The magnitude of Vikings vs. Bears on Sunday night can be explained by the division standings, the respective records and the game being flexed to a prime-time slot.
Or this …
Two Chicago TV stations sent helicopters racing to Soldier Field this week to film beleaguered kicker Cody Parkey practicing field goals after he clanked the uprights four times against the Detroit Lions last week.
Breaking news, Parkey makes a 40-yarder without hitting the upright in an empty Soldier Field. Full details at 10.
If the Bears were in the midst of another crummy season, Parkey could have kicked in solitude. Nobody would have noticed or cared.
The city of Chicago cares now because the Bears, at 6-3, find themselves leading the NFC North this late in the season for the first time since 2012. The Vikings are nipping at their heels at 5-3-1.
Division games always carry extra significance. Division games in mid-November with first place at stake get prime-time treatment.
“Playing in prime-time games is something that we’ve been doing a lot around here lately,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Which is a good thing, because that means you’re a good football team.”
How good? That will be determined for both teams.
The Vikings found their stride, particularly on defense, in winning four of their past five games before the bye. Mike Zimmer’s defense finally looked like its old self in recent weeks.
The Bears rank in the top five in scoring offense and scoring defense, which is textbook formula for success.
But neither the Vikings nor the Bears have defeated a team with a winning record. So it’s fair to wonder where each stands in the NFC pecking order in overall strength. The winner will gain sole possession of first place in the North and remove its haven’t-beat-a-winner asterisk.
“This is what it’s about,” running back Latavius Murray said. “Anyone who loves this game and loves playing the game, what better stage than the two statistically best teams in the division right now competing to win the division.”
The division won’t be won Sunday, but the outcome could shape how the race unfolds in December. Nobody seems primed to run away with the division so head-to-head matchups become critical. Kirk Cousins hears the “big game” chatter a lot. He takes issue with that premise.
“If it takes an extra sense of urgency for a big game, I would say, ‘What were we doing the other nine games so far?’ ” he asked rhetorically. “Hopefully we’re bringing it every week regardless of the situation.”
Players are conditioned to focus on the present, but Rudolph took notice of the time slots for the Vikings’ first four games out of the bye and what that signifies.
In order, they play Sunday night in Chicago, Sunday night against Green Bay, 3:30 p.m. at New England and Monday night at Seattle.
“So obviously we’re playing in some big games if we’re playing in all these prime-time games,” Rudolph said.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson shrugged over the significance of having Sunday’s game flexed to night.
“Don’t matter,” he said. “We could play in a parking lot.”
Well, Chicago is a tough-guy town, as Mike Tice once informed everyone.
The Vikings haven’t won back-to-back games in Soldier Field since 1999-2000. They have faced less talented Bears teams than this one.
The Bears finished 5-11 last season so they already have surpassed their win total. Some might label that a surprise, but no such thing exists in the modern NFL.
In every season since the league expanded to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous year.
Pop-up seasons remain the rule, not the exception. The Bears are trying to provide more evidence of that truism. The Vikings want to re-establish their foothold as king of the division.
“I’m hyped, man,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “I’m hyped, I’m hyped, I’m hyped.”
Can’t blame him. Every game counts the same. They don’t all feel the same in importance.