The two teams in the middle of the NFC North standings will duke it out under the bright lights of "Monday Night Football" when the Chicago Bears welcome the Minnesota Vikings to Soldier Field. The Vikings (6-7) are among a group of five teams tied record-wise for the final NFC wild-card spot, but are currently behind Washington due to a tiebreaker (best win percentage in conference games). Meanwhile, the Bears (4-9) have lost seven of their last eight games and simply need a win to boost team morale.
Chicago has a chance to play spoiler to a division rival's playoff hopes, but the Bears are dealing with a bunch of injuries, have more than a dozen players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and all three coordinators are in protocols as well. Remember, three other games have already been rescheduled this week because of a league-wide COVID outbreak.
Monday Night Football: Minnesota (6-7) at Chicago (4-9)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 20 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Gaining momentum from a loss?
Even though the Bears lost handily, 45-30, in Green Bay last Sunday night, they were actually several positives to take from their effort. First, they scored a season-high 30 points against the team that's currently the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and even led 27-21 at halftime. Justin Fields and Jakeem Grant Sr. were among the individual standout performers.
In his first game back since injuring his ribs in Week 11 against Baltimore, Fields posted 224 passing yards with a pair of long touchdowns and also led all players in rushing with 74 yards on nine carries. He did turn the ball over three times (two interceptions) and was sacked two times, but his playmaking ability was why Chicago led this game at halftime. Fields' two scoring strikes were from 54 and 46 yards. Grant, who was acquired in a trade with Miami in October, was on the other end of the longer one and he also returned a punt 97 yards for a touchdown, the longest in Bears history.
The defense held the Packers scoreless through the first quarter but Aaron Rodgers and company got things going, and dominated the second half, outscoring the visitors 24-3. Chicago's defense was already shorthanded with no Khalil Mack or Akiem Hicks and linebacker Roquan Smith also aggravated his hamstring injury, so his status for Monday is something to keep an eye on.
After a productive first half, Fields and the offense couldn't manage much on their drives, producing 80 yards over the final two quarters combined. Fields also threw a pick-six in the latter part of the second quarter that gave Green Bay its first lead, 14-10. Despite the miscues, Fields' playmaking ability (12.4 yards per completion, 8.2 yards per carry) was certainly encouraging, as were the two long scoring plays.
Fields and company should get their chances to score some points against a Minnesota defense that is giving up 382 yards per game (29th in the NFL) and has been susceptible to both the pass (251.9 ypg, 25th) and run (129.5 ypg, 24th). The Vikings also are giving up 26 points per contest (22nd). Minnesota has the league's most productive pass rush (41 sacks), but Fields' mobility may help offset that. David Montgomery also is someone the Vikings' D will have to contend with, as the Bears are seventh in the league in rushing at 126 yards per game.
The bigger concern for Chicago is with a defense that wore down drastically last week against the Packers and will not be anywhere close to full strength on Monday night. Seven defenders were on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Saturday and five more were on Friday's injury report. Hicks appears on track to return, but three defensive linemen, including Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr., and three defensive backs, including safety Eddie Jackson, are in COVID protocols, and Smith continues to be deal with his hamstring injury.
All able-bodied Bear defenders will be needed to try and slow down Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, who is third in the league with 978 rushing yards after gashing Pittsburgh for 205 yards (with two TDs) last Thursday night, despite playing with an injured shoulder. Kirk Cousins is putting up another solid season with 3,569 passing yards (sixth), 27 touchdowns (tied for sixth), and only five interceptions, but pass protection will be key since he's nowhere near as mobile as Fields. Chicago is tied for fourth in the NFL with 36 sacks while Cousins has gone down 18 times. Overall, the Vikings are averaging around 390 yards and 27 points per game, meaning this would be a challenge for the Bears D even if it was whole. And it certainly won't be that on Monday night.
2. Vikings' roller-coaster season
Minnesota's season can best be summed up like this. All but one of the Vikings' games has been decided by one score. Considering they are 5-7 in these contests, you can understand why the fan base is frustrated.
Take last week, for example. Although the Vikings won 36-28 over Pittsburgh at home, they led this game 23-0 at halftime and were up 29-0 late in the third quarter. And don't forget that the week before, Minnesota fought back from a 14-point halftime deficit against Detroit to take a 27-23 lead with less than two minutes remaining. But the defense couldn't stop the Lions from driving the length of the field, as Jared Goff's 11-yard touchdown pass as time expired gave his team their first win and only win of the season thus far.
But there's more. In Week 12, a 14-14 halftime tie on the road against San Francisco turned into an eventual 34-26 49ers win as the offense turned the ball over on downs twice late in the fourth quarter. And this was preceded by a back-and-forth affair with Green Bay at home that saw Aaron Rodgers tie the game at 31 with a 75-yard touchdown pass with a little more than two minutes left. This time, Cousins and company didn't blink, driving 64 yards in eight plays to set up the game-winning 29-yard field goal from Greg Joseph on the final play.
And that's just the most recent four-game stretch. Earlier this season there was the Week 1 overtime loss to Cincinnati, a last-second field goal miss that cost Minnesota a win on the road against Arizona, and an equally painful overtime loss at Baltimore in Week 9 that saw the Vikings blow a 14-point third-quarter lead, then send the game into the extra period with a late touchdown, only to lose on a late field goal.
Minnesota has walked a fine line this season and right now finds itself on the outside looking in at a playoff spot because of this. If the Vikings want to stick around in the hunt, they will have to do a better job of protecting leads when they get them. A loss on Monday night, even on the road to the Bears, could be the proverbial nail in the coffin for the team... and its head coach.
3. Coaches on the hot seat
Speaking of Mike Zimmer, both he and his counterpart, Matt Nagy, have been hot topics in recent weeks, and not in a good way. The job security for both head coaches can be described as tenuous as best. Depending on who you listen to, it's only a matter of when and not if Nagy is fired, and it's something Bears fans definitely want to see as they are fed up with his struggles with game planning, play-calling, decision making, and the seemingly never-ending struggles at the quarterback position.
It hasn't helped that the defense has regressed since the departure of former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. And to be fair, general manager Ryan Pace is under just as much scrutiny so wholesale changes may be on the way for this franchise.
Meanwhile, Vikings fans are likewise fed up with Zimmer for a variety of reasons. A defensive-minded coach, Minnesota's defense has been trending in the wrong direction in recent seasons. When he first took over in 2014, the Vikings finished in the top 10 in the league in total defense three times, but the last one came in 2018. They currently rank near the bottom in three of the four major categories.
The offense also has been inconsistent, although plenty would like to assign the majority of the blame for that on Cousins. Minnesota is 70-54-1 under Zimmer with three playoff appearances. The last one was in 2018 and the Vikings are 13-16 since. The team's Jekyll and Hyde nature and late-game misadventures this season have certainly not helped Zimmer's case and it's worth wondering if it's time for a change in leadership.
Minnesota is still very much alive for a playoff spot so Zimmer still has a tangible opportunity to prove he's the right man for this job. Nagy, on the other hand, may just be coaching out the string if some of the reports that have come out are true. Either way, it appears that both fan bases are more than ready to move on.
Chicago has won five of the last six games in its rivalry with Minnesota, but the Vikings have all of the momentum entering Monday's night meeting. The Bears have lost seven of eight games with their only victory in this stretch coming against lowly Detroit. However, the only team the Lions have defeated so far this season is Minnesota, which they did two weeks ago.
But that anomaly aside, the Vikings enter this game in much better shape roster-wise, as the Bears are dealing with a rash of injuries and also have a bunch of players (and coaches) on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Simply put, Chicago doesn't have enough manpower to outlast Minnesota over four quarters.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Bears 20
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.