By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The NFC North is often referred to as the “black and blue” division because it is comprised of teams known for hard-hitting defenses.
This Sunday, one such hard-hitting team, the Chicago Bears, will take on another such team, the Minnesota Vikings, at 3:25 local time on the grass of Soldier Field. It is a huge, must-win type of game even this early into the season.
Remember, the NFL season is a marathon even if it is a sprint compared to the other major sports. Things change quickly with injuries and tough stretches in the schedule but so you can’t afford to fall too far behind too early. Think about this to yourself, a loss Sunday would mean the Bears are down a tie break to both Minnesota and Green Bay with losses to each at home.
How often do teams win their division losing their first two divisional games at home? The answer is basically never. Both the Packers and Vikings could be tough teams to leap frog later in the season and to make matters worse, it would require the Bears to beat them on the road.
On the flip side, a win on Sunday sets things up nicely for the Bears over the next couple weeks with a London trip to face the lowly Raiders followed by their bye week.
Finally, there is one other little thing on the line in this game, the winner will be in a tie with the Packers atop the NFC North after the Pack lost to the Eagles on Thursday. Here are the four goals for the Bears to get a crucial NFC North win.
QB-Coach Connection — Head coach Matt Nagy has been somewhat able to unlock a little bit of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky the last couple weeks after the disappointing home opener. Sure, Trubisky has not been good enough and there is only so much coach Nagy can do to put his quarterback in positions to succeed.
A couple huge aspects of this week’s match-up are the preparation of Nagy/Trubisky for this week then how they execute on the field. The Vikings bring in an impressive defense and a run game that can melt the clock away.
Where the Bears are at offensively right now, feels like the run game can’t take over the game and will need aid from the passing attack. Perhaps it will come down to Trubisky’s ability to manage a conservative game plan from Nagy where third down conversions are key with some calculated shots down field.
The quarterback-coach communication and strategy will play a huge factor in win or a loss on Sunday depending on how effective Trubisky is on the field.
The Injured Fallen — Unlike a season ago, the Bears have some serious injuries to deal with early in the season and heading into a crucial NFC North contest. Among the names that are game time decisions is a who’s who on all three phases of the team — defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, safety Eddie Jackson, guard Kyle Long, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, and kicker Eddie Pineiro.
Having all or most of these key players unavailable on Sunday will make quite the mountain for the Bears to climb. Hicks could be the most disturbing of the injuries, he plays such an important role in stopping the other team’s run game. Without Hicks there could be that slight difference the Vikings need to get their superstar running back Dalvin Cook going. Having health is a precious commodity in the NFL.
As we all know the Bears stayed primarily healthy a year ago but fast forward to this year and at a minimum they will be tested with a few key guys dealing with injuries. Certainly before the ball is kicked, the active and inactive list could tell us a lot about a potential edge for either side.
Counter Punch — Looking at the entirety of the these two teams, it seems like most of the three phases should be predictable in terms of their play on the field. The defenses for both teams should have a good day and show why they are the strengths of their teams. Its been a bumpy ride with special teams for both as they have injured kickers and that phase of play is a wildcard for each side with injuries to the kickers and inconsistent overall play.
Neither of the quarterbacks are elite and both could explode for big days or go full Cutler on you turning the ball over at any minute. Where the similarities start to end is when it comes to the run game. Cook and company for the Vikings come in with the second best rushing attack in the league currently, while the Bears come in at 21st.
‘Potentially a big advantage for the Vikings but the Bears rushing attack hasn’t benefited from the same type of commitment that the Vikings have shown. Nagy will likely want to commit to the run a little more in this game than on Monday night, in order to keep the score close against a good team in an important game.
Will this be the breakout game for running back David Montgomery? Certainly if he ends up being the most productive running back on the day then it is likely the Bears will be enjoying victory in Club Dub on Sunday.
Front Sevens — Arguably the most critical matchup of the game with the Bears front seven versus the production of the Vikings front seven. These two teams are pretty similar and have the same top strength which is their defense front.
Disclaimer, both of these teams have very good secondarys as well but the majority of the stars are up front. This game just does not set up to be a track meet or pass happy game (which probably means now it will be). Assuming this game plays out somewhat like we expect, it will be determined by whose front seven can make the biggest difference.
The pass rush plus the run stuffers are versatile and bountiful for both sides. No close lead is safe in this game with strip happy pass rushers all over the field. Injuries will play a factor and maybe even the weather if it turns out to be a slop fest in the rain.
Four quarters will be the minimum to decide this game. Expect nothing less than a stressful, down-to-the-wire nail biter on Sunday. It is a game that the Bears need which means they need their front seven to do what it has done a lot lately which is win the game.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR