NFC North finale is make or break for record books

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2011 - 12:37 AM
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Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb hits the turf hard after being pushed by Julius Peppers in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears earlier in the season.

Photo: Brian Peterson , Star Tribune

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Four questions we're asking as the Vikings stagger into the New Year with Sunday's game against the Bears at Mall of America Field ...

1. Will the Vikings go 0-for-NFC North?

The Vikings are 1-11 in their past 12 NFC North games. They're 0-5 this year, and a loss Sunday would make them the first team in the 51-year history of the franchise to go winless in its division for an entire season.

Even the 1984 team that finished 3-13 went 2-6 in the NFC Central Division. And the 1962 team that finished 2-11-1 went 1-10-1 in the NFL's Western Conference.

"It is strange," defensive end Brian Robison said. "Even last year, we only won one game in the division. It's kind of been a night-and-day difference. We went 12-4 in 2009 and it's been downhill ever since."

The Bears have lost five in a row and are averaging 13.6 points per game since losing quarterback Jay Cutler to a season-ending thumb injury. Of course, at this point, is a Vikings win really a win?

A loss by the Vikings and a win by St. Louis (2-13) over the 49ers probably would give the Vikings' the No. 2 pick in next year's draft based on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. A win and losses by the league's three current four-win teams -- Jacksonville, Cleveland and Tampa Bay -- could drop the Vikings as low as the sixth pick.

2. Is this Shiancoe's last game, too?

Jim Kleinsasser probably won't be the only tight end playing his last game as Viking. Visanthe Shiancoe, one of the team's 17 unrestricted free agents after this season, is unlikely to return. He turns 32 in June and the Vikings want to increase rookie Kyle Rudolph's role.

Two years ago, Shiancoe caught 12 touchdown passes, including the postseason, as the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game. In 31 games since then, he has five.

In addition to Kleinsasser and Shiancoe, the pending free agents who have started at least one game this season are: free safety Husain Abdullah, middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, outside linebacker Erin Henderson, receiver Devin Aromashodu, cornerback Benny Sapp, defensive tackle Letroy Guion and safety Tyrell Johnson.

3. Is that the same Josh McCown?

E.J. Henderson was asked if he experienced any uncomfortable flashbacks preparing for Bears quarterback Josh McCown.

"Why would I?" Henderson asked.

Because McCown was the quarterback who knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs with a game-winning TD pass as time expired in the final game of the 2003 season at Arizona. That's why.

"He was the quarterback in that game?" asked Henderson, one of only three players still left from 2003. "For real?"

The good news is McCown is the third player to start at quarterback for the Bears this season. Last week's start against the Packers was his first start and only his fifth game since 2007.

The Vikings will welcome a third-tier quarterback any day. Half of their 12 losses this season are to quarterbacks who currently rank among the top eight in the league.

"We should be tuned up considering some of the guys we've been playing this season," Henderson said. "It's been quite a run against top QBs."

4. Is Jared Allen within reach of Michael Strahan?

Probably not, unless you talk to defensive end Jared Allen.

"Absolutely, that's within reach," said Allen, whose league-leading 18 1/2 sacks are four behind the NFL season record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. "I've gotten four in a game before."

Allen had 4 1/2 against the Packers on a Monday night at the Metrodome in 2009. Earlier this season, he had one at Chicago against J'Marcus Webb, whom he'll be facing on Sunday.

News and notes

• Tight end Mickey Shuler, who was promoted from the practice squad this week, sprained an ankle in practice Friday and is doubtful for Sunday's game.

• Running back Adrian Peterson had his knee surgery done by Dr. James Andrews on Friday in Birmingham, Ala. Coach Leslie Frazier said the surgery was "successful."

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