First place in the NFC North is up for grabs on "Sunday Night Football"
The latest chapter in the storied book of the NFL's “black and blue” division will be written this week when the Minnesota Vikings renew acquaintances with the Chicago Bears. With the NFC North lead at stake, the NFL felt it was necessary to “flex” this Sunday’s game between the Vikings (5-3-1) and Bears (6-3) from its original afternoon slot to "Sunday Night Football."
Those who may not have been able to watch the Bears yet this season are in for a treat. They get watch a team that has shown remarkable improvement under new head coach Matt Nagy and are starting to think about a possible playoff berth. They’ll also get a good look at a Vikings squad that has claimed two of the last three division titles and fell one game short of a trip to last year’s Super Bowl.
This is just the third division matchup for the year for either team as the Bears have gone 1-1 against NFC North foes while the Vikings are 1-0-1. It's still early to determine which team will rule the division, but with the Packers and Lions struggling, it could be down to a two-team race already.
Both the Vikings and Bears feature strong defenses, talented offenses, and quarterbacks who are becoming the talk of the league. This one will be worth staying up for.
Minnesota at Chicago
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 18 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Bears -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Kahlil Mack is back
The Bears' top pass rusher (seven sacks) returned to the lineup after a two-game absence due to an ankle injury with a vengeance last week. Against Detroit, Mack had two sacks among his five total tackles, four of them being solo. He’ll be licking his chops to take on a Vikings offensive line that’s allowed six sacks in the last three weeks. Double-, or even triple-, teaming him will be a must as the Vikings cannot afford to let Mack put Kirk Cousins on the ground this Sunday night.
2. Minnesota has a stout defense of its own
The Vikings' own style of defense has played a huge role in their success over the last couple of seasons. Minnesota has won four of its last five games, and in those four wins has held the opposition to an average of 16 points per game. The Vikings have also shown a knack for rushing the passer with 20 sacks over this five-game stretch. On the season, Minnesota is fifth in total defense (322.2 ypg), 11th in scoring defense (22.7 ppg), and has generated 14 total takeaways thus far. This will be one of the best defenses that the Bears have faced this season.
3. Quarterback battle
Mitchell Trubisky continues to grow before our eyes as Chicago's second-year signal-caller had his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season last week against the Lions. It was the fourth such effort this season, already a single-season franchise record. Trubisky has 2,304 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions to this point, while completing 65.5 percent of his passes. Minnesota's defense will serve as a good test of just how far the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 draft has come under new head coach Matt Nagy's tutelage.
Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins has earned every cent of that fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract thus far. He's third in the league with a 71.4 percent completion rate and has at least one touchdown pass in every game (17 total). He's also tossed just five interceptions and is averaging close to 300 passing yards per game. Cousins will keep the Bears' 12th-ranked passing defense on its toes Sunday night.
While many consider the Bears to be slight favorites at home, the Vikings will be tough to beat. They are coming off of a bye, so they should be rested and healthier than they have been in a while. Minnesota's defense will be hard to handle and Kirk Cousins' experience advantage over Mitchell Truibksy will be a factor as well. Chicago may be a team on the rise, but the Vikings are the defending NFC North champs and aren't quite ready to surrender their throne. The defenses will keep this thing close, but Minnesota comes away with a close victory on the road in the national spotlight.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Bears 21
— 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.