How much has the NFC North changed over the past two years? Sunday's game in Minnesota is all the evidence needed.
The Vikings (3-12) are wrapping up their second straight season at the bottom of the division after being the NFC North Champions in 2009. Minnesota is even looking for its first division win of 2011 Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
Chicago (7-8) won the NFC North last season. Both teams are out of the playoffs this season, while the Green Bay Packers are close to wrapping up the NFC's top seed and the once-doormat Lions have made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
The Vikings still have much to play for in Sunday's season-finale. Here are a few things to watch for:
1.A fond farewell.
Longtime tight end Jim Kleinsasser announced Sunday will be his final game as he retires after a 13-year NFL career spent entirely in Minnesota. Kleinsasser has been one of the best blocking tight ends in football during that time and his presence often goes unnoticed because he doesn't touch the ball often just once this season. There is no doubting his impact on the Vikings during the past 13 years though.
Several teammates have said they want to send Kleinsasser out with a win. Coach Leslie Frazier said he'd like to get a touchdown for Kleinsasser, who hasn't scored since 2007. The Vikings have been promoting a Fear the Beard tribute for Sunday in reference to Kleinsasser's facial hair. The career of, perhaps, one of the most underappreciated Minnesota players ever comes to a close.2.A win not only for Jimmy?
While a win for Kleinsasser would be a nice parting gift, there's another big reason the Vikings would like a win on Sunday and one Kleinsasser certainly would appreciate. Avoiding a 13th loss would mean Minnesota steers clear of tying the worst record in franchise history. The 1984 squad also went 3-13. Kleinsasser, and others, don't want to be associated with the all-time worst record. 3.Can Jared Allen reach the sack record?
In the second half of the season, defensive end Jared Allen has fallen behind the pace to reach Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season. Allen feels he's still within reach of the mark though with 18.5 sacks entering Sunday. Allen has had three sacks in a game twice this season and has gone without a sack only three times.
As much as reaching Strahan's mark would be memorable, Allen said he'd also like to maintain the league-lead. The Vikings' only elected Pro Bowler, Allen had one sack last week to pull ahead of Philadelphia's Jason Babin and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, who each have 18 sacks.4.Can Ponder end the season on a high note?
It hasn't been an easy transition for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in his first season. Ponder has started nine games and displayed big-play ability to go along with the usual rookie mistakes. After a strong start to his career, he's regressed the past several weeks, has appeared tentative and dealt with injuries. Meanwhile, backup Joe Webb has performed well in two relief roles.
Ponder can enter the offseason with some momentum and positive feelings after taking his lumps earlier, and further lay claim to the permanent job with a strong game on Sunday. Ponder has said all the right things about learning from his mistakes and being decisive and instinctual in his play. Now it must translate to the field. Chicago enters Sunday with the 29th ranked pass defense in the league, so there may be chances for Ponder to begin repairing his perceived reputation as the franchise quarterback.5.Where will the Vikings land in the draft order?
Minnesota's players and coaches want to win Sunday. They've given legitimate reasons for playing out the season. Another win would again hurt draft positioning. The Vikings currently sit in the third spot in the draft, but could drop as far as sixth with a win Sunday. For a team needing a talent infusion, that is no small consideration.
Last week's win at Washington all but dropped them out of the chances on the presumed No. 1 pick, quarterback Andrew Luck. More importantly though, the win might have cost Minnesota a chance at the draft's top offensive lineman, left tackle Matt Kalil from the University of Southern California.
With Kalil likely off the board, several scenarios open up for the Vikings and will be evaluated and discussed at length after the season. How far can Minnesota afford to drop though? A victory Sunday would leave players and coaches feeling better heading into the offseason, but it would come at a price.