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Bears-Vikings preview: The cold facts

RICK MORRISSEY

17-7 BEARS

Season: 7-6

RICK TELANDER

16-15 BEARS

Season: 8-5

SEAN JENSEN

20-10 BEARS

Season: 11-2

NEIL HAYES

27-21 BEARS

Season: 8-5

MIKE MULLIGAN

27-23 BEARS

Season: 4-9

MARK POTASH

24-20 BEARS

Season: 6-7

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



MINNEAPOLIS — It was a weird week at Halas Hall.

Bears players actually in the locker room during designated ‘‘open locker room’’ media availability. A news angle the media didn’t have to concoct. Pointed, tweetable comments from Chris Harris (the NFL’s a dictatorship), Charles Tillman (‘‘It doesn’t make too much sense to me’’), Lance Briggs (‘‘What’s the point of playing if Adrian Peterson goes down with a career-ending injury?’’) and Brian Urlacher (‘‘Yes’’). And a Patrick Mannelly news conference to boot.

That would have been a boring week in the life of the ’85 Bears. But times have changed.

They definitely have changed.

In a league that reveres the ‘‘Ice Bowl’’ as one of its greatest games and revels in the ‘‘frozen tundra’’ as part of the lore of the legendary Lombardi-era Packers, the Bears and Vikings — some of them, anyway — are worried about playing on a frozen field.

With all due respect to the concern of the players, it seemed that displeasure with the NFL’s crackdown on vicious hits was the root of some of the most vehement arguments against playing tonight at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium.

No surprise that defensive players were the most ardently opposed to the idea, with the large fines the NFL has levied this season for helmet-to-helmet hits (such as the $75,000 fine against the Steelers’ James Harrison) as the basis for their argument.

Said Harris, a starting safety and arguably the hardest hitter on the Bears: ‘‘With the NFL cracking down on player safety, fining people $50,000, $75,000 for hits because they want the game to be safer, I don’t think it’s very safe to play on a frozen field.’’

For the record, quarterback Jay Cutler and kicker Robbie Gould, who also is the Bears’ NFLPA representative, were among those expressing concerns about the safety of the playing field at TCF Bank Stadium. And some defensive players didn’t have a problem with it.

‘‘I can’t really concern myself with where the event is going to be,’’ tackle Matt Toeaina said. ‘‘All I know is we have to prepare for the Minnesota Vikings.’’

Now the obvious question — obvious to everyone but coach Lovie Smith, of course — is whether the Bears have their eye on the ball tonight. The Bears should have an advantage against a Vikings team that is out of playoff contention, starting a rookie quarterback and rarely plays in cold weather (the Vikes are 0-5 in games when the temperature is below 40 degrees in the last five seasons).

But if some of them are worried about concussions and pulled hamstrings, that’s a distraction that can be a great equalizer on the road.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, the former ’85 Bears cornerback, remembered this week playing the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC title on a cold January day in 1986 at Soldier Field.

‘‘I can remember Jackie Slater [the Rams’ Hall of Fame offensive tackle] coming up to me before the game and saying, ‘Man, you guys need to get a dome over this place,’  ’’ Frazier said. ‘‘Immediately, I knew in pregame, he ain’t thinking about winning no football game. He’s thinking about the cold.’’

This team doesn’t seem like it will fall into that trap.

‘‘I’m talking about it now,’’ Briggs said Friday, ‘‘and when we get out there, obviously we’re going to check it out. But once the whistle blows, it’s time to play football.’’

And no way the Bears lose focus with Smith in charge. Lovie handled the potential distraction of the player-safety/frozen-field issue in the usual manner — by denying it even exists and insulting our intelligence. Reporters goaded Harris and Tillman and Cutler and Briggs and Gould into making it an issue by asking them about it. Yeah, right.

‘‘You guys are talking about it a lot more than our guys are,’’ Smith said after practice Saturday. ‘‘When you ask them those questions, like 99 of 100 people would, they’re going to answer your question on that.

‘‘That’s not an issue with us. We possibly have a chance to win our division. That’s what we’re talking about. We play outside. It’s not an issue for us at all. I left those conversations a long time ago.’’

Is this guy for real? Does he really think this issue was created by the media, like a Rex vs. Kyle story line? Does he not follow Harris on Twitter? Or that the players contacted the NFLPA about the matter?

It’s that kind of obtuse thinking — that kind of detachment from reality — that scares people about Smith. And convinces them that much of his success — like a victory tonight over yet another team starting a third-string quarterback — is in spite of himself.

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

ON THE GROUND

The Bears dented the Vikings’ formidable Williams Wall in their 27-13 victory at Soldier Field on Nov. 14, as Matt Forte (21-69) and Chester Taylor (11-33) had just enough success to provide balance. The Vikings were ripped for 213 yards vs. the Giants as Brandon Jacobs (13-116, one TD) and Ahmad Bradshaw (11-103, 48-yard TD) each gained 100-plus yards. Bears don’t have quite that firepower, but they’ll likely have to be as good or better than they were at home, considering the expected conditions. Taylor, the former Viking, has gained 87 yards on 50 carries in the last six games. Jay Cutler, who has eight scrambles of 10 or more yards, had a 25-yard run vs. the Vikings at home.

KEY MATCHUP

Allen has 81/2 sacks, nine tackles-for-loss, 11 QB hits, an INT and a forced fumble in five games vs. the Bears. He had two sacks, a tackle-for-loss and two QB hits at Soldier Field last month and was just starting to get in gear. Omiyale has mostly been solid as he gets used to his third position in two years, but he’ll likely need help tonight.

IN THE AIR

Cutler’s average passer rating in night games with the Bears is 64.5 (eight TDs, 13 INTs), with one game better than 82.5 — but that was against the Vikings last year when he threw four TDs in a 36-30 OT victory at Soldier Field. Cutler struggled in inclement conditions vs. the Patriots last week, so the combination of a night game and single-digit temperatures doesn’t bode well. Johnny Knox didn’t handle the conditions very well last week either, with a fumble and a drop, but he had five catches for 90 yards vs. the Vikes at Soldier Field. Protection will be an issue. Jared Allen sacked Cutler twice at Soldier Field and has 81/2 sacks in his past six games. Forte and Taylor could be big factors.

WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL

ON THE GROUND

The Bears seem to do a better job on Adrian Peterson each time they see him. Peterson, who has 11 TDs in seven career games against the Bears, was held to 51 yards on 17 carries in Chicago, including 33 on 15 carries after an early 20-yard run. Peterson still is fifth in rushing (1,149 yards, 4.7 per carry, 11 TDs), but he has gained 100 yards or more just once in the Vikings’ last seven games. Rookie Toby Gerhart isn’t the home-run threat Peterson is, but he’s an effective change of pace and has to be accounted for. The Bears still are second in the NFL in rushing defense (87.9 yards per game), but they have allowed an average of 121 rushing yards in their last three games.

KEY MATCHUP

Urlacher is having an outstanding comeback season and was one of the few Bears to play well vs. the Patriots last week — 11 tackles, a sack, three TFLs, three pass breakups. With the guile of a veteran who still has above-average speed, Urlacher can make life miserable for a rookie QB like Webb.

IN THE AIR

The Vikings drafted Webb in the sixth round with the intention of turning him into a wide receiver, but Webb, who threw for 2,299 yards and 21 TDs last year at UAB, stuck as a No. 3 QB and now will get his first NFL start. Webb is a great athlete who at 6-4, 220 pounds has run a 4.43 40 and has a 42-inch vertical jump — so no matter what he does with his arm, he’s always a threat to run (he rushed for 1,427 yards and 11 TDs last year at UAB). Having Percy Harvin, who missed two games with migraine issues, and Sidney Rice on the field won’t hurt. But that could be negated by the loss of guard Steve Hutchinson, who is out with a broken thumb.

X-FACTOR

The Vikings are the home team, but the switch to an outdoor stadium could work against them, with temperatures expected to drop into single digits. In the past five seasons, the Vikings have played only five games in temps below 40 degrees — and they’re 0-5. But the Bears didn’t exactly look comfortable in the cold last week at Soldier Field, so it’s up for grabs which team will benefit by the venue change.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bears won the battle in Chicago when Devin Hester returned a KO 68 yards and a punt 42 yards, and he continues to have a knack for playing well in the spotlight. Even without top kick returner Harvin, special teams was about the only area in which the Vikings excelled last week vs. the Giants — Lorenzo Booker had a 49-yard KO return, Greg Camarillo had a 52-yard punt return and Chris Kluwe had four punts inside the 20.



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