Vikings, Bears an NFC North classic


Sunday's matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears (ESPN, 8 ET) brings together two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum. On one side, the Vikings have one of the largest and most experienced offensive lines in football. On the other, the Bears offensive line is still finding its way and learning how to come together as a unit.

The single most important element of this game is how well Chicago's offensive line handles Minnesota's defense. If the Bears offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, they'll have a chance to try some things offensively. If they can't, this game could get ugly in a hurry.

But what favors the Bears is that this is an NFC North matchup, and tradition tells us that it doesn't matter which team is playing the other -- none of these games make sense. So, we can't assess what might happen by looking back at the Bear's 49-7 Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. And we can't make too much of the Vikings beating the Green Bay Packers. Throw that all out the window and expect the unexpected. It will be a classic black-and-blue divisional battle.

Keys for the Vikings
The Vikings are a unique combination of hardcore experience and youthful enthusiasm. They could easily be a surprise team in the NFL this year. Despite losing RB Michael Bennett for at least half the season, the Vikings have two offensive constants in Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss, who'll soon find out just how good they can be.

During the offsesaon, the Vikings spent a lot of time harping on Culpepper to get rid of the ball and stay away from negative plays and forced balls. That's a difficult task for a play-maker like Culpepper. But from what we saw in Week 1, he's learning. However, Culpepper was also responsible for both of the Vikings fumbles (one on a kill-the-clock running play), so he needs to continue working on protecting the football.

He's got a big weapon in Moss. In fact, it's difficult to find enough superlatives to describe Moss's ability. Last season, as the leader baton was passed down from Cris Carter, these guys struggled to figure out who they were. And up to this point in their careers, they've relied mostly on natural talent. Both Culpepper and Moss worked hard at getting stronger in the offseason. Now, they're working at their trade, and that's when players break out and become really special.

Lack of depth hurt the Vikings last season. Now, they've become a younger team. And without Bennett, they are relying to a degree on running-back-by-committee with Moe Williams, Doug Chapman and Onterrio Smith.

Of course, offensive stability comes from the five guys up front, and this is a solid line. The addition of former Giants tackle Mike Rosenthal allows Chris Lewinski to return to guard, where he can be an All-Pro. And they've got some good backups in Lewis Kelly and Everett Lindsay.

Defensively, the Vikings were like people rolling through a turnstile. The linebackers were inexperienced and there was little stability at corner -- we saw constant change. Now, LB Chris Claiborne gives them a big presence and they've got two solid corners in Ken Irvin and Denard Walker. Also, Corey Chavous did a great job picking off two Favre passes in Week 1.

With an improved secondary, the Vikings have more flexibility in their defensive line. This defense deserves credit for rattling Brett Favre Week 1. Certainly Favre tenses up sometimes, but Fred Robbins has been tearing it up since the beginning of mini-camp. They're excited about his abilities. Chris Hovan went out and bought a replica Favre jersey and hung it in his locker through the entire offseason. He's obsessive and nuts, and you've got to love him.

The fact that Greg Biekert, Henri Crockett and Nick Rogers have been there another year gives them stability. Then you add Claiborne, Lance Johnstone and E.J. Henderson and you have a good combination of both youth and experience.

On a final note, the Vikings also added special teams coach Rusty Tillman and defensive coordinator George O'Leary to their staff, so they've successfully filled holes in all areas.

Here are three keys the Vikings must focus on to beat the Bears:

1. Culpepper must manage
Throw the ball away, don't give negative plays and protect the football. It's important that Culpepper manage this game well.

2. Establish the run
The Vikings were No. 1 at running the ball last year. They must continue to run the ball well to create opportunities for Randy Moss.

3. Contain Stewart
Just as Culpepper is a threat with his legs, Kordell Stewart is among the elite running quarterbacks, so the Vikings must contain him.

Keys for the Bears
A beat up Bears' team struggled last season. So, they invested a lot of time this preseason teaching their new QB, Kordell Stewart, the system. In previous years, the Bears could turn to Jim Miller and Chris Chandler which enabled them to focus more on working on the passing and running game. Now, with a newly acquired quarterback in a new John Shoop system, it's going to take a lot more time.

Starters don't play much in the preseason, and during mini-camps and quarterback sessions, Stewart was busy learning the offense. During that process, he didn't have much time to spend with Marty Booker, Dez White and David Terrell, so that aspect of his game was neglected and ultimately suffered. What we saw in Week 1 was a result of the domino effect -- new QB + new system = learning curve.

The Bears essentially need to use the first month of the season to gel as a team and figure out who they are. They have the ability to win games, but they can only move as quickly as their skill players and offensive line can improve.

Remember, it wasn't that long ago that Stewart recorded the highest pass completion percentage in Steelers' history and was voted to the pro bowl team. Also, Anthony Thomas is a pro bowl back, Marty Booker had 97 catches last year and new TE Dez Clarke is a great addition -- so they've got some things in the works. It's just a matter of fine tuning.

Defensively, there are some mismatches in terms of size between the Bears' secondary and Vikings wide receivers. But Jerry Azuma and R.W. McQuarters are veterans who have been challenged before. The strength of the Bears is up the middle with Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown and Mike Green. Bryan Robinson is also going to have to play well.

Defensive Coordinator Greg Blache has done an excellent job of containing Culpepper in the past. He won't let Culpepper beat his defense with his legs -- he'll make him throw the ball.

The Bears need to keep this game close. It's got to be a 60-minute football game. They've got to run the ball with some sort of efficiency to keep Minnesota's offense off the field. If this game boils down to a field goal, the Bears will have accomplished a lot.

Here are three keys the Bears must focus on to beat the Vikings:

1. Limit big plays
Plain and simple, the Bears can't allow Moss to make the big catches.

2. Quick start
Recapture some of the confidence lost in Week 1 by jumping out to an early lead.

3. Protect Stewart
Stewart needs to do everything he can to keep the chains moving. The offensive line must control the line of scrimmage.

A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.