When it comes to determining who wins football games, there are a number of factors that contribute to a victory. Solid quarterback play, winning the line of scrimmage, protecting the football and taking it away, controlling important situations and overcoming or taking advantage of an injury situation.
In our weekly preview series, Alyssa Barbieri from Bears Wire and Jack White from Vikings Wire went deep into the matchup to determine who has the advantage at the five key factors for winning football games in the NFL.
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Bears Wire: Rookie quarterback Justin Fields returned to the starting lineup last week after missing a couple games with cracked ribs. He had a rough go of it against the Packers, where he was under duress all night, which certainly doesn’t bode well against the NFL’s top pass rush in the Vikings. Fields has had his shares of highs and lows during his rookie season, but he’s shown progress despite some of the disadvantages around him. But all things considered – coaching, scheme, personnel – Fields has shown flashes that he can develop into a franchise quarterback for Chicago. Fields admitted that he was still hurting last week, and the Bears are going to need to do a better job protecting him against this Vikings pass rush.
Vikings Wire: Say what you will about his contract, Kirk Cousins is among the better quarterbacks in the NFL, especially this year. Cousins has 3,569, 27 touchdown passes and just five picks. Cousins has ramped up the downfield passing and aggressive throws this year, and he doesn’t even have that many turnovers to show for it. If WR Adam Thielen is ready to go on Monday, then the Vikings passing game should be menacing.
Line of scrimmage
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Bears Wire: The Bears have the fourth most sacks in the NFL with 36. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn is coming off a dominant November, where he had 5.5 sacks in three games – and that was without Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks – and he’s continued his dominance in December, where he has 3.0 sacks in the last two games and ranks third in the NFL with 14.0 sacks. If everything goes according to plan, Hicks will suit up for Chicago for the first time in a month, where the hope is he can be his dominant self in the middle of that defensive line, where they’ll have to contend with Dalvin Cook. The Bears offensive line is coming off a rough outing against the Packers, and there’s a chance they could be without both starting tackles as Jason Peters is out with a high ankle sprain and rookie Larry Borom is currently on the COVID list. With Chicago facing a Minnesota team that leads the NFL in sacks, it could be a long night for Fields.
Vikings Wire: The Vikings offensive line has improved as of late. The last two games, the Vikings’ lone weak spot on that unit has been at left tackle. However, the team expects first-round pick and starting LT Christian Darrisaw to return in Week 15. Darrisaw should be a big boost. With C Garrett Bradbury back in the lineup, the Vikings have switched Mason Cole over to right guard and found success. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota is considerably more depleted. The Vikings lost DE Danielle Hunter to a season-ending injury. DE Everson Griffen is on the NFI list. So despite the high sack numbers — 41, to be exact — the Minnesota pass rush has looked less impressive recently.
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Bears Wire: Protecting the football on offense and taking the football away on defense have been points of emphasis for the Bears this season, and it’s something they’ve struggled with this year. After a pick-6 and fumble by Fields against the Packers, the Bears have a -11 turnover differential – the third worst in the NFL – through 14 weeks, where they have 11 takeaways and have turned the ball over 22 times. As the Bears prepare to face the Vikings, this is a game where Chicago can’t afford to make any mistakes if they hope to snap their two-game losing streak.
Vikings Wire: The Vikings’ +5 turnover differential ranks them No. 9 in the league. Minnesota has kept the ball away from opposing defenses. The Vikings defense has found ways to create timely turnovers, but this number is good because of the team’s ability to protect the ball, not to take it away.
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Bears Wire: The Bears defense has been decent in the red zone this season, whether it’s holding teams to a field goal or forcing a turnover on downs. They’re allowing teams to score a touchdown on 57.45% of trips inside the red zone, which ranks 14th in the NFL. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the league’s worst offenses has struggled to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns, as Chicago has scored a touchdown on 53.13% of trips inside the red zone, which ranks 27th. Third down conversions remain a struggle for the Bears offense, where they’ve converted just 34.59% of third downs, which ranks 29th in the NFL. Meanwhile, Chicago’s defense has done an okay job getting teams off the field on third down, allowing teams to convert on third down 40.63% of the time, which ranks 19th.
Vikings Wire: Minnesota’s 38.51% third down conversion rate is pretty middling. The Vikings have been in mostly close games this year for a reason — this is a team that makes things interesting towards the end of halves. Per The Athletic’s Arif Hasan, if the Vikings scored as often as their opponents did in the final two minutes of halves – or if those minutes were wiped out of existence with nothing to replace them – the Vikings would be 9-2-1 heading into last week against the Steelers. Minnesota stopped Pittsburgh to close out the first half in Week 14, but the Steelers scored all 28 of their points in the second half, erasing most of the Vikings’ lead and turning a blowout into a last-second finish. Minnesota has a tendency to let-up down the stretch of games.
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Bears Wire: The Bears have been ravaged by injuries and COVID-19, where they have 11 players currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including Allen Robinson and Eddie Jackson, and all three coordinators. Then there’s the injury component, where left tackle Jason Peters is out with a high ankle sprain, which will thrust rookie Teven Jenkins into the starting lineup. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin is sidelined again with a foot injury, so look for more Jakeem Grant and Damiere Byrd on offense. There’s some encouraging news on defense as linebacker Roquan Smith looks like he’ll be good to go after reaggravating his hamstring injury last week. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is currently questionable, but it appears that he’s on track to return.
Vikings Wire: The Vikings have Thielen listed as questionable. The team will likely be without key depth players such as RB Alexander Mattison and WR/PR Dede Westbrook after the two went on the COVID-19/Reserve list. But Minnesota does not have the COVID-19 issues that Chicago does.
Verdict: Advantage Vikings
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On the surface, this is certainly a winnable game for the Bears, especially given Minnesota’s historic struggles in Chicago and Matt Nagy’s 5-1 record against the Vikings in three years. But the way this week has transpired — from injuries to a slew of players and all three coordinators on the reserve/COVID-19 list — the Bears are at an even greater disadvantage than they would’ve been. While Chicago’s season is all but over, Minnesota is still competing for that final wild-card spot.