EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have a stretch run in their sights, and it starts Sunday night with perhaps their biggest game of the season so far.
The Vikings and Bears will meet in prime time on Sunday Night Football at Soldier Field in Chicago. Kickoff is at 7:20 p.m. (CT).
Minnesota sits at 5-3-1 after having its bye week and is currently in second place in the NFC North.
The Vikings trail Chicago, who is 6-3 overall, by a half game but the winner of Sunday's showdown will be alone in first place.
Minnesota's Week 11 game continues a stretch of three straight division games, with two more to follow in the final two weeks of the 2018 season.
There will be plenty of jockeying for playoff positioning over the next seven games, but the Vikings can take a step in the right direction with a big-time division win against the Bears.
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:
Keep it rolling | By @Eric_L_Smith
The Vikings are an even 2-2 in games played after the bye week in four seasons under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
But their upcoming game after the break is probably the biggest such game in Zimmer's tenure, just because of the stakes that are at play against the Bears.
Win, and the Vikings jump into first place, get a monumental division victory and start a tough four-game stretch on the right foot.
Lose, and Chicago inches ahead in the division race and leaves Minnesota looking to hold on to a spot in the NFC playoffs.
The Vikings are hoping to keep things rolling after winning four of five games heading into the bye.
In those previous five games, Minnesota's improved defense (the unit allowed 18.8 points per game with 20 sacks and 10 takeaways) teamed up with a boosted running attack (114.6 yards per game) to help the Vikings climb into the playoff race.
The Vikings will need a strong defense, an efficient ground game and positive results in the turnover battle to win Sunday's game and start the playoff chase off in the right direction.
Cognizant of Soldier Field conditions | By @LindseyMNSports
Conditions – of the weather and surface variety – could be a factor in the Vikings-Bears showdown at Soldier Field Sunday.
There's always a level of unpredictability when playing in the Windy City, but the Vikings are also playing at Chicago later this season than in the past two seasons, when they played on Monday Night Football in October. The game-night forecast as of Friday was mostly cloudy with a 40-percent chance of precipitation and a high of 34 degrees Fahrenheit.
Vikings players also know they'll need to test the condition of the field during warmups Sunday and decide whether or not longer cleat studs are necessary. In the past, Soldier Field has garnered a reputation for having a less-than-ideal surface, but word on the street is that it's improved this season. Vikings WR Adam Thielen was asked about how field conditions can affect a receiver's route running, and he said it depends on a few factors.
"If you slip early, sometimes you have to be a little cognizant of it. But for the most part, you don't really think about it, and you just go about your business," Thielen said. "But if you do slip a couple times, then that's when you think about maybe taking a couple extra steps or things like that. And the DBs have to deal with it, as well. So it's not like it's just you that's going to be slipping out there.
Thielen said he prefers not to change cleats if possible.
"I try not to [switch] because I don't necessarily love changing the [footwear] that I practice with and play with every single day," Thielen said. "If you have to, you've got to do it, so I'll have them on the sidelines and things like that. But I think the field's going to be pretty good this year."
Defending the red zone | By @pcraigers
The Bears are tied for fourth in scoring defense (19.4 points per game), and the Vikings have worked their way up to 11th (22.7) from 22nd after allowing 27.5 points per game in the first four games of the season.
A big part of Minnesota's climb in the rankings has been its success when teams move the ball inside the Vikings 20-yard line.
Opponents have made 33 trips into the red zone but scored just 13 touchdowns against the Vikings for a touchdown percentage of 39.4.
Chicago's success lies in part to the fact that they've rarely let opponents into the red zone. Through nine games, opponents have made just 19 trips inside the Bears 20, which is the fewest allowed by any team.
When opponents have reached the red zone, however, they've reached the end zone 13 times (68.4 percent of the time).
— Adam Thielen already has eight 100-yard games in 2018, which matches Hall of Famer Randy Moss for the most such games by a Viking in a single season. Moss had eight 100-yard games in the 2000 and 2003 seasons.
— The Bears lead the league with a plus-13 turnover ratio (24 takeaways to 11 giveaways) and are tied for the league lead with four defensive touchdowns, a stat that includes three interception returns for scores. Minnesota has the second-most defensive scores with three (two fumble returns and a pick-six).
— The Vikings and Bears both rank in the top three in rushing defenses. Chicago is second at 84.0 rushing yards allowed per game, while Minnesota ranks third at 88.9 rushing yards given up per game. The Bears allow 3.60 yards per carry (tied for first in the NFL), and the Vikings are fourth at 3.62 yards allowed per attempt.
— The Vikings are an even 18-18 in franchise history on Sunday Night Football. Minnesota had won three straight games in the prime-time slot before falling to New Orleans on SNF earlier this season.
"Big division game on the road this week. Chicago is a really good football team. Very explosive offensively, terrific defensively, do a good job with special teams. We are going to have to play very well Sunday night to be able to win."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.