What to watch for in 'MNF': Vikings-Bears

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  • By Jeremy Bergman NFL.com
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The Minnesota Vikings' attempt to right their ship takes center stage on Monday night.

The previously undefeated Vikings were exposed by the Eagles, a potential playoff team, last week in a turnover-riddled loss. After getting along with Sam Bradford, a quarterback the team had acquired just a week before the season, and Jerick McKinnon in the backfield for six games, Minnesota's offense crumbled once it faced a consistent pass rush from an opportunistic defense. The loss was bad; producing a blueprint for their own demise was worse.

Lucky for the Nords, Minnesota's next opponent is a familiar one. The 2016 Chicago Bears are no Monsters of the Midway, rather Pandas in a Playpen. Chicago boasts an offense that threatens no one and is anticipating the return of its nonchalant starting quarterback. Jay Cutler is slated to return Monday night after sitting out five weeks with a thumb injury and nearly losing his job to Brian Hoyer; there were signs he might've if Hoyer hadn't been injured in Thursday night's loss to the Packers. Can the starter motivate Chicago's middling unit to a prime time divisional win?

Here's what we'll be watching for when the 5-1 Vikings take on the 1-6 Bears in an early November NFC North showdown:

1. One week ahead of Halloween, Bradford's Cinderella carriage turned back into a rotting pumpkin. Against his former team -- who knew his tendencies all too well -- the Vikings quarterback had his worst outing in purple. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes, throwing one egregious red zone pick while taking six sacks. Bradford has always oscillated between living up to his "first-overall" billing and playing like a turnover-prone backup, but his extended success to start this season looked to be the start of an upward trend; that is, before last week. Now the quarterback will have to get back on track against Chicago, who boasts a pass rush of its own.

2. The Bears' linebacking corps isn't as formidable as peak Chicago units, but the combination of Leonard Floyd and Willie Young -- 8.5 sacks combined -- blitzing on the outside and tackling machines in Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan could throw Bradford off his game. While the Bears' offense toils away, Chicago's defensive front has impressed, tallying at least two sacks in six of seven games this season. The Bears' D also performs better at home, surrendering 7.3 fewer PPG, 111.6 fewer total YPG and 46 fewer rushing YPG. The return of a healthy Pernell McPhee last week propelled the unit even further and will do so again on Monday.

3. If the Vikings want to be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders, they'll need to balance their offense. Before last week's loss, Bradford had been serviceable, but Minnesota's run game had been consistently poor. After losing Adrian Peterson in Week 2, his backups failed to pick up the slack; the Vikes rank last in yards per carry (2.6) and average yards after contact (0.9). On Monday night, Minnesota will be without Jerick McKinnon, who is out with an ankle injury, leaving only Matt Asiata, former Broncos back Ronnie Hillman and Zach Line to carry the load. Behind a shoddy offensive line that has struggled to pass protect and run block in equal measure, can Minnesota's backs force the Bears to put bodies in the box? Or will they slink to their sixth sub-100-yard showing in seven games?

4. Alshon Jeffery is in a bad place. The Bears wide receiver is posting a career-low output in a contract year, but it's not all his fault; his starting quarterback went down in Week 2 and the backup fell in Week 7. Jeffery is getting looks, but he has yet to record a touchdown; Jeffery's 55 targets with a touchdown reception are the most in the league this season. His lack of production with free agency looming after the season has made him a prime fixture in the trade deadline rumor mill, though there's nothing to reports that he's being shopped to the Eagles. Unfortunately for the Bears' top offensive threat, his season doesn't get any easier against Minnesota, who boast arguably the top cornerback duo in the league with Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman. So let's recap: a tough matchup in the secondary, plus the return of his aloof starting QB, with a dash of trade rumors on top. That's a toxic recipe. Speaking of...

5. This reeks of a blooper-reel Cutler game. The Bears quarterback wasn't exactly enthused when asked this week whether he feels he still has the support of coach John Fox, replying bluntly, "He doesn't have choice, I guess, at this point." Such is Cutler's relationship with the Bears, the city of Chicago, the media, humans, etc. Too bad, this is what you get. While Cutler may not be at risk of losing his job on Monday night, a poor performance down the stretch might cement Chicago's willingness to draft a quarterback with a high pick in 2017 and start anew. Cutler's job interview begins on Monday night against a Vikings defense that leads the league in turnover differential (+11). Good luck.

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