|National Football League|
By JEFF MEZYDLO
(AP) -- With the Chicago Bears missing their defensive leader, a road game against Adrian Peterson and the desperate Minnesota Vikings might not provide an ideal opportunity to bounce back from a frustrating loss.
Then again, it's been three years since the banged-up Bears lost to their NFC North rival, and Minnesota is the only team they've beaten in the past month heading into Sunday's matchup.
With fellow defensive stars Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs already nicked up, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher could miss the rest of the regular season after suffering a hamstring strain in a 23-17 overtime loss to Seattle last Sunday. The eight-time Pro Bowler is expected to sit out at least three games.
Though the 34-year Urlacher does not appear to have the same explosiveness since injuring his knee in a 17-13 win at Minnesota to end last season, he's still the heart and vocal leader of the Bears defense. Urlacher hopes to be ready if Chicago (8-4) makes the playoffs, but with his contract set to expire, he might have played his last game with the team that drafted him ninth overall in 2000.
"I do not think that's going to happen," he told a Chicago TV station. "But, if it does, I have had a really good and long career so I would be sad, but I would not be crushed."
With Urlacher and NFL interceptions leader Tim Jennings - also injured against the Seahawks - sidelined, the Bears could have a hard time maintaining their playoff position. They're tied with Green Bay for first place in the North, but hold the fifth seed in the NFC based on their Week 2 loss to the Packers.
Though the Bears have won six straight over Minnesota (6-6), which has lost two straight and four of five, they expect to face a serious challenge against Peterson and a Vikings squad that is 5-1 at home.
Chicago has dropped three of four and its once-vaunted defense - still ranked second in the NFL in points allowed at 16.5 per game - yielded a season-high 459 yards to a Seattle team that came in ranked 27th with 316.7 a contest.
Nick Roach will take Urlacher's spot while Geno Hayes moves into a starting role at strong side linebacker for the Bears, who have allowed more than 110 rushing yards in six straight games. That didn't happen once in the first six.
Peterson ran for 108 yards on 18 carries Nov. 25, but he failed to score, lost a fumble and was mostly shut down in the first half as the Vikings fell 28-10 at Chicago. That was his least productive performance during his current stretch of six straight 100-yard games, a span during which he's averaged 157.8 and scored six touchdowns.
"It seems like he's getting better and better as the year goes along," Bears coach Lovie Smith told the team's official website. "... It's going to still start with him."
Peterson is the NFL's leading rusher with 1,446 yards after finishing with 210 last Sunday, including a career-long 82-yard touchdown in a 23-14 loss at Green Bay.
"He ran for 210 yards - that's important - but it's not as important to him as the fact that we didn't win the game," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's a total team guy."
Peterson can use more help from Christian Ponder, whose 63.6 passer rating over the past seven weeks is the worst of any qualifying quarterback. He's thrown for 871 yards in that span - 76 fewer than Peterson has running the ball in those six games.
Ponder was 12 of 25 for 119 yards with a touchdown and was picked off twice in the end zone at Green Bay. For the moment, Frazier remains confident in Ponder, who went 22 of 43 for 159 yards with a TD and an interception at Chicago.
"We believe that Christian is our No. 1," Frazier said. "That being said, if things get to a point where your No. 1 is really costing you some situations that could preclude winning, you do have to do what's best for the football team."
Ponder has connected 18 times with tight end Kyle Rudolph for 170 yards and three TDs over the last three games, but he won't have Percy Harvin to throw to after the wide receiver was placed on injured reserve Wednesday because of a severely sprained left ankle.
Despite dealing with back spasms, star defensive end Jared Allen is expected to play. Allen could be a marked man after his late hit on Lance Louis two weeks ago resulted in a season-ending knee injury for the Bears' offensive lineman. Allen, whose 1 1/2 sacks at Green Bay snapped a three-game drought, was fined $21,000 for the supposed block.
Chicago's makeshift line has allowed two sacks in the last two games and helped give Jay Cutler enough time to throw for 233 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks.
With receiver Earl Bennett dealing with a concussion, Cutler again is likely to focus on Brandon Marshall, who caught 10 passes for a season-high 165 yards last week. Marshall matched a season high with 12 receptions for 92 against Minnesota.
The Bears also appear poised to get receiver Alshon Jeffery back from a knee injury that has kept him out the last two games.
Updated December 7, 2012