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NFL Preview - New England (10-2) at Chicago (9-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New England Patriots and Chicago Bears have faced one another in a Super Bowl once before. Considering how both teams have fared in recent weeks, a second such meeting doesn't appear too far-fetched.
Chicago will be entering Sunday's very intriguing interconference clash with the high-powered Patriots on an uplifting five-game winning streak that has vaulted the Bears into first place in the NFC's North division. New England, meanwhile, heads to what's expected to be a frigid Soldier Field on a major hot run of its own, having won four consecutive contests highlighted by an jaw-dropping pasting of its biggest rival this past week.
The Patriots have stamped themselves as the clear-cut front-runners in the AFC following Monday's 45-3 rout of the New York Jets in one of the most highly- anticipated matchups of this 2010 season. The surprisingly easy victory put New England one game ahead of the Jets in the AFC East standings and holds an identical edge on the 9-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team the Pats handled by a 39-26 count in mid-November, in the race for the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference playoffs.
New England's impressive tear has been triggered by the near-flawless play under center from quarterback Tom Brady, with the two-time Super Bowl MVP shredding New York's vaunted defense for 326 yards and four touchdowns while completing a crisp 21-of-27 attempts. Performances like that one have become the norm for the superstar signal-caller this season, as he tops the league in both passer rating (109.3) and touchdown throws (27) and has gone seven straight games without throwing an interception, spanning a franchise-record 228 consecutive attempts.
The Brady-led offense is scoring at an NFL-best 31.6 points-per-game clip for the season, and the Patriots have averaged a whopping 40 points over their four straight triumphs.
With a win on Sunday, New England will secure a spot in the playoffs for the seventh time in the past eight seasons, and the Patriots can also clinch a berth with a Miami loss this week coupled by defeats by either Jacksonville or Indianapolis.
Chicago's strong charge has been fueled by a stifling defense that's yielding a mere 16 points per week on the year and stands near the top of virtually every major category. The Bears have been getting contributions from the other side of the ball as well during their surge, the team's longest since it started out the 2006 campaign 7-0 en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Quarterback Jay Cutler has made good on nearly 63 percent of his throws and tossed 10 touchdown passes against just three interceptions during Chicago's current five-game streak. After putting up 247 yards and a season-best four scores without a pick in a critical 31-26 home win over NFC East co-leader Philadelphia in Week 12, the strong-armed triggerman was a sharp 21-of-26 for 234 yards and a touchdown in rallying the Bears from a six-point second-half deficit in last Sunday's 24-20 road decision over Detroit.
Chicago now returns to Soldier Field, where it's prevailed in seven of its past eight December tilts, in sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the NFC and owns a one-game advantage on hard-charging Green Bay for the top spot in the North.
The Bears will attempt to maintain their strong position when they take on a Patriots squad that's an astounding 20-1 in their last 21 encounters with NFC opponents.
New England holds a 7-3 edge in its all-time regular season with Chicago, and has won each of the last two head-to-head meetings with the Bears. The Patriots were 17-13 home winners when the teams last met in 2006, and took a 33-30 decision in the previous meeting, at Soldier Field in 2002. The Bears' most recent win over the Patriots came in the Windy City in 2000.
The most memorable matchup between the teams was Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, won by Chicago, 46-10.
New England head coach Bill Belichick is 3-1 in his career against the Bears, including a win for his Browns during the 1992 season. The Bears' Lovie Smith is 0-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
There's little question that New England's 2010 success has been primarily the product of Brady (3029 passing yards, 27 TD, 4 INT) having competed at arguably the highest level of his brilliant career, with the poised veteran skillfully directed an offense that's averaged over 290 net passing yards over the club's four straight wins. He also has plenty of talent to work with, as the ever-reliable Wes Welker (72 receptions, 7 TD) continues to find soft spots underneath enemy defenses as the main possession receiver and midseason acquisition Deion Branch (49 receptions, 5 TD) has reemerged as a capable deep threat who's averaged nearly 30 yards a catch and scored three touchdowns over the past two weeks. Rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez (39 receptions, 4 TD) and Rob Gronkowski (26 receptions, 6 TD) have quickly developed into key components in the passing game as well, while third-down back Danny Woodhead (355 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 4 total TD) has provided the team a pass- catching weapon out of the backfield. The ex-Jet toasted his former mates for a career-high 104 receiving yards on four grabs on Monday. The Pats aren't a one-trick pony on offense, however, as leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (699 rushing yards) is a tough inside runner who's put up 11 touchdowns this year and Woodhead has averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his change-of-pace role.
It's possible Brady could be faced with his greatest challenge of the season come Sunday, as the Bears rank second in the NFL in pass efficiency defense and have surrendered only nine passing touchdowns thus far, the second-lowest number in the league. Cornerback Charles Tillman (62 tackles, 3 INT, 11 PD) and safety Danieal Manning (53 tackles, 1 INT) lead a secondary that excels at preventing the big play, and the backfield has gotten excellent support from the formidable pass-rushing combo of ends Julius Peppers (38 tackles, 7 sacks) and Israel Idonije (37 tackles, 7 sacks). Linebackers Brian Urlacher (94 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (65 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) are also terrific in coverage and can certainly hold their own against the run as well, with the accomplished duo heading up a stout front seven that's permitted just 84.9 rushing yards per game (2nd overall) and 3.7 yards per attempt. Nickel back D.J. Moore (34 tackles) tops Chicago with four interceptions and figures to be relied upon heavily this week, as the Patriots love to spread the field with multiple-receiver sets.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
While Cutler (2545 passing yards, 17 TD, 10 INT) has done his part by making sound decisions and utilizing his elite physical skills, Chicago's recent takeoff can also be attributed to the resurgence of a running game that was dormant during the early portion of this season. The Bears have averaged a solid 123 rushing yards during their present win streak, the majority of which has come from the legs of versatile running back Matt Forte (748 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 8 total TD). The added balance has helped ease the burden on Cutler as well as help hide the deficiencies of a suspect front line that's given up a league-worst 45 sacks. The receiving corps lacks a standout but does have several workable parts, with top target Johnny Knox (43 receptions, 774 yards, 2 TD) averaging a healthy 18 yards per catch and fellow wideout Earl Bennett (39 receptions, 3 TD) coming off a career-best 104-yard display on seven grabs against Detroit. Forte is also an integral part of the Bears' air attack, ranking third on the team in both receptions and receiving yards (369) as an outlet for Cutler, who's thrown eight of his 10 interceptions this year at home.
Cutler will be going up against a New England defense that hasn't impressed by the numbers, with the Pats having allowed the second-most passing yards in the NFL (276.8 ypg) and the lowest percentage of third-down stops (51.2) while coming up with a modest total of 21 sacks. The unit has been quite opportunistic, however, and especially so of late. New England has intercepted eight passes over its last three wins and is tied for second in the league in that category, and the team picked off the Jets' Mark Sanchez three times in Monday's domination. Promising rookie cornerback Devin McCourty (64 tackles, 13 PD) has been at the forefront of the Pats' pilfering ways, as four of his team-high six interceptions have come in that three-game span, and safety James Sanders (52 tackles, 3 INT) has three picks in his last four outings. New England did give up 152 rushing yards to New York and has been rather ordinary in that aspect, though inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (144 tackles, 1 sack) and two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork (44 tackles) are unquestionably above-average performers. The Patriots have been without their leader in sacks, end Mike Wright (14 tackles, 5.5 sacks), for the past three weeks due to a serious concussions, and it's unclear as to whether he'll be cleared to return for Sunday's bout.
Those participating in fantasy playoffs this week with Brady on their roster probably got there in large part due to the quarterback's season-long exploits, and it goes without saying that he should be remain in starting lineups for the duration. New England's receiving cast is a bit more tricky, as Brady often spreads the ball around depending on the matchup, but Welker and Branch are usually pretty safe selections and Hernandez and Gronkowski more of a crapshoot. The Patriots' two running backs are both usable, as Green-Ellis has been a touchdown machine and Woodhead's receiving totals gives him decent value. As the kicker for the league's highest scoring team, New England's Shayne Graham is a worthy choice. Chicago has a few players that merit starting nods as well, with Forte a weekly lock and both Knox and Bennett having done enough to warrant a look at wide receiver. Cutler gets to face a New England defense that's allowed its share of passing yards, making the Bears' field general a solid though not elite fantasy quarterback. The Chicago defense is an excellent play in most weeks, but this may not be one of them.
Are the Bears the one team equipped to stop New England's prolific offense? While Chicago's defense has indeed been outstanding, keep in mind that Brady was able to carve up two other top-notch stop units in the Jets and Pittsburgh during the Patriots' remarkable run, and New England has shown it can run the ball when needed as well, which could be essential in the cold and windy elements that Sunday's battle may provide. Turnovers will likely be a deciding factor here as well, and considering Brady hasn't been intercepted in nearly two months and Cutler's past history of throwing picks, that all-important aspect seems to work in the Patriots' favor. This game won't be the cakewalk that last week's was, but New England's consistency and efficiency will stand out in what should be a very entertaining game between teams that may very well still be playing in January.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Bears 20
12/09 15:51:10 ET