Still in contention for a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Bears will visit the Vikings Sunday in Minnesota. Here are four storylines to watch in the regular-season finale:
(1) How will Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears offense fare against a Vikings defense that is among the best in the NFL and is even better at home?
The Bears will face a stiff test in a hostile environment versus a formidable defense that’s fighting for its playoff lives. The Vikings rank third in the NFL in total yards allowed and have recorded 33 of 50 sacks this season in their seven home games.
“Any time you’re at home, you’re going to have an advantage because of the crowd noise, so it’s harder for the offense with the cadence and the silent cadence,” said coach Matt Nagy. “No. 2, you’re talking about a fast defense, and you put that fast defense on turf, and they can move around pretty good. And then they’ve got really good players.”
The Bears need to protect Trubisky and avoid negative plays such as sacks and turnovers. Establishing a run game would also help slow a Vikings pass rush that’s led by defensive end Danielle Hunter, who is tied for third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.
“They’re going to be revved up,” Nagy said. “We get that, and our guys need to be revved up and understand what we’re about to get into, and that’s the exciting part. But they’re a really good defense.”
(2) How will the Bears defense handle a Vikings offense that has placed more of an emphasis on running the ball in recent weeks?
A Bears run defense that ranks second in the league will be challenged by a Vikings offense that has focused more on its ground game since making a coach change Dec. 11. In 13 games under coordinator John DeFilippo, Minnesota averaged 85.4 yards rushing; in two games since he was fired, the Vikings have averaged 160 yards on the ground.
Running back Dalvin Cook had more than 10 carries only twice in eight games under DeFilippo. But in two contests with quarterbacks coach and interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski calling plays, Cook rushed for 136 yards on 19 attempts in a win over the Dolphins and 73 yards on 16 carries in a victory over the Lions.
“He’s a dynamic back,” Nagy said. “He’s explosive for his size. He’s got good hands. I really liked him coming out [in last year’s draft]. I thought he was a great back. We know that he’s a good player and we’ll be aware of him.”
The Bears run defense has allowed an average of just 81.1 yards per game this season. In a 25-20 win over the Vikings Nov. 18 at Soldier Field, Minnesota mustered just 22 yards on 14 carries, with Cook limited to 12 yards on nine attempts.
(3) Will the Bears remove some of their key starters if the Rams—who would clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win—are blowing out the 49ers?
Still in contention for a first-round bye—the Bears would earn the No. 2 seed with a win over the Vikings coupled with a Rams loss to the 49ers—Nagy is planning to play his starters Sunday. The Bears coach may adjust his plans if, say, the Rams are blowing out the 49ers in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t plan to do any scoreboard-watching.
“I truly want to just focus in on doing everything I can [to help the Bears win],” Nagy said. “You don’t look at the scoreboard one time as a coach. I don’t even know where it’s at in our stadium and I sure as heck don’t know where it’s at where we’re going. We’re just going to play. If there’s a situation where it’s almost an outlier, where, hey, this is ridiculous one way or the other, then I’ve got a decision to make.”
Nagy expects to receive an update on the Rams-49ers game when the Bears are in their locker room at halftime. “I want zero updates on the sideline,” he said. “I just want to focus on playing football and coaching football. I don’t want one update when I’m on the sideline.”
(4) Will the Bears knock the Vikings out of the playoffs or perhaps even have to play them for a second straight week in the wildcard round at Soldier Field?
The Bears had already clinched a first-round bye in the 2010 playoffs before they lost to the Packers in the regular-season finale in Green Bay. The win enabled the Packers to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, and they eventually beat the Bears in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field before defeating the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The Bears obviously don’t want history to repeat itself with the Vikings, who have won two straight games behind a re-energized run game and defense and certainly would not be an easy opponent to face in the wildcard round, especially playing them in back-to-back games.
The Bears can knock the Vikings out of the playoffs with a win Sunday coupled with an Eagles victory over the Redskins. In that scenario, the Bears would host Philadelphia in the wildcard round—assuming the Rams win Sunday. The Bears could also host the Seahawks if they lose to the Vikings Sunday and Seattle falls to the Cardinals.