It's called the NFL's "Black and Blue" division for a reason. It's that time of year where the NFC North teams kick things into a higher gear in the hopes of reaching the postseason. The competition gets fiercer as the regular season grinds to the end. We'll see a perfect example of that this Sunday when the Chicago Bears head north to continue their rivalry with the Minnesota Vikings.
Both teams are 6-7 after last week's games. Minnesota currently holds the tiebreaker over Chicago thanks to a 19-13 win back in Week 10. The Bears broke a six-game losing streak after taking their frustrations out on the Houston Texans at home last Sunday. The Vikings, on the other hand, fell 26-14 to Tampa Bay on the road. Both teams are right behind the Arizona Cardinals (7-6) for the final NFC wild-card spot.
This is the second meeting between these teams this season. Minnesota won the first round a few weeks ago, snapping Chicago's four-game winning streak in the head-to-head series. And this game also likely serves as a de facto playoff elimination game. What more could you want for a rivalry that has nearly 60 years of history?
Chicago at Minnesota
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 20 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -3
1. Will the real Chicago Bears please stand up?
After losing six consecutive games, the Bears snapped out of that funk in a major way last week. They took out their frustrations on a Houston Texans team that's playing out the string and will be making wholesale changes at season's end. The 36-7 drubbing featured the Bears defense that we saw in the early weeks of the season, sacking Deshaun Watson six times (one of them resulting in a safety), hit him an additional 11 times, and deflecting two of his passes. Chicago limited the dynamic Watson to 213 passing yards and a touchdown, along with 38 rushing yards.
The Bears also recorded two turnovers, six tackles for a loss, and reminded the league why this defense is a force to be reckoned with. On top of that, the offense put on its best performance of the season. David Montgomery went over 100 rushing yards for the second time in three games, finishing with 103 and on just 11 carries. The big highlight was his 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Overall the Bears gained a total of 169 yards on the ground, averaging a healthy 7.3 yards per carry. This needs to continue on Sunday against Minnesota.
Mitchell Trubisky also put together one of his finest performances, completing 24-of-33 of his pass attempts for 267 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating of 126.7 was by far his highest of this season and the fourth-best mark of his career. He displayed the accuracy, decision-making, and playmaking ability that Bears fans had been waiting to see. Going into this game, reliving the decision Chicago made at the start of the 2017 NFL Draft taking Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick instead of Watson (who went 12th) was unavoidable. But for one week at least, Trubisky can say he was the better quarterback on the field.
More importantly, the impressive win over Houston was the complete, well-rounded team effort that many had been expecting from this Bears team. The question now is whether or not they can play at this level consistently to close out the season and possibly sneak into the playoffs.
2. The back-and-forth Vikings
This sums up the Vikings' season in a nutshell. They started the 2020 campaign with a three-game losing streak, got their first win in Week 4, but then dropped their next two heading into their Week 7 bye. Since the bye, Minnesota has gone 5-2, including wins over all of its divisional rivals. Their two most recent games, however, have caused some concern.
The Vikings were heavy favorites over the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago but needed overtime to put them away as the Jags overcame an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit to force the extra frame. Then in last week's 26-14 loss at Tampa Bay, kicker Dan Bailey missed three field goals and an extra point, putting Minnesota in too big of a hole to overcome. This team can't afford those kinds of mistakes down the stretch.
Minnesota, however, still has some of the NFL's top talent on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has bounced back from a rough start to rank 13th in passing yards (3,298) and completion rate (67.5). His 27 touchdown passes have him tied for eighth, which is the same rank as his passer rating (102.7). Running back Dalvin Cook trails only Tennessee's Derrick Henry in rushing yards (1,352) and he's tied with Henry for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (14). Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson is seventh in receiving yards (1,078), while fellow wideout Adam Thielen is right behind Green Bay's Davante Adams and Kansas City's Tyreek Hill in touchdown catches (12).
Although the Vikings' defense surrenders 376.5 yards and 27.3 points per game, they're still successful in other areas. They're tied for seventh in the league in interceptions (11) and linebacker Eric Kendricks is one of the league's top tacklers (107, eighth). The pass rush (21 sacks, tied for 24th), hasn't been as productive in recent seasons. That combined with a relatively inexperienced secondary has led to some of Minnesota's issues against the pass. The 26 touchdown passes allowed by the Vikings are surpassed by just five teams, and one of them (Chargers) has already played in Week 15. That said, this defense was very effective in the first meeting against Chicago, holding the Bears to 149 total yards (just 41 rushing) and 10 first downs in Minnesota's 19-13 victory at Soldier Field in Week 10.
3. What's at stake
Aside from taking over second place in the division, playoff hopes also are riding on this game. If Arizona loses at home to Philadelphia later on Sunday, the winner of this game will be tied for the Cardinals record-wise for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. In that scenario, tiebreakers then come into play with the first likely being winning percentage in common games (minimum of four) since neither Minnesota nor Chicago played Arizona this season. But before the Vikings or Bears can worry about tiebreaking procedures, they need to take care of business on the field on Sunday (and hope for some help from the Eagles).
The Vikings have the all-time series lead (61-56-2), including their Week 10 win in Chicago. But the Bears have had the upper hand recently, beating Minnesota four straight times prior to their most recent encounter. Even though Chicago struggled mightily on offense in that first meeting, the Bears still had chances to win as the defense did its job in limiting Dalvin Cook. If the Chicago team that dominated Houston makes the trip to the Twin Cities, then the Bears have a shot at picking up a huge road win.
Prediction: Bears 20, Vikings 17
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.