AP Pro Football Writer
The lasting image from the Bears’ trip to San Francisco was 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith running amok.
And now Chicago’s battered offensive line gets to face Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and the Vikings on Sunday at Soldier Field.
No, Minnesota (6-4) is not in San Francisco’s class for creating mayhem with a physically imposing defense. But the way the Bears (7-3) are blocking -- make that NOT blocking -- for their quarterbacks, just about any team will be a major challenge, whether it’s Jay Cutler back from a concussion, or backup Jason Campbell on the field.
"You’re going to play a great team on their home field, a place that we’ve struggled at," Greenway said. "But this is a new year, a new team. And I think we’re going to have a focus going in there that we’re going to give ourselves a chance.
"It’s going to take our best effort. It’s going to take our best game of the year to win out there this week."
To get that win, the Vikings figure to emphasize their ace, Adrian Peterson, and the running game, while fitting in throws to Percy Harvin, who also is having a strong season.
San Francisco (7-2-1)
at New Orleans (5-5)
As intriguing as any game on the schedule for many reasons.
The 49ers could get back quarterback Alex Smith from a concussion, but with the way Colin Kaepernick performed in a rout of the Bears on Monday night, it’s uncertain who will get the call from coach Jim Harbaugh.
Regardless, it’s the San Francisco defense that could decide things. If the 49ers can put pressure on Drew Brees and the increasingly dynamic Saints offense -- Aldon Smith leads the NFL with 15 sacks -- they could control matters.
Green Bay (7-3)
at New York Giants (6-4)
The last time they met, New York eliminated a 16-1 Packers team from the playoffs. At Lambeau Field.
The Giants will need to rekindle the overwhelming pass rush that was decisive in that game, plus get Eli Manning back on track. He’s struggled the last two weeks, both losses, and hasn’t played particularly well in a month. A better running game also would help him.
Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)
Atlanta lost for the first time two weeks ago, then needed to rally to beat Arizona. The Falcons have won six of the past seven meetings with the Bucs, but those were different Tampa teams. This one is as potent on offense as, well, Atlanta.
Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin already has rushed for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6)
The Ravens will have star safety Ed Reed as they seek their fourth successive victory and eighth in nine games. His one-game suspension for illegal hits was overturned on appeal and instead he was fined $50,000.
Reed and the Baltimore defense haven’t played close to the level of previous standards, but did have a strong performance in taking charge of the AFC North last week at Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8)
Plax is back in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the addition of wideout Plaxico Burress, who was without a team all season, doesn’t offset the slew of injuries on offense. Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs), Antonio Brown (ankle), Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) and Byron Leftwich (ribs) have been sidelined, but Brown could return in Cleveland.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a trio of hefty running backs who have come through in Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9)
The Broncos have won five straight and have their sights on running the table, perhaps grabbing home-field advantage for a portion of the AFC playoffs, if not for the whole thing. Peyton Manning needs one victory, something he’s likely to get against the collapsing Chiefs who have dropped seven in a row, to have the second most by a starter in league history. He would move ahead of his current boss, John Elway.
Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6)
One game after beating his former player at Southern Cal, Jets QB Mark Sanchez, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll goes against one of his Heisman Trophy winners, Reggie Bush. Well, Bush did win the Heisman, but gave it back after he was found guilty of NCAA violations.
Seattle’s defense gets better and more physical each week, something Bush figures to learn Sunday.
Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4)
Were the Colts exposed at New England last Sunday in their 59-24 defeat, or was it simply a case of Indy not being able to play with the big boys yet?
"Once you sit down and watch the film, the critiquing and the criticism, and once that happens, you sort of flush it and realize it’s on to the next one," Andrew Luck said. "If this was the last one of the season and you’re done, it would sting a lot more."
Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5)
With two consecutive victories, the Bengals have revitalized their season. A schedule that includes San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia after the Raiders has them salivating about their chances of making the postseason.
Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7)
No, the NFL can’t flex games to the prime-time broadcast on Mondays, so viewers are stuck with two of the league’s biggest flops.
Carolina thought it would build off Cam Newton’s sensational rookie season, but instead of sizzling it has fizzled.
No worse than the Eagles, though. Expected to be championship contenders, they have fallen apart, with sloppy play everywhere, particularly on the offensive line, in the secondary and at quarterback.
Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9)
Jacksonville had powerful Houston in trouble last Sunday, but couldn’t put away the game. The 37 points for the Jaguars in that loss brought their season total to a measly 164. They will go with Chad Henne at quarterback.
St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6)
Arizona was 4-0 when it journeyed to St. Louis and was beaten 17-3. Things have been downright ugly since for the Cardinals, who can’t score, can’t decide on a quarterback, and struggle against the run.