier Field that evening announced their arrival on the national stage. Since then the Bears have posted a 4-1 record, they swept the season series with the Detroit Lions, finally avenged their previous blunders against the Green Bay Packers, defeated the Los Angeles Rams in another primetime showcase, and of course clinched their first division title since 2010. The Bears are just one win away from their first 12-win season since 2006 (when they went 13-3).
The Vikings, however, have gone 2-3 since that mid-November evening. Their Week 14 loss at Seattle was especially heartbreaking as it contributed to the Seahawks four-game winning streak which, combined with last week’s win over Kansas City, helped earn them their own playoff berth for this season. The Bears haven’t swept a season series over the Vikings since 2011. The Bears were the ones swept last season, and both teams split the two annual meetings from 2012 to 2016. The Vikings are in win-now mode as they look to make the playoffs for the second straight season.
The Bears need to win, and hope for a Rams loss, in order to the get NFC’s second seed and a first-round bye. The Vikings need a win to officially clinch the final NFC playoff spot to halt the surging Philadelphia Eagles from getting that slot for themselves. If they lose, they’ll need Philly to fall as well in order to officially land that sixth seed based on win-loss record. This game is so important that the NFL “flexed” this one into the late afternoon slot where a good portion of the country should be able to see it.
Chicago at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 30, at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Bears’ defense continues to come through
Ever since the Week 13 loss to the New York Giants the Bears defense has stepped up in its performances, especially with the offense slowing down to some degree. One week after the flop in the Big Apple the Bears held the Los Angeles Rams (the NFL’s second-ranked offense) to just two field goals. After that they staved off an attempted fourth-quarter comeback against the Packers to get their first win over Green Bay since 2015. Then last week, the Bears picked up their first win against the San Francisco 49ers on their home field since 2014, thanks to the defense limiting the Niners to just three field goals. They also prevented another fourth-quarter comeback attempt.
During this three-game winning streak, the Bears have only surrendered 32 points, 187 rushing yards, and just one touchdown. They’ve also collected nine sacks, six interceptions, and what’s even more impressive is the fact that they haven’t allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for 300 yards since the loss at Miami back in Week 6. The Vikings offense will have a task ahead of them.
2. The Vikings’ offense has kept this team going
Despite the up-and-down performances over these last five games, Minnesota's offense has kept this team competitive. During that stretch Minnesota has scored 109 points, they’ve gained 1,802 yards of total offense, and they’ve moved up to 16th in the league in scoring. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown for 200 or more yards in each of these games, he’s continued his season-long streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass in each game (29 TD passes on the year), he’s only thrown one interception in his last three starts, but the 10 sacks he’s taken in the process could be problematic against a Bears defense that ranks fifth with 46 total sacks.
Running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray have lent Cousins a huge assist as they’ve provided a crucial one-two punch that takes the pressure off the $84 million quarterback. During these last five games, they’ve collectively contributed 515 rushing yards, 168 receiving yards, and they’re responsible for five touchdowns. In their last meeting the Bears held the Vikings scoreless in the first half, limited them to just 22 rushing yards, and they sacked Cousins twice and picked off two of his passes. At the same time, they eventually outscored the Bears 20-11 in the second half which showed some of their capabilities.
The Bears own the league’s third-ranked defense but the Vikings will come at them with everything they have in order to grab that final playoff spot.
3. Wins in the Twin Cities have been hard to come by
When the Bears take the field at U.S. Bank Stadium they’ll be looking for their first win on Minnesota turf since 2011, back when the Vikings were still playing in the Metrodome. Since then the Bears have gone 0-6 in both the former Metrodome and the current U.S. Bank Stadium combined, the Vikings have outscored them 156-80, and they’ve been held to 20 points or less in each of these games. Minnesota has posted a 13-3 home record over the course of the last two seasons, they’ve outscored visitors 433-252, and they play in one of the loudest stadiums in the league. Home field advantage will play a role on Sunday.
Emotions will be running high but the Bears have proven to be able to channel those emotions and turn them into big victories. They’ve gone 8-1 in their last nine games, they’ve posted a 3-1 record in their last four games away from Soldier Field, and they have become a complete team over these last few weeks. While the Bears' offense has been a concern as of late (held under 20 points in two of their last three games), their defense has stepped up in their absence. The Vikings' offense keeps this game interesting, but the Bears' defense wins out in the end.
Prediction: Bears 24, Vikings 23
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.