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4 things to watch in Bears-Vikings game


The Bears will close the season by hosting the Vikings Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to follow in the game:

(1) How will the Bears offense perform without starting quarterback Justin Fields?

The second-year pro will miss the season finale with a strained hip he sustained last Sunday against the Lions. Fields will be replaced by Nathan Peterman, who will make his first start since 2018 when he played for the Bills versus the Bears.

"It's an awesome opportunity," Peterman said. "It's been a few years. Still have gotten to play a lot of football in preseason or whatnot, but obviously a regular-season game is an amazing opportunity and I'm looking forward to it. It's been a lot of hard work putting into this season and a lot of ups and downs obviously, but to go out on a great note, have some fun and just go out and play football is going to be a good thing."

Fields started 15 games this season, rushing for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns on 160 carries and passing for 2,242 yards with 17 TDs, 11 interceptions and an 85.2 passer rating. His 1,143 yards rushing are the second most in NFL history by a quarterback behind only the Ravens' Lamar Jackson's 1,206 yards in 2019.

Fields also set a single game record for rushing yards by an NFL quarterback with 178 Nov. 6 against the Dolphins. In addition, he became the first quarterback with three TD runs of at least 50 yards, the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era with a rushing TD in six straight games and the first quarterback to rush for at least 70 yards in five consecutive contests since at least 1950.

(2) Which young players will take advantage of expanded playing time?

A rash of injuries will give several inexperienced players an opportunity to impress in a regular season game. At cornerback, for instance, Breon Borders, Harrison Hand and Michael Ojemudia all could see action on defense.

Hand has appeared in three games this season and made the most of his chance to play 40 defensive snaps last Sunday in Detroit, registering three tackles and one pass breakup. The Bears claimed Hand off waivers from the Giants Sept. 13. He was selected by the Vikings in the fifth round of the 2020 draft out of Temple. In his first two seasons with Minnesota, he appeared in 23 games with one start and registered 22 tackles, three pass breakups and one interception.

Asked if an unheralded player can make an impression in the season finale, coach Matt Eberflus said: "Yes, I think that's true. But it's also for the other guys. We want to see guys finish. We want to see them do things the right way and play the right style."

Another young player expected to see expanded action is Dieter Eiselen. Last Sunday in Detroit, the third-year pro played stepped in at right guard after Teven Jenkins and Michael Schofield III both exited with injuries in the first half. With Jenkins and Schofield now on injured reserve, Eiselen likely will make his first NFL start.

Eiselen originally joined the Bears in 2020 as an undrafted free agent from Yale. Growing up in South Africa, he was an acclaimed rugby player and Olympic weightlifter who was introduced to American football via television shows and movies such as "Friday Night Lights" and "The Waterboy."

(3) Will rookie Velus Jones Jr. continue to excel returning kicks?

After losing his punt-return job following two turnovers earlier in the season, the third-round pick from Tennessee has rebounded to make an impact on special teams. Over the last six games, Jones has averaged 33.2 yards on 12 kickoff returns, including returns of 63, 55 and 40 yards.

"He's definitely trending 'arrow up' in a really good direction," said special teams coordinator Richard Hightower. "I know and learned that he was a fighter and he continues to fight and he has tremendous character. And he's going to work, and his teammates know he's going to work as hard as he can to try to get it right."

Jones nearly went the distance on a 63-yard kickoff return late in the first half last Sunday in Detroit. But he was forced out of bounds at the Lions' 45.

"He stemmed it really well," Hightower said. "His blockers did an outstanding job of getting back, getting to their landmarks, playing penalty-free on that play, stepping to contact, keeping their hands inside, and it really times up nicely …

"The guys did an outstanding job there. We probably could have done a better job of getting to one more person and attacking the kicker more and it probably would have been six points. But that's what drives us. We're looking for an opportunity to go out there and try to make another big play."

The Bears spent Thursday afternoon on the practice fields at Halas Hall getting ready for Sunday's season finale against the Minnesota Vikings.

(4) How long will the Vikings play their starters?

Minnesota has clinched the NFC North title and is assured of at least being the third seed in the playoffs. The Vikings could move up to No. 2 with a win over the Bears coupled with a 49ers loss at home to the struggling Cardinals, which seems unlikely. The 49ers-Cardinals game won't begin until 3:25 p.m. (CT) Sunday. 

Listening to Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell, it sounds like the Vikings will open Sunday's contest at Soldier Field with their regular starters, but not all of them will play the entire game. That could include quarterback Kirk Cousins and star receiver Justin Jefferson. 

"We've got a pretty clearcut plan with how we want to go about the whole game," O'Connell said. "But we're going to go in with the expectation of our guys going and try to get off to a good start and play good football."

O'Connell added that backups likely will get "some snaps here and there" and the Vikings won't play any players who are dealing with injuries. 

"You've got to be smart about where they're at," he said. "What type of risks for possibly aggravating a current injury or potentially, more importantly, making it worse. We don't know quite when we'll play next week yet. It's possible we could play on Saturday and we'll have to fast forward the week a little bit on shorter-term notice."

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