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Final Thoughts: Vikings-Bears has Significant Magnitude Toward Playoffs

EAGAN, Minn. — The playoffs might as well start Sunday for the Vikings.

And really, Minnesota has been in survival mode for the past two months.

But Sunday's contest between the Vikings and Bears — with both teams at 6-7 entering Week 15 — feels like a de-facto playoff game between the NFC North foes.

Win, and playoff hopes remain afloat. Lose, and a postseason appearance becomes highly unlikely this season.

It's safe to say the Vikings know what's at stake Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

"I think we've been in that situation for what, seven weeks now?," Adam Thielen said of Minnesota's mindset after a 1-5 start. "So that's kind of been the mentality of this team.

"We need to have that mentality obviously going into this week and play our butts off and give it everything we got to go out there and get a 'W,' "Thielen added.

Said quarterback Kirk Cousins: "When you're 1-5 and then 5-1, I think that says something. I do think when we've had our backs up against the wall that we've stepped up and answered the bell. But what we need to do is, once we get away from the wall, we've got to keep swinging and now move out further. We find ourselves in a similar position now. The reality is, so does our opponent. They're just the same in terms of their need to win this game. So, it's going to make for a great NFC North matchup."

Both Minnesota and Chicago trail Arizona by one game for the final NFC Wild Card spot. The 7-6 Cardinals host the 4-8-1 Eagles in Week 15.

But if the Vikings want to continue on with their postseason hopes, Sunday is essentially a must-win game.

Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:

Be special on special teams | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

Plenty of focus will be on Minnesota's special teams units Sunday, And yes, that includes kicker Dan Bailey, who has missed seven total kicks in the past two games.

But the Vikings appear to have stuck with Bailey this week, keeping their confidence in a 10-year veteran who still remains one of the most accurate kickers in league history.

Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf said he has liked Bailey's approach — both mentally and physically — at practice this week.

"I think that's the beauty of Dan, he just goes out and goes back to fundamentals," Maalouf said. "That's kind of what we've done this week … go back to our routine.

"He's done a good job in practice and had more opportunities this week," Maalouf added.

It remains to be seen how Bailey performs after back-to-back rough outings, but if anything is certain, it's that Cordarrelle Patterson is always a threat on kickoffs.

The former Viking returned a kickoff for a score against his former team in Week 10, a touchdown that tied Patterson atop the all-time list with eight such scores.

"He's probably the best in the league right now," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said of Patterson's kickoff return ability. "He's strong, physical, fast, hits the creases with power.

Minnesota has endured an up-an-down performance on special teams all season. When Bailey was on, it was the coverage and return units that struggled. And now that those phases have improved, Bailey has hit a mini slump.

With their playoff hopes on the line Sunday, the Vikings special teams will need to be spot on to help the team get back to .500 … and keep the playoff dream alive.

Mack presents tall order for Vikings tackles | by @LindseyMNSports

The Bears defense has incredible talent at all three levels, but the battle on Sunday will first start in the trenches.

Minnesota's offensive line – particularly tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill – will have their hands full with Chicago's edge rushers*. *Namely, Khalil Mack has a reputation for wreaking havoc on opposing offenses.

O'Neill spoke to Twin Cities media members on Thursday and called Mack "the best there is" at his position.

"In my mind, he's the best pass rusher that I get to face every year," O'Neill said. "It's an incredible challenge for our group, an incredible opportunity to try to go beat the best."

Mack, who is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, currently leads the Bears with 7.5 sacks, marking his sixth straight season with at least that many. He and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald are the NFL's only two players with at least 7.5 in the past six seasons. Mack has 3.5 career sacks against the Vikings. He wasn't allowed a sack in Minnesota's Week 10 win over Chicago but did record a quarterback hit of Kirk Cousins.

O'Neill, who grinded his way through an eye injury from an inadvertent eye poke at Tampa Bay, knows that Sunday's "Black-and-Blue Division" matchup will require good old-fashioned toughness from the guys up front.

"Anytime you're in any kind of passing situation, communication is obviously going to be key," he said. "Then for us, it's trying to keep our third downs manageable, not being at third-and-10-plus, not being on top of the sticks, and putting ourselves in favorable positions. But we know that's part of the game. They come and we have to handle them.

"I have a ton of respect for not only [the Bears] talent, but the way they're coached, the way they're schemed, and how hard they play. They've got horses everywhere," O'Neill later added. "It's fun, it's exciting. Gotta go try to give them our best and battle them the best we can."

View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Bears for Week 15 during practice at TCO Performance Center.

Ground vs. Pound | By @pcraigers

Dalvin Cook (the ground game) is gearing up for the pound often delivered by a physical Bears defense.

Chicago's stoutness against the run starts with defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and expands to several teammates, including outside linebackers that can set the edges on run plays and allow Hicks to have mass, take up space and thrive.

"He's big, first off. Probably one of the biggest people on the field. I think he does a great job of utilizing two gaps. He plays a lot of gaps, uses his size [well], and he's aggressive," Cook said this week. "He's a good player, you have to give them that. It's fun playing against those guys; it's one of those Bears-Vikings matchups."

Cook was asked about the trash talk that occurred during the first meeting between the division rivals, a fierce affair claimed 19-13 by Minnesota.

"That's how I get myself going to play against this team," Cook said. "You know the type of matchup it's going to be. You know it's going to be a physical Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears matchup. I live in it, I take advantage of it. It's fun playing in it against those guys. I kind of jump out there first."

Cook and the Vikings were able to find more success in the run game after Hicks left the Nov. 16 game with an injury late in the third quarter. Cook finished with 96 yards on 30 carries against the Bears, but 57 of those yards were gained on 11 carries in the fourth quarter.

"Well, any time you can set edges like they can set them with their edge players and then when you have a guy as big as [Hicks] and as powerful as him inside, so the ball gets squeezed and now there he is. So he's an exceptional player, pass rush ability for a very big man, chases the ball very well for a big guy," Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "They've got a lot of players on that side of the ball. They've been good here for a few years running with that same group of people, and last week they were lights-out. So big challenge for us."

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bears.

Notable Number: Three

Including the Vikings-Bears matchup, there are three head-to-head games in Week 15 that feature NFC teams with playoff aspirations.

Minnesota and Chicago kicks off at noon (CT) Sunday from U.S. Bank Stadium. At the same time, Washington will host Seattle.

Washington (6-7) currently leads the NFC East, while Seattle (9-4) is the first Wild Card team at the moment. If the season ended today, the teams would play each other in Washington in the 4-5 matchup.

The other game of interest for the Vikings is Sunday afternoon, when Arizona (7-6) hosts Philadelphia (4-8-1).

The Cardinals currently hold the NFC's final Wild Card spot, while the Eagles are trying to stay alive for a division title.

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