Division games always mean a little more, and that will be the case when the Vikings and Bears meet tonight on Monday Night Football.
But this matchup between NFC North rivals will also carry a little added weight, as both teams are currently on the outside looking in of the NFC playoff picture. And both teams likely feel they can be in the mix for a postseason berth in the second half of the season.
Chad Graff, Arif Hasan and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic recently broke down tonight's game, with key matchups and a score projection from each.
Graff wrote that he'll be watching a battle in the trenches as the Vikings try to get their red-hot run game going against a stout Bears defense.
The Vikings offensive line against the Bears defensive line. Minnesota's front five has done a much better job the last two games. But Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook must have nightmares after the way the offensive line played in previous games in Chicago. So if the Vikings can keep Cousins clean and open a few holes for Cook, that'll go a long way.
The Vikings rank fourth in the NFL at 160.4 rushing yards per game, but have just 62 combined yards on 30 carries in their past two trips to Solider Field.
Hasan's key matchup is also when Minnesota's offense is on the field, but he'll be watching how the Vikings skill players fare against the Bears secondary.
Vikings receivers vs. Bears corners. Both units are having amazing years, and the tandem of Jaylon Johnson and Kyle Fuller has been one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL this year. Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson could be more than a match for them, but they'll need to win consistently for Cousins to have a chance against this tough Bears passing defense. How this matchup goes probably determines the game.
Krawczynski, meanwhile, has his eye on a coaching matchup. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer calls Minnesota's defensive plays, and he'll be going up against Bears Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor, who is taking over play-calling duties for Chicago's offense.
It sure looks like the Vikings wily old defensive coach is rounding into form over the last couple of weeks. Now he faces a beleaguered Bears offense with a new play caller after Head Coach Matt Nagy handed those duties to Lazor this week. Zimmer's ability to scheme with a defense that continues to be short-handed will be aimed at prolonging the Bears offensive misery.
The Bears rank 30th in the NFL at 19.8 points per game, while the Vikings defense ranks 27th at 29.3 points allowed per game.
As for the final score, Graff (21-20) and Hasan (20-17) picked the Vikings to win. Krawczynski went with a 20-17 Chicago victory.
Graff noted that while he is aware of Minnesota's struggles at Soldier Field — four wins in the past 20 trips — he believes Zimmer's squad is getting hot at the right time.
I've picked the Vikings to go to Soldier Field and beat the Bears plenty of times in the past, and by the third quarter, I typically feel pretty silly for doing so. But these are two teams heading in different directions. So I'm taking what feels like the better team in this one, even if the Vikings never seem to win in Chicago.
Krawczynski wrote that while he didn't pick Minnesota to win, a Vikings victory could set them up for a wild finish in the second-half of the 2020 season.
I want to pick the Vikings. I really, really do. But the PTSD of the Vikings at Soldier Field over the years just isn't allowing me to do it. The Bears are reeling and the Vikings are rolling, but this is still the kind of game that the Vikings have stubbed their toes on so many times in the past. I will say that if they do win, they are poised to make things VERY interesting in the coming weeks. This is the fork-in-the-road moment for their season.
Kickoff on ESPN's Monday Night Football is at 7:15 p.m. (CT). The game will be simulcast on WCCO in the Twin Cities.
Goessling assesses Zimmer at 2020 halfway point
The Vikings are 3-5 at the halfway point of their season, with the first of eight regular-season games kicking off tonight in Chicago.
Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune recently looked at various position groups at the midway point and ended the series by looking at how 2020 has gone for Zimmer and his staff.
He started with where things stood this offseason.
The Vikings made big bets on stability this offseason, with Mike Zimmer asking [Gary] Kubiak to step from an advisory role to offensive coordinator duties a day after the Browns made Kevin Stefanski their head coach. With George Edwards leaving for Dallas, the Vikings promoted [Andre] Patterson and Adam Zimmer to a shared coordinator role, while keeping them in charge of the defensive line and linebackers, respectively.
[Daronte] Jones, who came over from Cincinnati, had worked for Mike Zimmer's old boss Marvin Lewis there. And ownership gave new deals to both Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, extending their partnership through 2023. Especially with the coronavirus pandemic wiping out much of the offseason schedule, the Vikings believed they'd have an advantage because of their stability, while working with a group of young players to remake the defense in real time.
Midway through the season, the Vikings have had some ups and downs on defense. Through six games, Minnesota was among the league's worst teams in a handful of major statistical categories.
But in back-to-back wins over Green Bay and Detroit, Goessling wrote that Zimmer has shown signs he is transforming Minnesota's defense on the fly.
The Vikings back-to-back wins over the Packers and Lions have muted some criticism about the team's decision to give him a new contract before training camp, rather than letting the season play out in the final year of his deal. But a strong second half would certainly help his case, both in the public eye and (more importantly) in the minds of ownership, as the Vikings try to keep enthusiasm for the team high in a year without fans in the stands.
Zimmer is in his seventh season in Minnesota. The Vikings finished in the top 11 in points allowed per game in each of his first six seasons and were in the top half of the league in yards allowed per game every year from 2014-2019.
Vikings Postgame LIVE
After every Vikings game this season, make sure to log onto the team's digital and social platforms to watch Vikings Postgame Live, a new streaming postgame show that will provide fans with highlights, postgame sound from Head Coach Mike Zimmer and players, analysis and much more.