PLAYER IN THE SPOTLIGHT christian ponder
The Vikings quarterback called last week's stinker in Green Bay a "wake-up call." Actually, it was more like an annoying snooze alarm that Christian Ponder has been hitting and going back to sleep on over the past seven games.
When the Vikings were 4-1 heading to Washington, Ponder ranked 10th in the league with a 95.5 passer rating. He had completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,082 yards (216.4 per game), six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Today, he's 25th in passer rating (79.4). In his past seven starts, he's 2-5 while completing 58 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards (174.1), eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
"I know that I need to play better," Ponder said.
Doing so is another matter. This is Ponder's 23rd career start. It's also the most important one to date. If he fails Sunday, the final three games this season won't mean as much in evaluating Ponder because the pressure of being in the playoff race will have disappeared.
MOST PRESSING QUESTION
Can the Vikings' defense hold on third down?
Better yet, can the Vikings force the Bears into third-and-long situations?
During their 28-10 rout of the Vikings two weeks ago, the Bears had 19 third downs. Fourteen of them were third-and-6 or shorter. They converted 11 of those situations (78.6) and were 0-for-5 on third-and-8 or longer, with one of those a kneel down to end the game.
To compensate for horrendous pass protection, the Bears have been running shorter routes with quicker dropbacks of late. It's a tactic that's less successful in third-and-long situations.
"Third-and-7, plus," said cornerback Antoine Winfield. "That's the goal we're looking for to get us off the field and give the offense a chance."
KEEP AN EYE ON
Running back Matt Forte
To force third-and-long situations, the Vikings have to stop running back Matt Forte on first down.
Forte had a quiet game two weeks ago, rushing for only 42 yards on 14 carries (3.0) before leaving with an ankle injury. He touched the ball 24 times for 96 yards and a touchdown in last week's loss to Seattle. He also should be a bigger presence on Sunday with Michael Bush (ribs) listed as questionable.
Two weeks ago, Forte ran the ball eight times on first down. Five times, he gained four or five yards. Second-and-5 is a dangerous down against the Jay Cutler-to- Brandon Marshall passing combo.
Love him or hate him, Jay Cutler wins football games. In fact, since Week 16 of the 2009 season, he has won more often than all but five other NFL quarterbacks.
Among QBs with a minimum of 10 starts during that stretch, Cutler is No. 6 with a winning percentage of .711. He's 27-11, including 8-3 this year.
New England's Tom Brady is first at .804 (37-9), followed by Atlanta's Matt Ryan (.783, 36-10), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (.773, 34-10), Baltimore's Joe Flacco (.739, 34-12) and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (.730, 27-10).
It's also wise not to get into a close game down the stretch with Cutler. His 134.9 fourth-quarter passer rating is 23.1 points higher than the next highest total, a 111.8 mark that belongs to Rodgers.
INJURIES, FINES, MOVES
The Bears have no sympathy for Percy Harvin landing on the Vikings' injured reserve. They'll play Sunday's game without linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring), cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) and receiver Earl Bennett (concussion).
• Everson Griffen of the Vikings was fined $15,750 for roughing the Packers' Rodgers on Sunday. Griffen was flagged for roughing Rodgers on a second-quarter play that nullified an interception by teammate Jared Allen. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley drew a $7,875 fine for grabbing the facemask of Randall Cobb on a play that drew no penalty flag.
• Former Chargers receiver Bryan Walters, who was with the Vikings in training camp this season, was one of three wideouts who worked out for the team on Friday.
• The Vikings promoted offensive tackle Troy Kropog from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. He takes the roster spot that opened when Harvin was placed on injured reserve.