As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game at Mall of America Field, we asked Sean Jensen, who covers the Bears for the Chicago Sun-Times, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Bears have nothing at stake this weekend, but plenty to play for.
Like the Vikings, Chicago won’t put a ton of stock in the final result of Sunday’s game. But the Bears will use the regular-season finale to make critical evaluations at key positions. They will look to measure depth at cornerback and on the defensive line. Most of all, they want to see more from quarterback Josh McCown, who spent a chunk of this fall coaching high school football in Waxhaw, N.C., before being signed in November and making his first NFL start in four years last Sunday in Green Bay.
McCown played well, completing 19 of 28 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Jensen was thoroughly impressed with the quarterback’s arm strength, athleticism and ability to make difficult throws.
“This is a key question for the Bears,” Jensen said. “Was Sunday’s game a fluke? Or can McCown come back and have another strong performance? If so, they’d have to seriously look at him as their No. 2 quarterback
behind Jay Cutler heading into 2012.”
That McCown even has this opportunity is undeniable proof that the Caleb Hanie experiment was a disaster. Hanie made four starts after Cutler went down with a broken thumb and was shockingly inept.
Said Jensen: “What you’d expect from any quarterback who’s on an NFL roster for them to make routine throws – the simple outs, the dump offs to the running back. And Caleb Hanie failed to make routine throws. … After training camp and the preseason, I thought he was a very competent No. 2 quarterback. But the thing you have to wonder about is whether he didn’t prepare himself correctly to make that leap into the spotlight.”
The curiosity in Chicago now revolves around whether McCown can establish himself as a more reliable insurance policy going forward.
2) The Vikings may be kicking themselves for ever letting Kahlil Bell go.
The Bears’ current starting running back began his career in the Twin Cities, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. But the Vikings cut Bell before that season began.
Bell hasn’t exactly emerged as a superstar since landing in Chicago – he has 102 carries over three seasons. But he’s made the most of the opportunities he has gotten
. And last week against the Packers he had 23 carries for 121 yards with four catches for 38 yards.
“What I like most about him is his cut-back ability,” Jensen said. “He stops on a dime and is able to explode in and out of his cuts. He has pretty good vision. He’s hard to take down. But the quickness he shows in making those cuts is phenomenal.”
Bell has been open in discussing his resentment toward the Vikings
for not giving him more of a chance to shine. And while he would have had little opportunity to play much behind Adrian Peterson, Jensen can’t help but wonder if Bell would have been worth stashing as a back-up.
“You have to wonder if somebody in the Vikings’ organization is asking, ‘What if?’” Jensen said. “They’ve had so many issues trying to find that back-up running back. What if they had Kahlil Bell still there and they didn’t have to draft Toby Gerhart in  and they then had that extra second-round draft pick? Now, heading into their offseason, they have to address the running back position yet again. Because there’s no guarantee Peterson will be ready for the start of 2012.”
3) The Bears have had the wind knocked out of them with a deflating five-game losing streak.
Let’s not forget, in the middle-third of the season, Chicago may have been the second hottest team in football. Starting with a 39-10 destruction of the Vikings
in Week 6, the Bears won five consecutive games over quality competition by an average score of 32-17.
“The team was really rolling,” Jensen said. “The defense was starting to come around after a slow start. Devin Hester was doing what Devin Hester does
. And they were putting up 30-plus points per game. They were hot. And then an hour-and-a-half after that San Diego win, the Cutler news comes out and everything started to unravel from that point forward.”
Now, the Bears have lost five straight and are out of the playoff chase. They’ve been left shocked, demoralized and feeling as if this was a wasted season with so many major playmakers already deep into their careers.
“Particularly on defense, a lot of the key players are into their 30s,” Jensen said. “So that window is closing.”
4) Even without a Pro Bowl invitation, defensive end Julius Peppers can’t be ignored.
The NFC has three worthy Pro Bowl representatives at defensive end in Jared Allen, Jason Babin and Jason Pierre-Paul, three standouts with a combined 52 sacks. So Peppers, with 10 sacks this season, didn’t get snubbed in that regard.
The Bears also have three Pro Bowlers on their defense in linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. But Peppers remains a force, one sack away from joining Allen in the 100-sack club. And admirably, he has played through injuries this season.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Jensen said. “It shows you how strong and talented he is. He has, however, slowed down a bit the last few weeks.”
In the first meeting with the Vikings, despite playing on a sprained knee, Peppers recorded two sacks and three quarterback hurries.