EAGAN, Minn. — It's not even October yet, but Sunday's game between the Vikings and Bears already has a playoff-like feel to it.
While the loser of the Week 4 tilt certainly won't be out of the playoff race by any means, a loss by either Minnesota or Chicago will put that team at 2-2 through the first quarter of the season.
But more importantly, whoever comes away disappointed Sunday will be 0-2 in the NFC North, as both teams have already lost to Green Bay.
That's not to say the loser Sunday is out of the division race either, but the winners of the past two NFC North titles (Chicago in 2018 and Minnesota in 2017) would be looking at an uphill climb to claim another division title.
The Packers are 3-1 following Thursday night's loss, while the Lions are 2-0-1 entering Sunday's home game against Kansas City.
As for the winner of Sunday's game? It will sit at 3-1 and have a split in division games so far. Both of Chicago's division games have come at home, so you know the Bears will be hungry for a victory at Soldier Field.
Sunday marks the Vikings second road game of 2019, and second road game in NFC North play. The truth be told, Minnesota would have likely taken a split at Green Bay and at Chicago when the schedule came out.
The chance is there for the Vikings to climb to 3-1 and position themselves well for the second quarter of the season. But it won't come easy against a Bears squad that is looking to do the exact same thing.
"We all understand it's a division game on the road this week against a really good team, a great opportunity for us to steal one on the road and get to 3-1 and have somewhat of a head start or at least get back to where we want to be in our division," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "A great opportunity … and we understand the challenge that's ahead of us come Sunday."
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Limit the mistakes | By @Eric_L_Smith
The best way to get a win at Soldier Field? Keep it clean.
That means reducing the number of explosive plays for Chicago's offense when Minnesota's defense is on the field, and limiting penalties, turnovers and negative plays when the Vikings are on offense.
The opportunities could be there for the Vikings defense, as they have three interceptions (two by Anthony Harris and one by Harrison Smith) against Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the past two games at Soldier Field.
Offensively, the Vikings must stay on schedule and stick with a run game that has been among the league's best so far in 2019.
The more Cousins drops back to pass, the more chances Bears linebacker Khalil Mack will have to wreck the game.
Chicago's defense feasts off turnovers, as the Bears had five takeaways in Week 3, including a pick-six from safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The Vikings were troubled by turnovers in a loss at Chicago last season. Dalvin Cook fumbled in the red zone, and Cousins threw two interceptions, including a pick-six as the Vikings were looking for a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
Cousins explained the importance of holding onto the ball.
"For me, I think it's two hands on the football. Not only two hands, but really, if you feel like you're in a crowd, to no longer remain a passer," Cousins said. "Play for the sack. Sometimes a sack is OK if you feel like you're going down.
"When you try to fight to get out of a sack, that's often when the fumbles can happen," Cousins added. "It will always be a risk-reward balance of feeling like, 'I can escape here and make a play,' or knowing when to say, 'Uncle, you got us on this down.' We have to play for the next play, too, and not lose the game on one snap, so that's where I'm focused, playing smart football."
The Vikings are a talented enough team that they don't need to be perfect Sunday to beat the Bears.
But give Chicago too many chances with miscues and mistakes, and the odds of getting a win at Soldier Field — where Minnesota has two wins in the past nine tries — will get even tougher.
Significance of special teams | By @LindseyMNSports
It's not uncommon for Vikings-Bears showdowns at Soldier Field to be grind-it-out, down-to-the-wire contests, so it's important for Minnesota to execute on all phases, including special teams.
I'm keeping my eye on a handful of special teams aspects this weekend, starting with the return game.
Chicago has talented personnel in Cordarrelle Patterson, who played his first four seasons in Minnesota, and Tarik Cohen. Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf called the duo "dangerous weapons" in the Bears return phases.
"We take that seriously," Maalouf said. "We've got to be fundamentally sound in everything that we do in the coverage phases, and that's probably the most important thing, and finish each play because those guys gain yards after the initial hit. We've been emphasizing to our guys that we have to finish and be very fundamentally sound in our coverage lanes and responsibilities."
The Vikings brought back a familiar punt returner in Marcus Sherels after Chad Beebe suffered an ankle injury against the Raiders last week. A 10-year veteran, Sherels has proven a reliable presence in the return game and has made big plays at Chicago. In 2015, he ran a punt back 65 yards for a touchdown; the Vikings went on to win that game 23-20 with a walk-off field goal by Blair Walsh.
Speaking of field goals, I wouldn't be surprised if either or both teams end up kicking during Sunday's game. Dan Bailey has been largely consistent for the Vikings and went 2-for-2 on field goals last week, including a 50-yarder. Eddie Pineiro has been impressive for the Bears, most notably knocking for a 53-yard field goal to lift Chicago over Denver in Week 2. It's worth mentioning that Pineiro is battling a knee injury and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He was limited Friday and is listed as questionable on Chicago's injury report.
Bears run game poses multiple threats | By @pcraigers
In the 10 games between the Vikings and Bears since Mike Zimmer's hire in 2014, the team that has rushed for the most yards has won the game nine times.
The only exception was in the 2016 finale when the Bears started quarterback Matt Barkley, who has opened one game since. The Vikings claimed that game 38-10.
The rushing battle hasn't even been close in the past three matchups.
Minnesota outrushed Chicago 147 to 30 in the 2017 regular-season finale.
The Bears swept the Vikings last season in part by dominating the rushing yards: 148 to 22 at Soldier Field and 163 to 63 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Jordan Howard departed in free agency, but the Bears drafted David Montgomery, who leads Chicago with 147 yards on 37 carries. The rookie out of Iowa State has the Bears only rushing touchdown of 2019.
Former Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was brought in during free agency and has Chicago's longest offensive play of the season, a 46-yard run at Denver.
Mike Davis, who had 514 yards and four rushing touchdowns in Seattle last season, hasn't been utilized much yet this year (nine carries for 22 yards; six receptions for 17 yards). Nor has Tarik Cohen, at least in terms of running (eight rushes for 16 yards). Cohen, however, does have 12 receptions for 82 yards.
The bottom line is that Chicago can be varied with its running game because of its diverse personnel.
"It's going to be a challenge. Obviously playing the run and stopping the pass, being in position for that," Harris said. "That's part of trying to get on the film study, get a feel for where they want to go with the ball in different situations, how they want to attack you, and then just knowing what defense you're in and how we have to adjust."
Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said the Vikings have prepped for multiple scenarios.
"You take Cohen, he's everywhere. He's sort of like Cordarrelle, they use him everywhere. He's outside as a number one receiver, he's in the slot as a receiver, he's in the backfield, he's lined up in a spread formation, coming back into the backfield," Edwards said. "We're going to definitely have to be aware of where he's at and what he's doing. That's another package that they have, and his skill set and his speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, catch the ball on the perimeter, we've got to do a good job of paying attention to the details of what we've got going in those situations."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Bears.
— The Vikings rank second in the NFL, behind Baltimore, in rushing yards with 581. Through three games, Minnesota is averaging 193.7 yards on the ground per contest after averaging 100 yards fewer (93.3) per game last season.
— The Vikings have allowed zero points in the third quarter in 2019, the fewest in the NFL. Chicago has the second-fewest with six points allowed.
— The Vikings offensive line did not allow a single sack of Cousins against the Raiders in Week 3. Cousins has been sacked just twice thus far on the season.
— Minnesota has gone 6-4 against the Bears since Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer took the helm in 2014, and are 2-3 at Soldier Field in that time span.
"This is going to be a game of the defenses … what defense is going to play better on Sunday? What defense is going to stop the run better? What team is going to play the pass better? I think it's going to be the game of the defenses. We have to go out there and give our offense more opportunities to get out there on the field to score points."
— Everson Griffen on Sunday's game in Chicago.
The Vikings will be on the road for the second straight game with a Week 5 game against the Giants up next. This is the first of two sets of back-to-back road games for Minnesota in 2019. The other is Week 8 at Kansas City and Week 9 at Dallas.