EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The familiar refrain from the Minnesota Vikings this week was about “controlling our own destiny.”
Minnesota begins the crucial stretch-run of its season on Sunday when it travels to face the Chicago Bears with the NFC North race to be decided between the Vikings (6-4), Bears (7-3) and Green Bay Packers (7-3) over the final six weeks.
Everything is in front of Minnesota; the division, the playoffs, and the teams they need to chase to make each a reality. Four of the final six games are against Chicago and Green Bay, including three in a row. A win Sunday, combined with a Packers’ loss, would have the Vikings tied for the division lead.
Minnesota has put itself in this position to play meaningful games in November and December and help determine the outcome of the division.
Here are five things to watch Sunday as the Vikings begin the pivotal stretch:
1. Cutler or Campbell?
Perhaps the biggest question in Sunday’s game doesn’t involve Minnesota at all. Chicago is hoping to get starting quarterback Jay Cutler back from a concussion. Bears coach Lovie Smith admitted this week that Chicago is an entirely different team with Cutler leading the way, and the team’s record supports the theory. The Bears are 31-19 with Cutler since the team acquired him in 2009. Without him the past two seasons, with Caleb Hanie, Josh McCown and Jason Campbell filling in, Chicago is 1-6. On Sunday, Cutler’s first missed game of 2012, Campbell was 14 of 22 passing for 107 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. He was 11 of 19 for 94 yards in replacing Cutler a week earlier.
McCown actually led the Bears to the one win, against Minnesota, in the regular-season finale last year. But the Vikings also know the task is much tougher with Cutler in the game. In an effort to fix some of its offensive line issues, Chicago also is reportedly making changes at left guard and right tackle. But the main man behind the line is the Bears biggest concern.
2. A reappearance of Percy 2.0?
And we’re not talking Minnesota’s leading receiver Percy Harvin. Instead, rookie fourth-round pick, receiver Jarius Wright will try his hand again at replacing Harvin. The two have been compared often because of their stature and athleticism, but it’s hard to replace Harvin, Minnesota’s top receiver and the league’s eighth-leading receiver with 62 catches. Wright, in his first regular-season game action in the Vikings win against Detroit before the bye week, burst onto the scene with a 54-yard catch on the first drive and two plays later added a touchdown. But he only had one more catch the rest of the game.
Harvin has missed practice all week, and has been out since spraining his ankle in three places on Nov. 4. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said Harvin would have to practice to be active for Sunday’s game, but Harvin wasn’t able to put any weight on his injured ankle and wasn’t able to fulfill the practice requirement. Harvin is listed as doubtful and likely would have a tough time improving enough, or getting the authorization, to play Sunday and Wright could try and fill Harvin’s role again.
3. A special hold on the football?
The Bears spot at the top of the NFC North has largely been a by-product of a stifling and opportunistic defense. Chicago owns the fifth-ranked defense in the league in terms of yards allowed (eighth against the run and 11th against the pass) and has allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL (16.5 per game). But the most impressive aspect of the defense is its league-leading 30 takeaways. The Bears have a league-high 19 interceptions led by cornerback Tim Jennings, who has an NFL-high eight picks. With cornerback Charles Tillman forcing seven fumbles this season, Chicago has recovered 11 fumbles.
Minnesota’s offense knows it has to take special care of the football against Chicago, and guard against the Bears’ penchant for punching out the football. Turnovers have been a nearly direct reflection on the Vikings’ success this season. Minnesota is a minus-4 in turnover differential. In the four losses for the Vikings, they have nine turnovers to just one takeaway. In the win before the bye to snap back-to-back losses, Minnesota was plus-2 in turnover differential.
4. Does Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder play with conviction?
Ponder talked about playing more relaxed and with more conviction in the win against Detroit. Even without Harvin, Ponder was 24 of 32 for 221 yards passing for two touchdowns, and just as importantly, didn’t have any turnovers. He completed passes to 10 different receivers — including himself, off a deflection – and got big games for Wright and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The struggles the previous month had led to questions about Ponder’s confidence. He had trouble connecting with any of his receivers and wasn’t given much time by his offensive line. That led to a seemingly hesitant Ponder unable to establish the passing game. But he was more aggressive and confident, making a few tough throws in traffic and tight spaces to get the offense moving to the tune of 403 total yards. Ponder will need to do more of that, while still playing in control, against Chicago’s defense.
5. Can Adrian Peterson continue his trends against the Bears?
Peterson is putting together perhaps the best season of his standout career, despite coming off major knee surgery. The last four weeks has added to his amazing tale and has thrust him into the thick of comeback player of the year and MVP awards consideration. And his career games against Chicago have also been something to behold. In eight career games against the Bears, Peterson has 168 carries for 823 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Peterson introduced himself to the rest of the NFL early in his rookie career with a 224-yard rushing game at Chicago in just the fifth regular-season game of his career. Hilariously, this week, Peterson said one of his few memories of that game was having his pants fall down on a kickoff return. He had four returns for 128 yards in his first-ever game against the Bears that day. Even the 2007 version of Peterson might be amazed at what he’s done over the past month, though. Showing he might be even better than he was before the knee injury, Peterson has rushed for at least 123 yards in the past four games, has a run of at least 60 yards in the past three games and is now the league’s leading rusher and has the second most yards from scrimmage. In the past four games, he has 629 yards rushing with five touchdowns.