1. Finish in the fourth quarter. Here’s a blind test of which team is which:
Team A: 29.9 points/game (5th), 19.4 points allowed/game (4th), 4th in DVOA
Team B: 24.6 points/game (15th), 22.7 points allowed/game (11th), 14th in DVOA
The Bears are Team A, and the Vikings are Team B. The point here being: The Bears are, on paper, a better team than the Vikings — and, actually, it’s not particularly close.
But what the Vikings have that the Bears don’t is experience winning together. While Kirk Cousins wasn’t on this team last year, the same core playmakers remain: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph on offense; Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr (who’s questionable for Sunday’s game), Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on defense. Those guys led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game a year ago, which included that miraculous win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round.
Minnesota, as an offense, isn’t markedly better in the fourth quarter (5.6 yards/play) than the other three periods, but they’re not worse than their full-game average (5.8 yards/play). Their defense, on the other hand, is at its best in the final 15 minutes, allowing 4.7 yards/play, lower than the 5.3 yards/play they’ve allowed this season.
The Bears, meanwhile, have struggled in the fourth quarter on offense (4.9 yards/play, about one yard fewer than their season average) and defense (7.0 yards/play, two yards more than their season average). Matt Nagy and this team can do plenty over the first 45 minutes to make sure it’s not a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, but even if that’s the case, they’ll need to be better down the stretch to beat Minnesota.
2. Make big plays on defense. Thielen has 100 or more receiving yards in eight of his nine games this year, while Diggs has gone over 90 yards in half of his eight games. While Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller are playing at Pro Bowl levels and might very well be capable of shutting both receivers down, the expectation here is that Thielen and Diggs will get their yards on Sunday night. What will key the Bears’ defense, then, will be big plays: Interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, tackles for loss, etc. The good news: Cousins has been sacked four times in four games this year, three of which the Vikings lost. Hitting home on Cousins and making him uncomfortable should result in the kind of game-shifting plays the Bears’ defense will need.
3. Stay on schedule on offense. Opposing offenses are averaging 8.6 yards-to-gain on third down against Minnesota’s defense, which is about a yard and a half better than the league average. What’s interesting about that third down yards-to-gain number is it’s actually higher than what opposing offenses average on second down (8.1) against this defense. Needing to win on third down is sort of a non-starter for the Bears’ offense, given the three teams that beat Minnesota (the Bills, Rams and Saints) converted only 11 of 34 third down tries. But picking up quick first downs, or at least generating some third-and-short downs, can mitigate that strength of Minnesota’s defense.
Prediction: Bears 27, Vikings 17. Just about every worst-to-first team has a “statement game” in which they prove they’ve arrived against a good team, or at least a team generally thought to be good. The Bears are a better team than the Vikings entering Sunday, but still have to prove — perhaps to themselves — that they’re a better team than the defending NFC North champions. Consider this a gut feeling: This is the game the Bears do just that, taking the step from being a potential playoff contender to a legit favorite to win their division.