- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are five things to watch when the Bears battle the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium on Monday night.
The elements: Bears coach Lovie Smith downplayed the notion that his team is more concerned with the elements than the actual contest, saying most of the pregame discussion is media-driven. The truth is at least one high-ranking official has expressed anger with all the talk from the team and said the Bears need to focus on the game, in which they could clinch the NFC North with a victory after the Packers lost to New England on Sunday night. Besides that, Minnesota will face an adjustment period, too. It's important to remember the Vikings haven't played a game outdoors in Minnesota in 29 years.
Jay Cutler: Cutler said the Bears need to be playing their best ball in the few weeks before a potential playoff run. That all starts with Cutler, who threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions with passer ratings of 100 or better in the two weeks before a horrid performance against the Patriots in which he finished with two interceptions and a passer rating of 32.9. With three games remaining, Cutler needs to catch a groove with good decision-making and efficient play. As good as the defense is, the Bears can go only as far as Cutler takes them.
The receivers: Receivers fill a vital role in Mike Martz's offense, but the current crop of players at the position haven't exactly held up their end of the bargain. Between Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis and Devin Aromashodu, the Bears produced just two 100-yard outings all season. Nobody within the organization says it, but Martz's offenses typically feature much better play from the receivers. Cutler seems to have found a comfort zone with Bennett -- his former college teammate at Vanderbilt -- which needs to continue in the next few games. Knox, the No. 1 receiver, hasn't caught more than three passes in three consecutive games. That's not good enough.
Julius Peppers and the front four: Vikings rookie quarterback Joe Webb didn't see his first NFL action until two weeks ago against Buffalo, when he returned the opening kickoff. Now the rookie is poised to start against one of the NFL's most dominant defensive fronts. Since finishing without a sack in the first meeting between the teams on Nov. 14, Peppers has logged sacks in four consecutive games. With Peppers expected to line up on both sides (watch the defensive end against left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who he's been known to dominate), the Vikings will deploy extra help to neutralize him. The rest of the defensive line -- especially Israel Idonije -- needs to take advantage of the residual double teams. The Vikings upgraded Brett Favre to questionable on Monday, so if Webb does falter, will No. 4 make an appearance?
How the Bears defend Adrian Peterson: The referees haven't blown the whistle to kick off the game, but already, the Vikings are a one-dimensional team, assuming Favre doesn't play. Look for the Vikings to force-feed the ball to Peterson, who rushed for just 51 yards in the first meeting between the teams. Because Webb doesn't pose much of a threat, the Bears likely will load the box to neutralize the running back (expect a lot of Cover 3 looks), who has been slowed recently by a thigh bruise. The defensive line needs to attack and control the gaps, allowing the linebackers to scrape and make plays. Coming off an outing in which they tackled poorly against the Patriots, the Bears need to rebound to be able to consistently stop Peterson.