Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from www.purplePTSD writer and editor of purplePTSD and VikingsTerritory, Joe Oberle.
So, it’s come to this: the Minnesota Vikings versus the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday night as the watershed game of the season. Watershed in that the winner flows onward with a better chance of winning the division and the loser just flows off into some meaningless tributary, out of contention, out of the playoffs and out of relevance. Pretty big game—NBC thinks so, as they flexed it to SNF.
Perhaps watershed is a way of saying (or avoid saying) it’s a “must-win game,” which people have saying for weeks now. But the Vikings need to get this one. The Bears, who have finished at the bottom of the NFC North Division for the past four seasons (and whom the Vikings have beaten the past three meetings and six of the past seven) have turned their fortunes around this year and currently lead the Vikings in the North by half-a-game.
The Bears, at 6-3, are for real. Their three losses have been by a total of 11 points. Their sophomore quarterback Mitch Trubisky (though somewhat inconsistent through the air) is the second leading rusher at the quarterback position (trailing only Cam Newton) and is in strong command of the fifth-ranked offense in the league in terms of points (at 29.9 per game). He has picked things up quickly since last season.
“I think he’s done pretty much everything,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Trubisky. “There’s been times he’s had some free runners and it looks like they’re telling him, ‘Hey, you have to get the ball out.’ He gets the ball out with accuracy.
“There’s other times he looks like Fran Tarkenton scrambling. Some of the runs he’s made are unbelievable. They’re obviously using him in a bunch of different ways. I think the command of the offense is probably his biggest thing in being able to go through progressions more, now. When they’re in their no-huddle, they’re telling him what plays to call and things like that. It’s a little bit of that style.”
The Bears defense, which was tough last season, is the fourth best squad in terms of yards per game (319.6) and points allowed (19.4 per game). The addition of edge rusher Khalil Mack (coming over in a trade from Oakland) solidified this unit as one of the best in the NFL and certainly one that the Vikings offensive line needs to be wary of.
“He’s added a lot of swagger to the football team,” Zimmer said of Mack. “I think they have swagger anyway, but I think he’s added some to it knowing that they’ve got a guy of his caliber that’s in there. He really adds a lot of physicality to their defense. Not just the rush part, everybody knows he’s a good rusher, but the physicality of defeating a tight end, defeating an offensive tackle, the aggressive nature that he plays with, I think that probably adds to all the other guys.”
In addition, the Bears have been bullish on turnovers. They lead the league with 16 interceptions and are second in total takeaways (24 with eight fumble recoveries). It has been a key to their success this season.
“They haven’t changed that much defensively except for Khalil Mack, which adds to some of those poor throws and pressure,” Zimmer said, when asked what they have changed to get so many picks. “Their defensive front is outstanding. Leonard Floyd is playing a lot better now. Their two corners [Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara] are both very good. Eddie Jackson is a little bit more of a ball hawk since they’ve added him. I think that’s helped, and I think he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”
Those are the headlines for this upstart leader of the North. There is also the dynamic duo in the backfield of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, which gives them some speed out of the back. According to defensive end Everson Griffen, they are both good at getting to the edges and making some big plays.
The Bears offense is also benefitting from the return of wide receiver Allen Robinson (who had a knee injury last season) and the addition of Anthony Miller. Robinson had his best game as a Bear last weekend against Detroit (six catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns) and together with Miller (five for 122 yards and a score last week) provides an upgrade in team speed for Chicago.
“Their team speed is much better now,” Zimmer said. “I think adding [Taylor] Gabriel, he is an extremely fast guy. [Trey] Burton, [Allen] Robinson. Those guys have all added a lot of things to them. Then you throw in there Cohen and Anthony Miller, who has done a nice job. They’re opening things up a lot more. This isn’t two yards and a cloud of dust deal.”
Indeed, nor is this the Bears of the past four seasons. New head coach Mike Nagy has built an offensive machine that matches in tenacity the defense that former head coach John Fox built. Nagy, the former Kansas City Chief OC?, will have something up his sleeve for Zimmer’s improving defensive unit.
“We are going to get new plays [from Nagy]. There’s no doubt in my mind we are going to get new plays,” Zimmer said. “But they’ve got their core group of plays they are going to run. Every week you are going to get new plays, you are going to get new formations, you are going to get new personnel groups. That is part of the NFL.”
Everything about this one (including the struggles the Vikings have history had at Soldier Field) says loss. But the fact that Vikings are coming off a big win, had the bye to heal some of its players, and had an extra week for Zim and company to scheme ways to trip up Trubisky, adds up to a win for Minnesota. It will be a battle unlike we have seen between these two teams in recent seasons, but the Vikings will squeak out a win and take back command of the North.