On Sunday, the Vikings will play the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium in their most meaningful regular-season game since December 30, 2012. On that date they faced the Packers at the Metrodome in Week 17, with a playoff appearance on the line.
The Vikings beat the Packers in a 37-34 shootout. Christian Ponder completed 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns and Adrian Peterson rushed 34 times for 199 yards and one score.
Their reward for that victory was a rematch with the Packers the following week (Jan. 5, 2013) at Lambeau Field in an NFC wild-card game.
They lost 24-10 after Ponder missed the game because of a shoulder injury and Joe Webb was forced into an emergency start against Aaron Rodgers.
But the odds are the Vikings could be in the exact same position this season with another NFC North rival. If they can beat the Bears, who most likely will be the NFC's No. 3 seed, the Vikings most likely will be the No. 6 seed and travel to Soldier Field the following week for a first-round playoff matchup.
You have to wonder if this could be the start of a meaningful rivalry for these two squads, who rarely have been competitive at the same time.
The Bears have clinched their first division title since 2010, but over the past decade-plus, the Packers and Vikings have owned the NFC North. The Packers won the division in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 while the Vikings won it in 2008, 2009, 2015 and 2017.
The Bears' last strong run as an NFC North power was in 2005 and 2006 when they went 24-8 over two seasons and reached Super Bowl XLI under then-coach Lovie Smith.
Now it appears the Bears might be ready for another run of success under first-year coach Matt Nagy. It all starts with hitting on some key draft picks.
Mitch Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, has become a steady-if-not-flashy quarterback. He doesn't dominate games, but he has led the Bears to an 11-4 record.
This season he's completed 271 of 408 passes (66.4 percent) for 3,060 yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. That's good for a 96.0 passer rating, which ranks 15th in the NFL but far behind Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins at No. 8 (100.9).
The Bears' biggest hit in the draft in 2017, though, might have been running back Tarik Cohen, who they found late in the fourth round out of North Carolina AT&T. He has rushed for 420 yards and two touchdowns but, more importantly, has 69 receptions for 717 yards and five scores and is a dynamic option for Trubisky out of the backfield or in the slot.
Still, the Bears this season have made their name on defense and their recent draft picks, much like the Vikings, are who have made them so dominant and successful while staying under the salary cap.
It was hitting on these draft picks that gave them the room to trade for star linebacker Khalil Mack and immediately sign him to a six-year, $141 million deal.
Their most recent No. 1 overall pick has been one of their best in Roquan Smith, who leads the team with 116 tackles and is one of the best linebackers in the league at age 21. He also has five sacks, five pass deflections and one interception.
In addition to Smith, the Bears drafted cornerback Kyle Fuller (No. 14 overall, 2014), defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (No. 39 overall, 2015) and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (No. 9 overall, 2016).
Fuller has seven interceptions, tied for the NFL lead, and 52 tackles. Goldman has two sacks, 36 tackles and a fumble recovery. Floyd has done a little bit of everything, with four sacks, 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four pass deflections and an interception return for a touchdown.
Mack changed it all
While the Bears' draft strategy has resembled the Vikings' defensive emphasis, there is no question their biggest move happened because of the desperation of the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders had drafted Mack No. 5 overall in 2014 and he was generally considered one of the two or three best linebackers in the NFL. From 2014-2017 in Oakland, he averaged 57.8 solo tackles, 10.1 sacks and 2.3 forced fumbles per season. He made first-team All-Pro twice before turning 26.
Nobody around the NFL thought the Raiders would seriously consider trading Mack, even when he held out for a better contract.
But the Bears came in with a package of four draft picks for new Raiders coach Jon Gruden, and incredibly, they got Mack.
The cost wasn't cheap as Chicago gave up their 2019 and 2020 first-round picks, a third-round pick in 2020 and a sixth-rounder in 2019, but there is no question Bears General Manager Ryan Pace would do that trade again in a second.
Mack has completely changed the identity of the Bears. He has 47 tackles, but that tells only a small part of how dominant he has been.
His six forced fumbles are tied for the NFL lead, to go along with two fumble recoveries. He has 12½ sacks to lead the Bears, and he has returned an interception for a touchdown and deflected four passes.
Mack is under contract through 2022, meaning the Bears defense is going to have a game-changing player for a long time.
The closest thing to such an impact trade in recent NFC North history was when the Vikings acquired defensive end Jared Allen from the Chiefs in 2008.
The Vikings had to give up a first-round pick, two third-round picks and a sixth-round pick swap to get Allen, but it remains one of the best deals in team history. The Bears probably feel the same way about their deal for Mack.
Salary cap wide open
If you want the real reason why the Bears are getting ready for a long run of competitiveness in the division, look at their salary cap.
The Vikings have a salary cap this season of $189.8 million, compared to $179.7 million for the Bears, partly because Trubisky costs just $6.6 million against the cap. Next season the gap is just as drastic; the Bears have $174 million on the books compared to the Vikings' $182.8 million.
With the news earlier this month that the NFL might bump up the salary cap to $191 million for the 2019 season, that means the Vikings will at least have some operating room, but the Bears are going to have the money to add to a team that will compete for a Super Bowl this season.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org