When the 3-12 Minnesota Vikings host the 7-8 Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon, it will be a battle between two bitter NFC North rivals. Aside from that, however, the game will have very little meaning for either team.
After starting 7-3, the Bears seemed well on their way to yet another playoff berth. The worst-case scenario unfolded, though, as both quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte were lost for the season. This has resulted in five consecutive losses for Chicago and effectively ended the Bears' season.
The Vikings could never get things going in 2011 as they started off 0-4 and never recovered. Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder took over the starting job and has been inconsistent, while running back Adrian Peterson went down last week with a torn ACL and MCL. That was simply the cherry atop the sundae that has been the Vikings' nightmare season.
Despite this game having no bearing on anything, both teams will surely want to end the season on a high note. Because of that I expect a very competitive and spirited contest.
Where: Mall of America Field in Minneapolis, Minn.
When: Sunday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. EST
Watch: FOX; my FOX Chicago and KMSP-TV FOX 9 (Minnesota)
Listen: WBBM 780 AM (Chicago) and KFAN 1130 AM (Minnesota); Sirius XM Satellite Radio: XM 227 (Internet 878)
Betting Line: Minnesota (-1)
What's at Stake?
As far as the standings go this game doesn't mean much, but it could have a major effect on draft position. A win for either team would likely move them down a couple spots in the draft order while a loss would do the opposite. Both teams are honestly better off losing, but there is no chance that either squad will simply lie down.
Another important thing to be mindful of is prevention of injury. The Vikings lost All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson to a major knee injury last week in a meaningless game. Now he likely won't be available by the beginning of next season. Both teams have to be smart when it comes to personnel and do everything possible to keep players healthy.
Bears' Injury Report (According to CBS Sports)
Questionable: RB Marion Barber (calf)
Vikings' Injury Report (According to CBS Sports)
Out: RB Adrian Peterson (knee)
Questionable: QB Christian Ponder (concussion), DB Asher Allen (concussion, shoulder), DB Chris Cook (non-injury)
Fantasy Start 'Em, Sit 'Em, Sleeper
Start: RB Kahlil Bell (CHI): With Matt Forte and Marion Barber on the shelf, Kahlil got a chance to start against the Green Bay Packers last week and he didn't disappoint with 159 total yards. While the Vikes have a solid run defense, Bell is active enough in the passing game to put up good numbers regardless.
Sit: RB Toby Gerhart (MIN): Toby Gerhart has proven to be a useful back with Adrian Peterson on the shelf and he will receive another start this week with Peterson suffering a torn ACL and MCL. The Bears are ranked sixth in the league against the run, though, so I wouldn't expect a particularly big game.
Sleeper: WR Earl Bennett (CHI): While having Josh McCown at quarterback isn't ideal, wide receiver Earl Bennett has the potential to turn in a surprisingly good performance on Sunday. Bennett hasn't been used much since Jay Cutler went down, but the Vikings have one of the worst secondaries in the league and Bennett figures to be McCown's No. 1 target.
What They're Saying
Despite the fact that the Chicago Bears' playoff hopes are officially up in smoke, the Bears and head coach Lovie Smith will do everything possible to beat the Vikings on Sunday. That means playing the best players and not holding an open tryout for roles on next year's team, according to Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Tribune.
That's just not our philosophy. We're trying to win the football game, period, Smith said in response to a question about whether rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle might get a chance.
Others may do it differently, Smith said. But for us it would be pretty hard to tell the rest of the guys: "Hey, we've got a tryout period going here. We don't really care if we win, we just want to see this guy play." No, we won't do it that way.
Bears Player to Watch: RB Kahlil Bell
The Bears are a virtual JV squad on offense compared to what they were earlier in the season, but it hasn't been a complete waste. If nothing else, the Bears now know that they have a capable running back should Matt Forte ever get injured again or if a contract agreement can't be reached. That running back is Kahlil Bell.
Very little was known about Bell prior to the past couple weeks, but he has compiled over 100 total yards in each of his last two contests and resembles a lite version of Forte in many respects. The Vikings have done a nice job stopping opposing running games this season, but Bell is so versatile that he will still be handful for Minnesota on Sunday.
Vikings Player to Watch: WR Percy Harvin
It is unclear whether concussed rookie quarterback Christian Ponder or backup Joe Webb will start against the Bears, but regardless of that there is no question who the offensive focus will be on. Wide receiver Percy Harvin has gotten past his injury issues this season and developed into a dangerous weapon both as a receiver and a runner.
Harvin has gotten much more use as a runner in recent weeks, much like he did in his college days at Florida. In addition to that Harvin has 77 catches for 852 yards and six touchdowns on the season, so there is no question that he will be featured heavily in Adrian Peterson's absence. He should have a nice day against the Bears' shaky secondary.
Key Matchup: J'Marcus Webb vs. Jared Allen
The offensive line has been a major issue for the Bears all season long. While it has been masked much of the time by the toughness of Jay Cutler and great effort of Matt Forte, there is no longer anybody to cover up for the mistakes with both players out.
The line as a whole, and left tackle J'Marcus Webb in particular, will be faced with a major test on Sunday. Webb figures to have to block defensive end Jared Allen who ranks first in the league with 18.5 sacks. Allen is just four sacks from tying Michael Strahan's single-season record, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him go all out. If Webb can't handle it, then quarterback Josh McCown will be in for a rough day.
On the Hot Seat: Christian Ponder
Whether he plays against the Bears or not, Sunday's game could have a major effect on the future of Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. Ups and downs are expected when it comes to a rookie signal caller, but Ponder was atrocious at times and you have to wonder if the Vikes are having buyer's remorse with regards to a pick that was considered a major reach by most.
Backup Joe Webb has outperformed him in limited snaps, but Webb also showed flashes last season, so he probably isn't a fluke. If Webb starts and comes up huge against Chicago, then the Vikings will likely have to give plenty of thought to what should be done with Ponder.
Bears 24, Vikings 17