NFL Preview - Chicago (4-3) at Buffalo (0-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As the NFL's only remaining winless team, the Buffalo Bills could sorely use a different approach. Perhaps a change of venue in a foreign city can trigger a reversal of fortune.
The hard-luck Bills will be out to stop a seven-game losing streak when they head to their alternative home, Toronto's Rogers Centre, this Sunday to take on a Chicago Bears squad that's also had some unsavory results as of late.
At 0-7, Buffalo is off to its worst beginning since dropping the first 11 contests of a 2-14 campaign in 1984. The Bills still have to be somewhat encouraged by their recent signs of progress, as their last two defeats have come in overtime and on the road against opponents currently in first place in their respective divisions.
Buffalo took AFC North co-leader Baltimore to the wire in a thrilling 37-34 loss back in Week 7, then gave AFC West front-runner Kansas City all it could handle before finally falling by a 13-10 score last Sunday, with the Chiefs hitting the deciding field goal with no time left in the extra session.
While the two losses show just how close the Bills are to becoming a successful team, they've also revealed what's been holding them back. Buffalo had its chances against the Chiefs last week but couldn't finish the job, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing a costly interception in enemy territory in the closing stages of regulation and kicker Rian Lindell misfiring on a 53- yard field goal attempt during overtime.
The Bills outgained Baltimore by a 514-364 margin in total yards the previous week, but committed four turnovers that the opportunistic Ravens converted into 17 points.
Chicago has had its share of mistakes as well during an ugly four-game stretch that preceded the team's Week 8 bye. The Bears lost three times during that time frame, putting a damper on a very promising 3-0 start to the season.
The errors were especially prevalent in a 17-14 setback to visiting Washington on Oct. 24, with Chicago sealing its fate by turning the ball over six times. Quarterback Jay Cutler had a direct hand in five of those giveaways, tossing four interceptions and losing a fumble on a sneak attempt near the Redskins' goal line.
Cutler was sacked on four occasions by Washington as well, and the erratic triggerman has been taken to the turf a troubling 19 times in Chicago's three losses this season.
That may not be as much of a problem come Sunday, considering the Bills have produced a mere 11 sacks in their seven games. Buffalo took a hopeful step towards improving that total, however, when it claimed three-time All-Pro outside linebacker Shawne Merriman off waivers from San Diego on Wednesday.
Merriman racked up 41 1/2 sacks over his first three NFL seasons from 2005-07, but has managed only four during the past three years while battling through an assortment of injuries. The 26-year-old has been limited to just three games in 2010 due to a strained calf.
The Bills won't be unveiling their new acquisition when they make their annual trek to the Rogers Centre as part of the team's Toronto Series. Buffalo has yet to emerge victorious in its first two regular-season ventures into Ontario, dropping a 16-3 decision to Miami in 2008 and a 19-13 verdict to the New York Jets last year.
The Bears lead the all-time series with the Bills, 6-4, including a 40-7 home rout when the teams last met, during the 2006 regular season. Buffalo won the previous meeting, a 33-27 overtime affair at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2002. The Bears are 0-3 in Buffalo since notching their only win there in 1979. Home teams are 9-1 in the series all-time.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 1-0 all-time against the Bills, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey was 0-1 against the Bears during his tenure with the Cowboys (1998-99). Gailey and Smith will be meeting for the first time head- to-head.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The offseason hiring of one-time Rams head coach Mike Martz as coordinator has yet to deliver the intended results for a Chicago offense that ranks 29th out of 32 NFL teams in total yards (290.4 ypg) while averaging a modest 18 points per game (27th overall). The Bears have been especially futile in protecting the passer, with a porous front line having yielded a league-high 31 sacks, and Martz has often eschewed the running game in favor of a one-dimensional philosophy. Cutler (1483 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT), coming off a forgettable 26-interception season in 2009, had been doing a decent job of taking care of the football before his blowup against Washington, and wide receivers Johnny Knox (24 receptions, 478 yards, 1 TD) and Earl Bennett (20 receptions) and tight end Greg Olsen (18 receptions, 2 TD) have all had their moments in Chicago's pass-heavy attack. Top back Matt Forte (352 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 6 total TD) hasn't done much as a runner, save for a 166-yard, two-touchdown display against Carolina in Week 5, but he's made a big impact as an outlet for Cutler with 303 receiving yards and three touchdowns so far this year.
It may behoove the Bears to attempt to establish the run a little more this week, as Buffalo is surrendering a league-high 188.7 rushing yards per game and a poor five yards per attempt. The Bills have permitted 200 yards or more on the ground in four of their last five outings, with the Chiefs powering their way for 274 in last week's win. The pass defense hasn't been much better, having recorded only one interception while allowing 15 touchdowns through the air for the year. The secondary should get a boost from the expected return of veteran cornerback Terrence McGee (9 tackles), who's sat out the team's last four tests with an ailing back, and the Bills were able to come up with three sacks against Kansas City, with tackle Kyle Williams (37 tackles, 3 sacks) notching two of those takedowns. Strong safety Donte Whitner (65 tackles) is the club's leading tackler and has been an active last line for the leaky run defense, having made double-digit stops four times over the last five tilts.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Gailey's decision to insert Fitzpatrick (1200 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) into a starting role back in Week 3 has helped jump-start an offense that's been very tough for opponents to handle at times this year. The Harvard product has delivered flashes of brilliance, such as a 382-yard, four- touchdown performance against Baltimore two weeks back, and his above-average mobility has also been an asset with a young and developing front line still dealing with bouts of inconsistency. Wide receiver Steve Johnson (30 receptions, 6 TD), has clearly benefited from the quarterback switch, as the third-year pro has hauled in a touchdown pass in all five of Fitzpatrick's starts, and veterans Lee Evans (26 receptions, 4 TD) and Roscoe Parrish (26 receptions, 1 TD) provide two more capable options for the emerging aerial attack. The Bills have become more pass-oriented in recent weeks, but do possess a quality running back in Fred Jackson (297 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions), a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago.
Fitzpatrick will be facing a challenge from a solid Chicago stop unit that ranks second in the NFL in pass efficiency defense and has allowed a league- low four touchdown passes thus far. Cornerback Charles Tillman (41 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) and strong safety Danieal Manning (37 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) are turning in strong seasons, while nickel specialist D.J. Moore (16 tackles) has garnered a team-best three interceptions and took one back for a touchdown against the Redskins. The presence of premier pass rusher Julius Peppers (16 tackles, 2 sacks) has aided both the secondary and fellow end Israel Idonije (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks), as the Canadian immigrant has racked up 4 1/2 sacks over the past four games while his All-Pro counterpart routinely draws double teams. The Bears, who are giving up just 16.3 points per game (3rd overall), have also been stout against the run, with decorated linebackers Brian Urlacher (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) heading up a group that's fifth overall in rushing defense (89.3 ypg). Briggs was forced to exit the Washington game in the first quarter after aggravating an ankle injury, but will at be ready to go on Sunday with an extra week's worth of rest.
There aren't a wealth of attractive choices in this matchup of shaky offenses, but Forte is a good one whose receiving skills offset his usually meager numbers as a runner. Cutler's worth a look here as well, as his turnover tendencies shouldn't be as much of an issue against a Buffalo defense that hasn't been forcing takeaways. All Chicago receivers are a risky proposition, with Knox having the most value of the bunch, but reliable kicker Robbie Gould isn't a bad selection among Bears players. For Buffalo, Fitzpatrick still needs to show more consistency to be recommended as anything above a bye-week fill-in, but Johnson has proven to be a useful fantasy wide receiver with a knack of finding the end zone. Evans has been hit-or-miss on the other side and should be avoided if necessary, and the Bills don't utilize Jackson enough to warrant more than flex consideration. In Chicago's Devin Hester and Buffalo's Parrish, both teams have excellent return men who also contribute some as receivers, making each valuable in return-yardage leagues.
The Bears are the superior team in this game and the healthier one as well, having had a bye week to lick their wounds. It's still hard to discount the fact that the Bills have hung tough with opponents far less flawed than Chicago over the last two weeks, and the Bears' troublesome offense and propensity for mistakes should allow Buffalo to stay within striking distance this week as well. The law of averages says the Bills are overdue for a positive result in a close contest, and they'll finally be rewarded for their perseverance by displaying more big-play ability on offense and an improved showing on the defensive end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 24, Bears 20
11/04 12:47:48 ET