NFC North threats: If the Vikings bounce back, Bears will have their hands full

Quarterback Kirk Cousins is an $84 million X-factor, but the Vikings still have most of the pieces from Super Bowl contender of 2017.

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins runs off the field.

Expect the Vikings to return to the playoffs behind quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Bruce Kluckhohn/AP

In Part 3 of a 3-part series breaking down the NFC North on the eve of the 2019 season, the Sun-Times’ Mark Potash looks at the Minnesota Vikings.

Record last year: 8-7-1 (second in the NFC North)

The Bears play them: Week 4, Sept, 29 at Soldier Field; Week 17, Dec. 29 at U.S. Bank Stadium

What’s new

The Vikings have revamped their interior offensive line after a 30th-ranked run game and poor protection (40 sacks) shared the blame with quarterback Kirk Cousins for a disappointing offensive performance. They dropped from 10th to 19th in the NFL in scoring last season.

Rookie center Garrett Bradbury, a first-round draft pick (18th overall) from North Carolina State, is on target to start Week 1. Pat Elflein moves from center to left guard. Josh Kline, signed after being released by the Titans, will start at right guard.

The Vikings made a bold move by trading a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik. It remains to be seen if that solves the problem. Vedvik was 0-for-2 against the Cardinals in his first field-goal attempts last week. The Vikings might keep Vedvik as their punter and stick with veteran Dan Bailey as their kicker.

The biggest defensive change bears watching. The Vikings reacquired tackle Shamar Stephen to replace Sheldon Richardson, who signed with the Browns in free agency. Richardson is a significant loss, but the line is the strength of an outstanding defense, with ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen and nose tackle Linval Joseph. So the loss of Richardson isn’t expected to have a major effect.

Where they’re headed

Back to the playoffs. Coming off a disappointing season, the Vikings have more upside than downside. Their defense still ranks among the best in the NFL after dropping off last year (from first in yards and scoring in 2017 to fourth in yards and ninth in scoring in 2018), and Cousins is a quality (if underachieving) quarterback who could have a big year in his second season in Minnesota.

Just two years ago, the Vikings were 13-3 and a big contender for the Super Bowl. They still have virtually all of those pieces in place, plus a presumed, if so-far unrealized, upgrade at quarterback with Cousins.

One big question

That Cousins is an $84 million X-factor is all you need to know about the unpredictability of the Vikings as a playoff contender this season. The Schaumburg native has put up impressive numbers in four seasons as a starter (passer ratings of 101.6, 97.2, 93.9 and 99.7), but with consistently mediocre team success — 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9 and 8-7-1. If Cousins ever becomes the “big moment” guy, the Vikings will be tough to beat.

He could be a Bears killer

Safety Harrison Smith has been consistently productive in his seven seasons in the NFL, with Pro Bowl appearances in the last four. He hasn’t tormented the Bears recently quite like he did when Jay Cutler was at quarterback (three picks, returns of 56 yards for a touchdown and 52 yards). But he did burn Mitch Trubisky for a game-clinching interception in 2017. His savvy and instincts will always be a test for Trubisky.

Bears threat level

High. The Vikings don’t have a player who threatens the Bears as much as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers does, but they have the better overall personnel. The Bears’ big edge last year was in mental toughness — they just rose to the occasion better in both games, even when the Vikings had much more to play for in Week 17. If the Vikings ever get over that hump and play to their potential, the Bears will have to take it up another level to beat them.

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