Vikings looking to put the squeeze on Bears QBs

The lasting image from the Bears’ trip to San Francisco was
49ers defensive end Aldon Smith running amok.

And now Chicago’s battered offensive line gets to face Jared
Allen, Chad Greenway and the Vikings on Sunday at Soldier
Field.

No, Minnesota (6-4) is not in San Francisco’s class for creating
mayhem with a physically imposing defense. But the way the Bears
(7-3) are blocking – make that NOT blocking – for their
quarterbacks, just about any team will be a major challenge,
whether it’s Jay Cutler back from a concussion, or backup Jason
Campbell on the field.

”You’re going to play a great team on their home field, a place
that we’ve struggled at,” Greenway said. ”But this is a new year,
a new team. And I think we’re going to have a focus going in there
that we’re going to give ourselves a chance.

”It’s going to take our best effort. It’s going to take our
best game of the year to win out there this week.”

To get that win, the Vikings figure to emphasize their ace,
Adrian Peterson, and the running game, while fitting in throws to
Percy Harvin, who also is having a strong season. They must be
careful not to fall victim to Chicago’s ball-hawking defense, which
did little against the 49ers, but otherwise has been brilliant. The
Bears have seven interception returns for TDs and have forced 30
turnovers, the most in the league.

The Vikings don’t get many takeaways, but they can get after
quarterbacks. Allen has 13 sacks in eight games against the Bears,
including 3 1/2 in last year’s season finale.

Whichever defense sets the tone figures to swing things in its
team’s direction.

On Thanksgiving Day, Houston beat Detroit 34-31 in overtime to
improve to 10-1, Washington held off Dallas 38-31, and New England
routed the New York Jets 49-19.

Also Sunday, it’s San Francisco at New Orleans; Green Bay at the
New York Giants; Atlanta at Tampa Bay; Baltimore at San Diego;
Pittsburgh at Cleveland; Denver at Kansas City; Seattle at Miami;
Buffalo at Indianapolis; Oakland at Cincinnati; Tennessee at
Jacksonville; and St. Louis at Arizona.

The Monday night game has Carolina at Philadelphia.

San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5)

As intriguing as any game on the schedule for many reasons.

The 49ers could get back quarterback Alex Smith from a
concussion, but with the way Colin Kaepernick performed in a rout
of the Bears on Monday night, it’s uncertain who will get the call
from coach Jim Harbaugh.

Regardless, it’s the San Francisco defense that could decide
things. If the 49ers can put pressure on Drew Brees and the
increasingly dynamic Saints offense – Aldon Smith leads the NFL
with 15 sacks – they could control matters. But New Orleans has won
three straight and five of six, and Brees could become the third
player with 30 TD passes in five seasons.

Green Bay (7-3) at New York Giants (6-4)

The last time they met, New York eliminated a 16-1 Packers team
from the playoffs. At Lambeau Field.

The Giants will need to rekindle the overwhelming pass rush that
was decisive in that game, plus get Eli Manning back on track. He’s
struggled the last two weeks, both losses, and hasn’t played
particularly well in a month. A better running game also would help
him.

Green Bay, though, has five straight victories and is tied with
Chicago atop the NFC North. In his past seven games, Aaron Rodgers
has 24 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 117 QB rating. There’s
a chance he could get back top receiver Greg Jennings from a torn
abdominal muscle, too.

Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)

Atlanta lost for the first time two weeks ago, then needed to
rally to beat Arizona. The Falcons have won six of the past seven
meetings with the Bucs, but those were different Tampa teams. This
one is as potent on offense as, well, Atlanta.

Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin already has rushed for 1,000 yards
and seven touchdowns.

”Their rookie running back has had some really explosive
games,” Smith said. ”It will be a challenge for us.”

But covering Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez will be
a huge challenge for the Bucs.

Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6)

The Ravens will have star safety Ed Reed as they seek their
fourth successive victory and eighth in nine games. His one-game
suspension for illegal hits was overturned on appeal and instead he
was fined $50,000.

Reed and the Baltimore defense haven’t played close to the level
of previous standards, but did have a strong performance in taking
charge of the AFC North last week at Pittsburgh.

San Diego, loser of five of its last six, leads the NFL in
throwing interceptions (14) as Philip Rivers struggles without much
supporting talent compared to previous years.

Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8)

Plax is back in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the addition of wideout Plaxico
Burress, who was without a team all season, doesn’t offset the slew
of injuries on offense. Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs),
Antonio Brown (ankle), Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) and Byron Leftwich
(ribs) have been sidelined, but Brown could return in
Cleveland.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a trio of hefty running
backs who have come through in Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer
and Isaac Redman.

The Browns blew a 13-0 lead in Dallas last Sunday, another sign
of their inexperience. They do play hard for coach Pat Shurmur, who
is trying to save his job.

Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9)

The Broncos have won five straight and have their sights on
running the table, perhaps grabbing home-field advantage for a
portion of the AFC playoffs, if not for the whole thing. Peyton
Manning needs one victory, something he’s likely to get against the
collapsing Chiefs who have dropped seven in a row, to have the
second most by a starter in league history. He would move ahead of
his current boss, John Elway.

Manning is directing a precise offense, but Denver lost leading
rusher Willis McGahee to a right knee injury. The Broncos’ defense
is getting superb play from Von Miller, who had three sacks last
week for 13 this year.

KC leads the NFL in turnovers with 31 and has a minus-21
differential. Denver’s minus-3 pales in comparison.

Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6)

One game after beating his former player at Southern Cal, Jets
QB Mark Sanchez, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll goes against one of
his Heisman Trophy winners, Reggie Bush. Well, Bush did win the
Heisman, but gave it back after he was found guilty of NCAA
violations.

Seattle’s defense gets better and more physical each week,
something Bush figures to learn Sunday. Bush has totaled 41 yards
rushing over the past two games, part of a three-game skid, and
even was benched in that span.

Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4)

Were the Colts exposed at New England last Sunday in their 59-24
defeat, or was it simply a case of Indy not being able to play with
the big boys yet?

”Once you sit down and watch the film, the critiquing and the
criticism, and once that happens, you sort of flush it and realize
it’s on to the next one,” Andrew Luck said. ”If this was the last
one of the season and you’re done, it would sting a lot more.”

Luck has five 300-yard passing games to set an NFL mark by a
rookie. His 2,965 yards passing are the most by an NFL rookie
through 10 games.

Buffalo’s defense awakened in a 19-14 victory against Miami, but
still ranks 27th overall.

Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5)

With two consecutive victories, the Bengals have revitalized
their season. A schedule that includes San Diego, Dallas and
Philadelphia after the Raiders has them salivating about their
chances of making the postseason. Receiver A. J. Green has TD
catches in nine straight games.

Oakland, loser of three in a row, has former Bengals QB Carson
Palmer, the first overall draft pick in 2003 who still holds
Cincinnati marks for career completion percentage (62.9) and passer
rating (86.9). It will be Palmer’s first time facing the Bengals
since he forced a trade to Oakland last year for a first-round and
second-round pick.

Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7), Monday night

No, the NFL can’t flex games to the prime-time broadcast on
Mondays, so viewers are stuck with two of the league’s biggest
flops.

Carolina thought it would build off Cam Newton’s sensational
rookie season, but instead of sizzling it has fizzled.

No worse than the Eagles, though. Expected to be championship
contenders, they have fallen apart, with sloppy play everywhere,
particularly on the offensive line, in the secondary and at
quarterback, where rookie Nick Foles could again get the nod ahead
of Michael Vick, who is recovering from a concussion.

Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9)

Jacksonville had powerful Houston in trouble last Sunday, but
couldn’t put away the game. The 37 points for the Jaguars in that
loss brought their season total to a measly 164. They will go with
Chad Henne at quarterback with second-year starter Blaine Gabbert
on injured reserve.

It looks like the Titans have fixed some of their defensive
woes, and they come off a bye that followed a 37-3 romp in Miami,
their best performance all season. Before that came their worst, a
51-20 thrashing at the hands of the Bears.

St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6)

Arizona was 4-0 when it journeyed to St. Louis and was beaten
17-3. Things have been downright ugly since for the Cardinals, who
can’t score, can’t decide on a quarterback, and struggle against
the run. A defense expected to excel has disappointed.

The Rams are maddeningly inconsistent, following a tie at mighty
San Francisco – a game they should have won – with a flop against
the Jets. Look for a steady diet of runs by Steven Jackson and
Daryl Richardson.

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