NFL Preview - Philadelphia (7-3) at Chicago (7-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Neither the Philadelphia Eagles nor the Chicago Bears were trendy picks to win their respective divisions this season.
For the Bears, it was the thinking that a tough NFC North figured to be a two- horse race between a pair of clubs not located in Chicago. The Eagles, on the other hand, seemed to be entering the early stages of a brief rebuilding process following the departure of several franchise faces.
Yet, after 11 weeks of action the Eagles and Bears are at the top of their respective standings and both clubs aim for a fourth straight victory this Sunday at Chicago's Solider Field.
Philadelphia extended its win streak on Sunday night with a hard-fought 27-17 victory over the New York Giants, giving the 7-3 Eagles a one-game edge over the G-men in the NFC East. Chicago, meanwhile, had already taken care of business earlier in the week, shutting out Miami, 16-0, on Thursday to also up its record to 7-3.
The Bears briefly had sole possession of the NFC North's top spot before the Packers also improved to 7-3 with a victory over the Vikings on Sunday.
Chicago comes into this game well rested after recording its first shutout since Nov. 19, 2006. Facing a hosting Miami club that was down to its third starting quarterback in Tyler Thigpen, the Bears' defense notched six sacks and gave up under 200 yards of offense.
"The story [Thursday] was, of course, the defense," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith. "Getting a shutout is tough, no matter where you are, especially on the road. Thought the guys had constant pressure throughout."
Offensively, Chicago held the ball for nearly 38 minutes and got three field goals from Robbie Gould before running back Matt Forte's late touchdown run in the third quarter capped the scoring.
The Bears figured to finish behind the Packers and Vikings in the standings, but their second three-game winning streak of the season and horrid play by Minnesota instead has Chicago challenging Green Bay for its first division title since 2006.
Though they have been to the postseason in two straight and eight of the last 10 years, offseason departures by quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook and cornerback Sheldon Brown figured to have Philadelphia starting over in 2010. However, the club winning seven of its first 10 games has it off to its best start since going 9-1 in 2004.
The Eagles broke their deadlock atop the standings with the Giants on Sunday, getting a late 50-yard go-ahead rushing touchdown from running back LeSean McCoy before a gift turnover by New York quarterback Eli Manning, who fumbled the ball on a head-first slide to move the chains despite going untouched. That turnover allowed Philly to drive for another field goal and hold on for the win despite blowing a 13-point lead.
"It was good to see this team in that position fight back and win the game," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said. "It's good to see a young team against a tough NFC East opponent get down and come back and show some fight. It will help us out down the road."
Coming off a historic performance versus the Redskins last Monday night, quarterback Michael Vick did not throw a touchdown pass, but did run for a score while throwing for 258 yards. He is now 5-0 in this season in games he has started and finished.
The performance was not without its flaws as the oft-penalized Eagles were flagged 10 times on Sunday for 119 yards.
Philadelphia also endured a scary moment on the opening kickoff of the second half after return man Ellis Hobbs had to be carted off the field following a helmet-to-helmet hit. X-rays on the defensive back were negative, but an MRI reveled a disc injury that landed Hobbs on injured reserve.
Hobbs' 2009 season was also cut short by a disc injury, but Reid said on Monday that the previous night's injury was to a different disc.
Chicago has a 26-9-1 lead in its all-time series with Philadelphia, which dates back to 1933, but the Eagles halted a two-game losing streak in the set with a 24-20 triumph at Soldier Field during Week 11 of last season. Philadelphia has won five of the seven most recent meetings between the teams and has registered a 4-1 record in Chicago over that stretch, with the Bears' last victory a 24-20 home decision in 2008.
The Eagles have won two of their three lifetime postseason meetings with Chicago, including a 33-19 road win in a 2001 NFC Divisional Playoff. Perhaps the franchise's most memorable confrontation came in the infamous 1988 "Fog Bowl," an NFC Divisional Playoff in the Windy City that Chicago won, 20-12.
Reid is 6-2 in his career against Chicago, including the 2001 postseason tilt. Smith is 2-2 against both Reid and Philadelphia as a head coach.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
After posting a franchise-record 592 yards the previous week versus Washington, few expected Vick and company to put up a similar effort against the Giants' top-notched defense. However, Philly managed nearly 400 yards of offense, with 148 of those on the ground. One game after throwing for 333 yards and rushing for another 80 versus the Redskins while also factoring in on six touchdowns -- four passing and two running -- Vick (1608 passing yards, 16 total TD, 0 INT) was far more limited against New York and also lost a fumble for his first turnover of the season. Dropped passes also hindered the Eagles, who had to settle for four field goals by David Akers. McCoy (726 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 7 total TD) ended with 111 yards on just 14 carries, but 90 of those yards came on two fourth-quarter runs. Regardless, the Eagles still rank second in scoring (28.4 PPG) and total offense (399.4 YPG) and are averaging just over 150 rushing yards per game, good for third in the league. DeSean Jackson (33 receptions, 5 TD) is Vick's biggest home run threat and the young receiver had five catches for 50 yards versus the Giants, while Jeremy Maclin (47 receptions, 7 TD) led the way with nine receptions and 120 yards. McCoy added five catches out of the backfield.
The Bears got plenty of pressure last Thursday versus the Chiefs, with defensive end Julius Peppers (30 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) logging a career high-tying three of Chicago's six sacks. The Peppers-fueled defense, which ranks first in scoring defense (14.6 PPG) and third overall (290.4 YPG), held Miami to a mere 187 yards and one third-down conversion. Linebacker Brian Urlacher (67 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT), defensive tackle Henry Melton (13 tackles, 2 sacks) and defensive end Israel Idonije (27 tackles, 6 sacks) all finished with a sack each as well. Vick should prove more elusive in this one and Peppers, Idonije and Urlacher will have their hands full preventing him from taking off on the outside. Corners Tim Jennings (40 tackles, 1 INT) and Charles Tillman (55 tackles, 3 INT) will look for help from safeties Danieal Manning (48 tackles, 1 INT) and Chris Harris (40 tackles, 2 INT) when possible to prevent the big plays. Pressure from the front four will be a must in this one though. Tillman came away with an interception last Thursday, Chicago's 25th takeaway of the season, and linebacker Lance Briggs (52 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) led the club with seven tackles. Chicago is hopeful linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (34 tackles, 1 sack) can play this weekend after he sat out last Thursday's game with knee soreness.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago needed a strong defensive effort versus Miami because of an offense that posted just 268 yards and under 20 points despite holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes. Quarterback Jay Cutler (2064 passing yards, 12 TD, 10 INT) threw for 156 yards, but was picked off for the seventh time in his last four games while also getting sacked three times to up his NFL-leading total to 33. Instead, Chicago and its 30th-ranked offense (294.4 YPG) was paced by 135 rushing yards, including 97 from Forte (567 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 7 total TD). The running back had his highest rushing yards total since Week 5 and just missed out on his second 100-yard rushing game of the season. Wide receiver Johnny Knox (37 receptions, 1 TD) led the team with five catches and 55 yards, while wideout Devin Hester (28 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (28 receptions, 4 TD) made four catches each for a combined 81 yards. Chicago's offense is averaging just 19.1 PPG and is just slightly over that mark over its last three games with a 21.7 PPG average. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system usually leads to a high sack total and the Bears will likely try to keep the Eagles defense honest by using Forte and Chester Taylor (216 rushing yards, 1 TD) as a dual threat on the ground.
There is only one team in the NFL that has more takeaways than the Bears and that is the Eagles. The Birds picked off Manning three times on Sunday and also recovered a pair of fumbles to give them 26 takeaways on the season and a plus-15 turnover ratio. Cornerback Asante Samuel (23 tackles) had two of those picks to up his league-leading total to seven and also recovered a fumble, while linebacker Stewart Bradley (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) also came away with a pick. Philadelphia has recorded at least one interception in 13 straight games. Defensive end Darryl Tapp (15 tackles, 2 sacks) recovered Manning's gift fumble and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (29 tackles, 3 INT) led the way with seven tackles. Philadelphia did not record a sack versus the Giants, but defensive ends Trent Cole (44 tackles, 7 sacks), Brandon Graham (9 tackles, 2 sacks) and Juqua Parker (15 tackles, 5 sacks) should get some chances in this one. Parker, though, missed time in Sunday's game with a hip flexor that had him limited in practice last week. Overall, the Eagles rank ninth in total defense (313.3 YPG), but are 20th with 22.6 PPG allowed.
Given the Eagles efficiency on offense, it comes as no surprise that the club features several fantasy contributors. Vick is morphing into one of the best options at the QB spot and his ability to run the ball gives him a huge edge over a host of other signal-callers. He can also air it out to Jackson and Maclin with ease, though tight end Brent Celek hasn't seen much action with Vick under center. McCoy is sometimes limited on the ground, but also racks up a ton of points as a receiving option. The ball-hawking defense is a great play due to Chicago's inability to score a lot of points, while Akers is 20- for-25 on field goal attempts.
The Bears are on the other side of the coin as many of their offensive weapons are weekly fantasy gambles. Forte is massively inconsistent and is a flex play at best this weekend due to the matchup, while Cutler's high sack total and interception issues make him shaky. That limits Knox, Hester and Olsen as well. Chicago's defense is one of the better options, but draws a tough matchup. Gould is 17-for-21 on field goal tries and has hit a pair from longer than 50 yards.
Both of these teams enter this game on quite a roll and feature defenses that force turnovers at a pace more rapid than a Woody Allen filmography. But while both defenses are evenly matched, the Eagles hold a huge advantage on the offensive side of things. Vick has the ability to put any defense on its heels while Philadelphia's pressure and solid secondary should make things tough for Cutler. The Eagles are also one of the better road teams, sporting a 4-1 mark away from Philly. Philadelphia has given up some big plays defensively this year, but Cutler likely won't be looking at much time to make things happen.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Philadelphia 23, Bears 17
11/24 15:01:39 ET