(photo courtesy of Vikings.com)

After already playing (and defeating) the Detroit Lions twice, Minnesota will now face another of its conference rivals: Chicago. The Bears have certainly looked to be a less-than-stable team so far this season, and the Vikings defense should be enough to handle Jay Cutler and Co.

It cannot be ignored, however, that Cutler is an unpredictable force and on any given Sunday can be playing at one extreme or the other. The Vikings have also historically struggled at Soldier Field. Since 2000, Minnesota has won just one of the 14 road games against Chicago.

There are plenty of factors to consider about Sunday’s game, so let’s see how the two teams match up offensively.


Offensive Line

Now that it’s been all but guaranteed that John Sullivan will not return to the field in 2015, the Vikings know exactly what they’re working with long term. While it’s incredibly difficult to fill Sullivan’s shoes (or cleats, in this instance), Joe Berger has done an okay job stepping in as a veteran who isn’t naturally a center. Heading into Sunday’s game, the biggest concern might be rookie T.J. Clemmings.

While Clemmings hasn’t done too terrible of a job considering he was tossed into the fire in Phil Loadholt‘s absence, the rookie got demolished against Denver in Week 4 and may face a similar situation going up against linebacker Pernell McPhee. Clemmings looked entirely overwhelmed blocking against the Broncos, and McPhee could give him trouble.

The line will need to focus on holding McPhee off, buy some time for Teddy Bridgewater and also continue looking for a way to be more effective for Adrian Peterson. Minnesota’s run blocking has been putrid, and if the team cannot get a ground game going in Chicago, the Vikings could be in trouble.

It all starts with the offensive line.


Passing

In talking about Bridgewater, I’m going to borrow an excerpt from Eric Thompson over at Daily Norseman:

“In the Week 7 Stock Market Report I was a little tough on Teddy Bridgewater by saying he could have avoided taking a couple of the sacks he endured against the Lions. But you know what? It’s certainly better than heaving it up and turning the ball over on the road. Bridgewater lived up to his #GUMP nickname because he really was great under major pressure in Detroit.”

Thompson brings up a good point. It’s been easy for Vikings fans to get frustrated with Bridgewater over a clump of lackluster games, but the one thing that can be said of the second-year quarterback is that he generally avoids becoming too rattled under pressure. Which has lent itself to be especially helpful considering the current offensive line struggles.

The Chicago Bears currently rank No. 6 in the league for pass defense, allowing only 220 passing yards per game (they have allowed 1,320 total passing yards on the season). However, the Bears have only three interceptions this year and have also allowed 179 points to be scored against them. They may be ranked in the top 10, but the Bears’ defense frankly has plenty of loopholes that Minnesota should focus on.

McPhee leads the team in sacks with four total, two of which were against Seattle in Week 3. He has the ability to quickly get to the quarterback if not well-blocked and could pose a threat toward Bridgewater.

After throwing two interceptions against the Chiefs, Bridgewater didn’t throw a single one last week. If he continues to make smart decisions and has the opportunity to make mid-range to deep passes, he should be okay against the Bears. Not only do they have just three picked-off balls this season, but interestingly none of the interceptions have come downfield; two have been credited to linebackers, while one was to former Minnesota DE Jared Allen (now in Carolina).

As far as receiver targets, I’m expecting Stefon Diggs to show up big again this week, especially after tasting the end zone in Detroit. If the offensive line can give Bridgewater a little time, especially early in the game, he should be able to get something going with the rookie and set a tone on offense.


Rushing

Chicago has not allowed an opponent to score a rushing touchdown in over a month. The team’s rushing defense ranks No. 8 in the league, and it’s not easy for the Bears’ opponents to find their way to the end zone via the ground. Since the Vikings’ run blocking has not proved efficient anyway, this may be a challenging area for them; Peterson establishing himself early on will be crucial.

Last week, the running back had 19 carries for 98 yards. Not bad numbers, but they’re deceiving. On one play, he ran for 75 yards. Otherwise, he spread out a measly 23 yards over 18 carries. The big plays are great, but Minnesota needs to establish a pattern where AP is able to get more 5-10-yard carries throughout the game.

Peterson did not participate in practice Wednesday or Thursday this week, and it seems assumed that it’s precautionary due to minor injuries to his ankle, finger and hip. It doesn’t seem likely that No. 28 will sit out a game, but if he does prove too dinged up to play, expect to see a good combination of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon.


Receiving

I feel like I should start calling this the “Stefon Diggs” section. We certainly haven’t seen too many others get in on the receiving game, but with the way Diggs has been delivering the last few weeks, it’s worked out okay. At only 21 years old, Diggs is showing the technical skills and football I.Q. of a much more experienced player. He is proving himself to be not only fast but an excellent route runner as well — the latter being a major difference between Diggs and Cordarelle Patterson.

Mike Wallace hasn’t been the factor he was hyped up to be, and now that Diggs has made an impact, it will be interesting to see how Wallace is used downfield. Is the potential still there for Wallace to help Bridgewater stretch the field? I think so, but it will take more consistency from Wallace (and more creativity from Norv Turner) to really establish his role.

Jarius Wright returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday with a concussion, and we can plan to see him in the mix Sunday.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph has been utilized a few times in the end zone this season, and his size is a big advantage in those situations; I expect Bridgewater to target him again in Chicago.

***

At the end of the day, this game makes me nervous. Minnesota has endured such an odd string of experiences at Chicago road games, and it makes Vikings fans—including myself—pretty gun shy. However, the Vikings broke a trend this season when they won the post-bye-week game after five consecutive losses, and I think they’re ready to break this trend as well.

The Bears’ defense just isn’t as scary as it looks on paper, and Minnesota’s defense should effectively rattle Cutler in the pocket. The Vikings have momentum on their side, and they have the weapons needed to notch a third division win. A win would also be the first time Minnesota tallies three consecutive victories since 2012.

If the Vikings hope to be in the Playoff conversation, this is a game they must walk away with.

Prediction: Vikings 20, Chicago 10