MINNEAPOLIS | Finding a little extra intensity and edge usually isn't a problem when the Minnesota Vikings play the Bears.
Throw playoff implications and Vikings defensive end Jared Allen's questionable hit that ended Bears guard Lance Louis's season on top of the fact that the game today will be the second meeting in three weeks for the longtime division rivals, and it's shaping up as potentially one of the testiest matchups in a long time.
The Bears (8-4) come into the Metrodome today looking to steady themselves after a deflating loss to Seattle last week, and still smarting from seeing Allen level Louis with a blindside hit that tore some knee ligaments and robbed them of one of their most valuable offensive linemen two weeks ago.
"I don't think Jared is that type of player," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "I don't think he was out intentionally to hurt anybody. ... We wish he would have hit him a little lower, but he didn't. We've can't worry about that. We've got enough to worry about."
Allen was fined $21,000 for the hit and has apologized profusely for the end result, if not the technique that created it.
"If roles were reversed and I was running to make a tackle and I got blindsided by an offensive lineman or a receiver, I'm pretty sure people would be celebrating it," Allen said. "That's not the case. It is what it is. Again, he got hurt, and that sucks. But again, it's never the intent."
If there are some on the Bears who are looking for a little payback, they probably have bigger priorities to think about. An overtime home loss to the Seahawks dropped them to 8-4 and moved them into a tie with Green Bay for the NFC North lead.
"We've got tackles playing guards, guards playing center and we've got some new guys we've never played with before," Cutler said.
The injury further depleted a Bears offensive line that has struggled to keep Cutler upright for much of the season. A patchwork group did a fine job of that two weeks ago in Chicago, with offensive coordinator Mike Tice loading up the protections to keep Allen and off of Cutler. It worked beautifully, with left tackle J'Marcus Webb getting plenty of double-team help to make sure Allen barely got a whiff of Cutler in Chicago's 28-10 victory.
Allen can expect a lot of similar treatment today, with another heavy dose of the three-step passing game to enable Cutler to get the ball out of his hand before Allen has a chance to get there.
"He's a great player," Tice said of Allen. "Different defense at home on that field turf with that crowd noise, and we just have to make sure that we're smart about the calls and how we're helping J'Marcus out."
Tice's shuffling has worked well for the past two weeks, giving the Bears some hope that the makeshift unit is coming together at just the right time.
"They're playing better. I don't know if it's because I'm yelling at them more or what's happening," Cutler said, playfully referring to a heated exchange he had with Webb that was caught on camera earlier in the season. "But guys are playing well. We're getting rid of the ball quickly. I think we have good game plans going into it. Mike's done a great job of mixing up and spinning the play calling and keeping teams off-balance."
The Vikings have seemed off kilter ever since the got out of the bye week in the middle of last month. Sitting at 6-4 and very much in the playoff picture, they were humbled by the Bears on Nov. 25 then dropped an ugly game at Green Bay last week to virtually erase their margin for error for the final four weeks. Quarterback Christian Ponder is reeling after an awful performance against the Packers, star receiver Percy Harvin is out for the rest of the season with a sprained left ankle and the Vikings may have to win their final four games — including trips to St. Louis and Houston and a season finale against the Packers — to get into the playoffs.
"A game that has tremendous significance if we have any chance of extending our football season, so we know what's at stake," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "We're excited about the opportunity."
The Bears are treating this game as equally important, even though they can probably afford a loss or two down the stretch and still get into the postseason. They host the Packers next week before ending the season with two games on the road, at Arizona and Detroit, and they may have to do it without defensive leader Brian Urlacher, who has an injured hamstring.
"What you do this last quarter of the season is going to dictate everything," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "There's been disappointment. There's been highs and lows. It's just about what you do from here on out. ... We feel like we need to win out. In order to win out, it's about this next game for us. It's the most important game we've had around here in a long time."
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