The Bears (6-7) will look to record their second straight win Sunday when they visit the Minnesota Vikings (6-7) at U.S. Bank Stadium. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) Will the Bears build on last Sunday's victory over the Texans and remain in contention for the NFC's final wild card berth?
The Bears produced their most dominant performance of the season on both sides of the ball against Houston, snapping a six-game losing streak by both scoring their most points and allowing their fewest points of the year in a decisive 36-7 win at Soldier Field.
They'll face a more difficult challenge against the Vikings, who have won five of seven games since a 1-5 start. With Minnesota winning the first meeting between the teams Nov. 16 in Chicago, a victory Sunday would give the Vikings a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Bears with two games remaining in the season. That makes Sunday's contest a virtual elimination game for coach Matt Nagy's team, though the Bears still could qualify for the playoffs even if they lose in Minnesota.
With identical 6-7 records, the Bears and Vikings are both one game behind the Cardinals (7-6) for the third and final wild card berth in the NFC.
The Bears need a much better performance from their offense than they received in losing to the Vikings 19-13 earlier this year. The unit did not score a touchdown and was limited to a season-low 149 yards. But neither quarterback Mitchell Trubisky nor running back David Montgomery—who have led an offensive resurgence in recent weeks—played in that game.
(2) Speaking of the Bears offense, will the revamped unit stay on a roll?
In three games since Trubisky regained his starting job and the offensive line was reconfigured, the Bears have scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 30.3 points and 383.0 yards per contest. It's been a huge improvement over the previous seven games when they averaged 16.7 points and 272.1 yards. The Bears have scored at least 25 points in those three games (25, 30, 36) after failing to do so in the previous seven contests (11, 20, 23, 10, 23, 17, 13).
Trubisky has been performing at a high level since being reinstalled as the Bears' No. 1 quarterback, passing for 776 yards with seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 100.0 rating in three games. After throwing two interceptions into double- and triple-coverage in his first start back against the Packers, Trubisky has seemingly learned from those mistakes. He's been focused on taking what the defense gives him, quickly getting the ball into his playmakers' hands with shorter passes. As a result, Trubisky has not been intercepted on his last 103 attempts.
Improvement from a retooled line has also been key to the offense's awakening. During the bye week last month, the Bears installed young Notre Dame products Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars into the starting lineup at center and right guard, respectively, and moved veterans Cody Whitehair from center to left guard and Germain Ifedi from right guard to right tackle.
(3) Will the Bears' fierce pass rush that harassed Texans star Deshaun Watson do the same thing against Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins?
The Bears recorded seven sacks in last Sunday's win over Houston, their most since they had eight in a 2005 win over the Panthers. Generating consistent pressure against the Vikings will be paramount to success. In Minnesota's Week 10 win at Soldier Field, Cousins passed for 292 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked only once—by blitzing linebacker Roquan Smith. Cousins has been sacked 10 times in the Vikings' last two games after being sacked only eight times in Minnesota's previous six contests.
Cousins ranks eighth in the NFL with a 102.7 passer rating, the second highest in his nine-year career behind last season's 107.4. He has thrown for 3,298 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, which are tied for the third most picks in the league. In his last seven games, however, Cousins has passed for 16 TDs and two interceptions—including one by Bears star Khalil Mack. Cousins has thrown for three TDs in each of his last six home games, and he leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating (123.8) and touchdowns (11).
The pass rush was a group effort against the Texans, with Smith and Mario Edwards Jr. recording two sacks apiece and Mack, Bilal Nichols and Brent Urban tallying one each. It's a performance the Bears hope to repeat Sunday in Minnesota.
(4) Will the Bears defense be able to contain Minnesota's playmakers?
The Vikings boast some of the NFL's most dangerous skill-position players. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the league with 1,674 yards from scrimmage and 93 first downs, is tied for the lead with 14 rushing touchdowns and ranks second in rushing with a career-high 1,352 yards on 273 carries.
In the first meeting between the teams this season, Cook rushed for 96 yards on 30 carries. He was limited to just 39 yards on 19 attempts through the first three quarters, however, before gaining most of his yards in the fourth period after Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks exited with an injury.
The Bears know they must swarm to the football when Cook has it in his hands. "It's all 11 working as one," said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "It comes down to everybody being disciplined and doing their job, [maintaining] gap integrity. And then when that's all said and done, violently tearing off blocks and running to the football with a sense of urgency and passing and getting as many hats on this kid as we can get. It ought to sound like BBs [going] off a tin can. That's the only way you stop this great runner."
The Vikings also possess a dynamic tandem at receiver in rookie Justin Jefferson, who has caught 65 passes for 1,078 yards and seven touchdowns; and veteran Adam Thielen, who has 60 receptions for 760 yards and 12 TDs. Jefferson leads all NFL rookie receivers in catches and yards, while Thielen's 12 touchdowns are the third most in the league.