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NFL Preview - Baltimore (4-5) at Chicago (5-4)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - You think your team has injuries?

Your team doesn't really have injuries.

Now the Chicago Bears, there's a team that's got injuries.

The "Monsters of the Midway" of years past have been reduced to the "Barely Able to Field a Full Team" thus far in 2013, with no fewer than four defensive players on season-ending injured reserve, a pair of other defenders absent for undetermined stretches and a starting quarterback who seems to be available one minute, sidelined the next.

"It just so happens, the injury bug, it has a hold of our team for some reason," said two-time Pro Bowler Charles Tillman, who's among those out for the year with a torn triceps muscle.

Jay Cutler's return from a groin problem became an absence thanks to an ankle issue last week against Detroit, leaving the starting assignment for the Week 11 visit by the Baltimore Ravens to backup Josh McCown, who's been stellar while carrying the load in Cutler's place.

The career journeyman - a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals 11 years ago - has compiled a 103.2 passer rating in three appearances, including a start against Green Bay, while throwing four TDs and no interceptions.

He relieved Cutler for the final series last week against Detroit and engineered a touchdown drive that ended with a Brandon Marshall TD reception with 40 seconds left. The Bears still lost, however, falling 21-19 when a two- point conversion attempt failed.

Marshall has clearly clicked with McCown under center, reeling in 14 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games. He's joined in prolific territory by Alshon Jeffery, who's gone beyond 200 yards once and 100 three other times in the last six games.

"We know what Josh can do," center Roberto Garza said. "(The win at Green Bay) was a testament to what his preparation is, and we just got another sample of Josh's ability to lead this team and step into situations like that."

Among other weapons at the substitute's disposal is running back Matt Forte, who's coming off a season-low 33 yards against Detroit but remains seventh in the league with 691 rush yards.

The Ravens are 10th in the league defending the run, allowing yards at a 102.6 per week clip.

Baltimore has lost both its previous trips to Solider Field while not scoring a touchdown - losing 24-3 in 1998 and 10-6 in 2005 - but the Ravens won, 31-7, when the teams last met in Baltimore in 2009. QB

Joe Flacco threw for four TDs in that game, two to Todd Heap and one apiece to Demetrius Williams and Derrick Mason.

Last week, Flacco was uneven as the Ravens built, then lost, a 17-0 lead before rallying again to defeat Cincinnati in overtime, end a three-game skid and pull back into a position of relevance in the AFC playoff picture.

As it stands now, Baltimore is a game behind the sixth-seeded New York Jets for the second wild card slot and 1 1/2 behind the Bengals in the AFC North. The Ravens host the Jets in Week 12 and will visit Cincinnati in the season finale on Dec. 29.

They haven't won two in a row since Sept. 15 and 22, weeks 3 and 4, and had lost three straight before the Bengals game by a combined 11 points.

"They showed the heart of champions (against Cincinnati)," coach John Harbaugh said." Where this will lead us, we'll find out."

In spite of the honeymoon, issues still exist.

Though Ray Rice surpassed the 1,100-yard mark on the ground last season, he's got just 289 so far this year and is averaging just 2.5 per carry. He and Bernard Pierce helped Baltimore amass 85 yards against Cincinnati, but the Ravens are still just 30th in the league with a 73.1-yard average per week and at the bottom with a composite 2.8-yard per carry clip.

"We need to get better with our run game," Harbaugh said. "We gained a few more yards (last week), but that to me is negligible because we're not as a successful as we want to be. Not even close."

Chicago is 31st in the league against the run, allowing 129.4 yards per week.

Through the air, Flacco threw two interceptions last week, fumbled once and was sacked five times for the third game of the last four. On the positive side, he's thrown for seven touchdowns and four INTs in his last four starts.

"(Defeating Cincinnati) can start something," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "But we can't let this get over our heads, thinking we're something that we're not. We've just got to get back to that film and keep getting better and better and better."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Get the Rice cooking.

Though the battering ram-shaped Rutgers alum is well below his ground-gaining pace of a year ago, he'll likely have an opportunity to ramp up the numbers against a Chicago defense that's exceeded only Jacksonville's when it comes to stopping opposing ball carriers.

If Rice can get closer to his career per-carry average of 4.4 yards than his current 2013 pace of 2.5 yards, the Ravens will be in a good spot.

Take the heat of the sub.

For all his glittering numbers thus far in relief roles, QB McCown is still a backup QB and he'll need some help from his friends in order to have a successful second start.

Forte could play a big role in a bounce-back spot after averaging just 1.95 yards per rush last week against Detroit. A bigger threat from him could open things up for McCown to connect with Marshall and Jeffrey as well.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The "old" Ravens would find a way to win this game. They'd ratchet up the defense, terrorize the substitute quarterback and smother the Bears in front of a frigid home crowd.

But, in spite of last week's win, it doesn't feel like that team still exists. Chicago has more quality offensive weapons, a stout offensive line and the home field. That'll add up to a paradigm-shifting close win.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Bears 22, Ravens 20

11/14 12:51:52 ET

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