In an NFL season that's seen its share of shoulder shrugging in Minnesota, it might only be fitting that the Vikings tacked a tie on to their record. The Vikings now sit at 2-8-1 on a season that is doomed to a disappointing finish after last season's surprising 10-6 record.
And even though Sid Hartman, the eternal optimist on Minnesota sports, wrote Monday in the Star Tribune that the Vikings' playoff hopes had dimmed, most Vikings fans would agree that those lights went completely out some time ago. (Cue up Jim Mora's famous rant on the playoffs.)
There are, however, five more games on the schedule, and the Vikings will play all of them with much at stake, beginning with Sunday's matchup at home against the Chicago Bears. (1 p.m. EST, FOX)
The Bears sit tied atop the NFC North with the Lions, both at 6-5. According to CBS Sports' John Beech, Chicago will more than likely be without starting quarterback Jay Cutler for the third straight game as he nurses a high ankle sprain.
Veteran backup Josh McCown has filled in admirably in Cutler's absence, throwing for 352 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's loss to the St. Louis Rams.
For the Vikings, Sunday's game provides more opportunities across the board.
For head coach Leslie Frazier, it's a chance to prove that he deserves to be back in that role next season. Quarterback Christian Ponder gets another opportunity to try to prove that he's a viable option to continue as the starter. Future free agents like Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Toby Gerhart will get more chances to show prospective employers that they can play at a high level.
If nothing else for the Vikings, it's another football game against a hated division rival in the Bears. Minnesota would love to avenge a heartbreaking 31-30 loss to Chicago in Week 2 that saw Jay Cutler hit Martellus Bennett with a 16-yard, game-wining touchdown with just 10 seconds left.
Let's take a look at three crucial matchups that will go a long way toward deciding Sunday's game.
Adrian Peterson vs. Bears Rush Defense
The Bears defense, to put it bluntly, has been awful this season against the run. Injuries have certainly hampered the unit all season, and Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams saw their run defense hit rock bottom. Three rookies, including fifth-round pick Zac Stacy and undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham shredded the Bears defense for 258 yards rushing in Sunday's 42-21 win.
That's right, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham. No offense to those two, but they're hardly Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk.
Adrian Peterson must be licking his chops as he gets ready to run wild against the Bears. Peterson, who's been battling a pesky groin injury for weeks, looked like he was running at close to 100 percent as he ripped through the Packers defense for 146 yards and a touchdown.
The Bears have surrendered 100-yard rushing games four weeks in row and rank dead last in the NFL in rush defense. Now they face the best running back in the league, who's close to full strength. Peterson has rushed for over 100 yards against the Bears six times in his career, including his last three games against them.
|Adrian Peterson vs. Chicago Bears|
With Peterson coming off season highs in both attempts and yards against the Packers, he should be raring to go against a Bears defense that can't seem to stop anyone from running against them, much less the best back in the game.
It's a big game for Peterson, his 100th in the league, which officially qualifies him for career statistical numbers for running backs. Peterson currently ranks third in yards rushed per game, with his 98.0 only trailing Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Devin Hester
With both the Vikings and Bears defenses struggling and neither offense setting the world on fire, Sunday's game could come down to field position and turnovers. The battle for field position might well come down to the two best kick returners in the NFL, the Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson and the Bears' Devin Hester.
Patterson's 1,088 kickoff return yards and 34.0 average are both tops in the NFL, and Hester's 937 yards ranks him second, almost 200 yards ahead of anyone else.
Patterson, the rookie, and Hester, the eight-year veteran, are the two most electric returners in football and are both a threat to score every time they field a kick. The two showed that off in the first meeting between these two teams in September when Patterson returned the game's opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown and then Hester answered by taking the ensuing kickoff 76 yards deep into Vikings territory.
Hester is an all-time great, tying Deion Sanders earlier this season with 19 career return touchdowns and is the sole owner of the punt return for touchdowns record with 13. Hester has torched the Vikings many times in his career, and you can bet that the Vikings will be trying to kick the ball away from him on Sunday.
Patterson has been absolutely brilliant in his role as kickoff return man, a spot the Vikings had high hopes for him at after trading away the mercurial Percy Harvin, who was also exceptional in that role. Patterson has two kickoff returns for touchdowns and according to Vikings.com, he needs just 258 more yards to set a Vikings single-season record (George "Buster" Rhymes 1,345 yards, 1985).
Look for both kickoff teams to play a game of cat-and-mouse with Patterson and Hester, trying pooch and angled kicks to try to limit both players' impact on the game. It won't be easy to do as each has blazing speed and can get to almost any kick.
Kickers and punters are usually the two key ingredients when discussing how field position in a game might play out, but with Patterson and Hester, it will come down to which coverage unit can put the clamps down on these two game-changing players.
Erin Henderson vs. Audie Cole
OK, wait a minute, aren't both players on the Vikings? Yes, but to the greater point, Sunday's game against the Bears continues a stretch of games for Minnesota where jobs will be won and lost with what happens on the field.
Head coach Leslie Frazier and all of his assistants are fighting for their jobs. Christian Ponder is fighting to keep his job. Jerome Simpson is fighting to keep his job. Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Toby Gerhart, among others, are fighting to show the Vikings and every other team that they are worth a nice contract this offseason.
Very few players on the Vikings should feel like they have job security right now, and middle linebacker Erin Henderson isn't one of them. Henderson missed Sunday's game against the Packers due to personal reasons, and he may turn out to be the Vikings' version of Wally Pipp.
All fill-in starter Audie Cole did was lead the team with 13 tackles (11 solo), get a sack on the game's first play, have two tackles for loss and record three hits on the quarterback, including a monster stick on Matt Flynn in overtime that led to the Packers having to punt.
At 6'5", 240-pounds, Cole certainly looks the part of middle linebacker, with his bigger frame standing out in the middle much more than Henderson does. The Vikings linebacking corps has been accused of lacking in the "splash" plays department, but Cole made several of those in his first career start.
Henderson is back with the Vikings as of Monday and will more than likely start against the Bears, but the Vikings coaches will have much to answer for if Cole isn't given plenty of snaps. He made plays all over the field last Sunday and earned the opportunity.
The Vikings are also high on rookie middle linebacker Michael Mauti, who has been outstanding on special teams and might have gotten the start last Sunday had he not developed swelling in his knee after a great game against Seattle.
One of the few bonuses that comes from a lost season, like the one the Vikings find themselves in the middle of, is that you have the luxury of taking some risks that you might not make if you were fighting for a playoff spot.
Minnesota has the opportunity to give some of their younger players extended playing time to see who has what it takes to be a successful player in this league. Youngsters Cole, Patterson, Rhett Ellison and Xavier Rhodes were four of the best players on the field against the Packers and give Vikings fans reason to believe that the overhaul might not take quite as long as it might look.
The Vikings have absolutely nothing to lose in their game against the Bears on Sunday and will have nothing to lose for the rest of the schedule. They should play that way.
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