The Minnesota Vikings and Bears have engaged in a limited divisional rivalry over the past four years.
The competition has been limited largely due to the NFL schedule makers, and it's too bad because when both had something at stake they engaged in some very interesting battles
In three of the last four seasons, they played only one game with meaning for both teams. In 2018, the finale meant nothing to the Vikings and ultimately nothng to the Bears. In 2019 it meant nothing to either team. Last year, neither game actually meant much to the Bears and the last one meant nothing to either.
When they did carry meaning, they had tight, fun games. The 2020 game in Minnesota might have been the best, the Bears winning 33-27, a key victory in making the playoffs while keeping the Vikings out. A 25-20 Bears victory at Soldier Field in 2018 was another interesting game and set the Bears up to win the division.
Now, it's obvious that even with both teams in rebuilding mode the Vikings have the upper hand.
It's just difficult to gauge how close the Bears could actually be to Minnesota for a few reasons and one is what level Justin Fields will come in at starting this season.
Here is why and where the Bears have some work to do in order to get back to Square One with Minnesota, and where they might not have to do any work.
1. Kirk Cousins-to-Justin Jefferson
Jefferson might be the premier deep threat in the league. Although Cousins might play more like Jay Cutler than Aaron Rodgers, he does enough to find his deep threat from time to time. He also has a real alternative and complementary threat in Adam Thielen, who is turning 32 before this season but is far from done when healthy. If tight end Irv Smith Jr. ever stays healthy, he'd have a full complement in a base offense and he'll benefit from the way K.J. Osborn developed as a third wideout last year.
The Bears have nothing comparable. Justin Fields has thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game one time, he's lost one of his top two receivers and they're counting on a few receivers to step up into the second and third positions who haven't done it.
2. Dalvin Cook's Explosiveness
David Montgomery's hard-nosed running commands respect but the Vikings' big-play running game behind Dalvin Cook is more of a concern for defenses. Miss Montgomery or let him break a tackle and he's not necessarily a breakaway threat. Miss a tackle on Cook and put six points on the board. The combination of a Vikings passing game capable of striking from anywhere and a running game that can do the same is the biggest difference between these teams.
3. Vikings Defensive Front
Both teams put in new defenses but the Bears are doing more shuffling of personnel and are leaning on less accomplished players like Justin Jones, Angelo Blackson, Nicholas Morrow and Tavon Young.
The Vikings have switched to the 3-4 and will likely find it difficult to achieve the right fit on the line for the two-gap approach after being in a 4-3 for years. They'll have far more trouble playing pass defense in a scheme based on Vic Fangio's old defense. It's more complicated and the communication between defensive backs requires longer to master. At least it did with the Bears. But when you get it right, it can be a devastating scheme.
The front seven had been a Bears advantage for the past few years but now the edge leans toward Minnesota. When the Vikings bring in Za'Darius Smith on the edge and the Bears bring in Al-Quadin Muhammad, it's very telling.
4. Coaching Trade-Off
O'Connell is their offensive guru and has an impressive resume but really doesn't have a great deal more play-calling experience than Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
The Bears might be better off on the defensive side because it's Matt Eberflus' area of expertise. The Vikings are relying on former Bears defensive backs coach Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator and he has proven already in Green Bay and Atlanta that he isn't much better than average at heading up a defense. He is one heck of a defensive backs coach, though.
5. Partial or Complete Rebuild?
The bottom line difference for these teams is the Bears are doing a complete rebuild, gutting their salary cap for future beneft. Meanwhile, the Vikings have kept Cousins and several of their more costly defensive players. It's more of a patchwork rebuild, and the kind of thing that can work for a quicker playoff berth or two but in the long run won't help build a perennial playoff contender.
The Bears took the right approach. It's just more difficult to become a contender again that way and requires more patience, but when they do get it right they should be able to hold it together better.