EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. At the beginning of the 2012 season, few would have even expected the Minnesota Vikings to be in the position to fight for the playoffs through 13 weeks.
Even now, with a 6-6 record and playoffs still a possibility, Minnesota is still in prove-it mode. When bubble playoff teams are mentioned, the Vikings are one of the last teams mentioned, if at all. Two straight losses in the NFC North are likely one reason for that. The games don't get any more important for Minnesota than each successive contestthis season, beginning Sunday at home against the Chicago Bears (8-4).
"I don't know if it's the word proving," coach Leslie Frazier said this week. "I didn't use that when I talked to them. I just told them that we're playing at home in front of our fans and the importance of winning games at home. Now of course the fact this is an NFC North opponent, that brings extra significance in that regard. That was the message. Playing at home, NFC North opponent, got to find a way to get a win."
Here are five things to watch Sunday as the Vikings try to keep their fading playoff hopes alive:
1. Ball security will likely be a focus. Will it be a success?
Knowing the Bears' penchant for causing turnovers, Minnesota focused on ball security heading into the game between the two teams just two weeks ago. However, the Vikings had three turnovers and lost the turnover-differential by one. As expected, turnovers have been the truest indicator of Minnesota's season. When the Vikings are even or positive in turnover differential they are 6-0. In their six wins, they are plus-4 in take-give. In the six losses, they are minus-10 and have been minus in turnover-differential each game.
Meanwhile, Chicago has 34 turnovers, the highest total in the league contributing to the third-best turnover-differential. Minnesota is minus-6 this season. This week, the Vikings will be facing the Bears without two of their key defenders with the loss of linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Tim Jennings, who have both been declared out. Regardless, Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder and running back Adrian Peterson will need to take care of the ball on Sunday. Ponder threw one interception in the last game against the Bears. Peterson fumbled once, and Ponder was charged with a fumble on a missed snap to Peterson.
2. Can the passing game offer any support for the rest of the roster?
Minnesota has proven to have a decent overall roster, with the league's third-best running back led by Peterson who could be making a run for 2,000 yards rushing. The defense ranks 13th in fewest yards allowed (14th against the run and 14th against the pass) and is 18th in points allowed. But the Vikings are last in the league in passing at 180.6 yards per game, a big factor in the losses and inability to sustain drives and lose time of possession. Peterson ran for 108 yards in the previous game between the two teams. Minnesota passed for just 144 yards in the game and were edged 37:30-22:30 in time of possession. To keep Chicago's offense off the field and to aid Peterson, Ponder and the passing game again minus Percy Harvin must find some semblance of consistency.
3. Will any receiver step forward to help Ponder and ease the loss of Harvin?
How badly do the Vikings need to find complementary receivers? Despite missing the past three games, Harvin leads the team with 62 catches. The remaining wide receivers have accounted for 68 catches this season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has 45 catches, but Minnesota hasn't found another outside receiver to help Ponder and complement Harvin and Rudolph.
The closest thing to a consistent receiver the past three weeks has been rookie Jarius Wright, who has 11 catches in the three games, the first regular season games of his NFL career. Jerome Simpson continues to be a disappointment. Simpy, the Vikings need someone step up. The receivers need to gain separation from defenders, and Ponder has to be willing to let the ball go when receivers open at least a bit of hole. As Frazier said this week, at this point in the season, there won't be any magical additions at receiver. The current group must rise to the occasion and do the job.
4. Will the Vikings finally get the pressure on the quarterback they've been waiting for?
Heading into the first game against Chicago, expectations were Minnesota's front-four and pass rushers were ready to enjoy a breakout game against Bears' struggling offensive line. But then Chicago altered its passing game a bit, going to more of a quicker, shorter attack and having quarterback Jay Cutler move around out of the pocket with designed bootlegs. The result, he was sacked just once against Minnesota and it came after his foot was stepped on by his own lineman and he tripped.
The Bears kept that same offensive strategy last week against Seattle's strong pass rush and again succeeded in keeping Cutler upright. He was sacked just once last week and the Vikings don't expect much difference this week. Against Green Bay last week, Minnesota had two sacks of Aaron Rodgers, but he wasn't pressured much during the game and the Packers also entered that game with a porous offensive line. Even with the quick, short passing game, the Vikings will have to find some way to pressure Jay Cutler, as coach Frazier said Friday, make him "uncomfortable" and keep him from finding a rhythm.
5. Can Minnesota do anything to stop Brandon Marshall?
As big as the discrepancy is in Minnesota's passing game and the dropoff from Harvin to the other receivers, it might be even more pronounced between Marshall, Chicago's leading receiver and the rest of the Bears. At least the Vikings have Rudolph as a consistent secondary target. Marshall is nearly all of Chicago's passing game. He has 91 catches, which is second in the NFL, with the second-closest Bears' player with 30 catches (running back Matt Forte). Marshall has 91 catches while the rest of the team has 126. Marshall also has 1,182 receiving yards -- second in the NFL -- of the team's 2,436 yards through the air. Earl Bennett, who's third on the team with 23 catches, has been declared out for Sunday's game, likely making Marshall even more of a target.
Minnesota tried mightily to guard Marshall in the last game, but he still managed to catch 12 passes. Marshall was often double-teamed and even made highlight catches while blanketed by defenders. The one thing the Vikings were successful with last game is they didn't allow many big plays to Marshall. On his 12 catches, he finished with 92 yards. But he was a major part of Chicago's success on third downs, with five catches on third-down plays.
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