By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last time the Minnesota Vikings played the Chicago Bears, they were well on their way to an important division victory on the road.
Until, that is, Jay Cutler, ruined their day. The Vikings led by six points with 3:15 to play at Soldier Field on Sept. 15. Then Cutler drove the Bears 66 yards, finishing the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett with 10 seconds to win it.
Cutler will not play in the rematch Sunday at the Metrodome because of a high left ankle sprain. A reason for the Vikings to celebrate? Well, they don’t exactly have fond memories of facing backup quarterback Josh McCown, either.
Back in 2003, McCown was making his third career start for the lowly Arizona Cardinals in the season finale. The 9-6 Vikings need a win over the 3-12 Cards to clinch the NFC North.
The Vikings led 17-12 as the final seconds ticked down and the Cardinals facing a fourth-and-24 from the Minnesota 28. McCown threw the final pass of the game — of Arizona’s season — into the corner of the end zone, and Nate Poole was there to haul it in for an 18-17 victory.
“No! Noooo!” Vikings radio play-by-play man Paul Allen yelled into the microphone in a call that still holds a prominent place in this tortured franchise’s lore. “The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!”
So forgive the Vikings (2-8-1) if they aren’t doing cartwheels knowing that Cutler will sit. But McCown doesn’t think the Minnesota defense will be too focused on him.
“I don’t think they adjust to me as much as they adjust to our receivers,” McCown said.
McCown has been solid for the Bears (6-5) in Cutler’s place, and they’re going to need him again against Minnesota’s struggling defense to stay near the top of the muddled North.
Here are five things to watch when the Bears and Vikings play Sunday:
POUNDED ON THE GROUND: Stout, menacing defense has long been a hallmark for the Bears, but injuries and aging have precipitated a rapid demise this season. In three of their five losses they’ve allowed 40-plus points, including last week at St. Louis. Only three other teams, Minnesota among them, have given up more than Chicago’s average of 28.1 points per game.
With the absences of tackle Henry Melton, linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams and cornerback Charles Tillman proving costly, the Bears have allowed an average of NFL-worst 145.2 yards rushing per game.
The Vikings rushed for 232 yards last week against the Packers, with a less-than-100-percent Adrian Peterson getting backup help from Toby Gerhart.
HOMECOMING: Bears coach Marc Trestman went to high school in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park and played quarterback for the University of Minnesota, where he was a backup to Tony Dungy.
Trestman transferred and finished his college career at Minnesota State, Moorhead, and went to training camp as a defensive back with the Vikings in 1978 and 1979.
In need of a win this week, Trestman was in no mood to entertain family or friends on the trip to the Twin Cities.
“No, there’s really no time for that,” he said. “We’ll save that for the offseason. We’re going to come into Minnesota on a business trip and we’ve got work to do. It’s a very, very important game.”
QB SHUFFLE SLOWS: For the first time in a long time, the Vikings don’t have questions at quarterback. They’ve started Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman this season, a dizzying quarterback carousel that finally seems to be slowing.
Ponder will start his sixth straight game after he completed 21 of 30 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown against the Packers.
“The biggest thing for me is we’ve got to win games,” Ponder said. “I’ve got to be able to be the guy that’s behind center that leads this team to victory.”
HARD TIMES: The Vikings are having their fair share of troubles off the field as well, with three arrests in three weeks. It was revealed this week that LB Erin Henderson was arrested for DWI and possession of a controlled substance last week, and CB A.J. Jefferson was released on Monday after he was arrested for fighting with his girlfriend. WR Jerome Simpson was arrested on Nov. 9 for DWI.
GM Rick Spielman issued a statement calling the arrests “unacceptable and disappointing.”
TIME TO SHINE: Henderson missed last week’s game due to personal reasons, and coach Leslie Frazier declined to discuss whether it was related to his arrest. That opened the door for Audie Cole, a former seventh-round draft pick who had 13 tackles and a sack against the Packers.
“I was telling one of our coaches last week when they were asking how I feel or if I was nervous and stuff, personally when I get nervous about playing football is when I’m not prepared and I’m not sure if I know what I’m going to do,” Cole said.