Monday Night Football will play host to the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys in Week 4, as both 2-1 teams look to gain an advantage in the NFC at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX.
Both teams are considered fringe playoff teams right now, and with uninspired performances in both of the last two weeks for the Bears and Cowboys, this is a pivotal game in turning that around.
It's especially pivotal for Bears QB Jay Cutler, who has felt the wrath of the media yet again this season, partially for his poor play against the Green Bay Packers in a big spot and also for his lack of leadership when times are tough.
He'll take the Bears into Dallas to face the Cowboys, who've had a surge on defense over the past three weeks not seen since around 2009 with Wade Phillips in charge. The secondary is making plays, and the run defense, led by Sean Lee, has been outstanding if you exclude the second half against Seattle.
There's an internet rumor swirling that long-time NHL star Chris Chelios was responsible for the burning of a Cutler jersey in a Chicago bar. If that's true, it's another example of why Monday Night Football is the biggest of stages for the Bears, and really for both teams going forward this season.
When: Monday, Oct. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, TX
Live Stream: ESPN3
Radio: 105.3 the Fan (Dallas); 105.9 FM (Chicago)
Spread: Dallas -3.5 (via Bovada)
This game is going to be a close one to bet. With the extra half-point, odds are Dallas isn't the betting-line favorite, especially given some of their recent games on Monday Night Football.
That being said, they are at home, and while both teams are coming off of less-than-impressive wins in Week 3, I would have to give the edge to Dallas at home in this one. You have to figure Jason Witten will snap out of his drop spell/mental breakdown soon, and Dallas has a ton of weapons on offense.
I wouldn't bet this game (if I was a betting man, that is), but if you're going to lay down the cash, lay down the points too, and take Dallas.
Over/Under: 42 (via Bovada)
The way this Dallas defense has been playing, I'm tempted to take the under. Chicago's defense is no slouch either, but as evidenced in their loss to the Packers, they struggle a little bit with speed over the middle.
Dallas has plenty, and that makes this a risky play. I'll take the under, though, and cite Dallas' performances against the Giants and Buccaneers as my reasoning. Neither team gets above 20 in this defensive battle.
Key Injuries: (via CBSSports.com)
WR Earl Bennett, hand, Questionable
RB Matt Forte, ankle, Questionable (limited practice)
DE Julius Peppers, not injury-related, Questionable
WR Miles Austin, hamstring, Probable
DT Jay Ratliff, ankle, Questionable (no practice)
S Gerald Sensabaugh, calf, Questionable (limited)
LB Anthony Spencer, shoulder, Questionable (no practice)
LB DeMarcus Ware, hamstring, Probable
Fantasy Big Plays
Chicago: WR Brandon Marshall
After torching the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, Marshall's had two quiet weeks against better defenses. Also, his QB is running for his life in the pocket, making it difficult to hook up on some of the deeper routes Marshall is well-known for.
However, against Dallas, I think he gets back towards a more normal week. He's been a thorn in the side of the Cowboys since he was in Miami and all the way back to his time in Denver, and he always seems to play well against Dallas.
Although Dallas is currently second in the league in pass defense, they also are without starting safety Barry Church for the remainder of the season. That spells one or two big plays for Chicago, and even with the revamped secondary, which has been great, Marshall gets loose.
Predicted Stats: 5 Catches, 88 yards, 1 TD
Dallas: TE Jason Witten
It had to happen sometime, right? Witten gets off his drop parade with a huge performance on national television, on a similar broadcast channel where he famously ran for 20-plus yards after losing his helmet against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Witten has been criticized heavily in the Dallas media market, and he's responded by giving no excuses, reports ESPN Dallas's Tim MacMahon.
Jason Witten just faced media firing line for 13 minutes. Gist: No excuses. Criticism deserved. He'll get it fixed. Story soon @espndallas— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 24, 2012
He's the ultimate pro, a true patriot at his position and one of the best the game has ever seen. He'll turn it around soon, and he'll do so against the Bears in a big way as Tony Romo's favorite target down the stretch.
Predicted Stats: 8 Catches, 75 yards, 1 TD
Key to Chicago Win: Protect Cutler against depleted Dallas D-Line
Chicago hasn't been able to protect Cutler so far this season, allowing 14 sacks and making the oft-criticized QB do more with less.
With Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Marcus Spears all questionable for this weekend, Chicago must take advantage against some of Dallas' reserve lineman. The drop-off isn't that big for Dallas, but it's enough that Chicago will have an early advantage, especially if Ratliff is sidelined again.
Chicago needs time for Cutler to throw; he's shown a great ability to use his arm strength in the pocket when given the opportunity.
Key to Dallas Win: 50-50 Offense
When Jason Garrett is forced to make Dallas a pass-happy offense, they have generally struggled. When he's able to mix up a successful amount of runs to passes in the flow of his offense, Dallas usually has pretty good success.
DeMarco Murray hasn't gotten on track this season, and the Bears aren't the team against which you would bet on him to turn it around. However, if Dallas can at least threaten Chicago with the run, it opens up some major holes for the the passing game.
In a gritty, grind-it-out game on Monday Night, Dallas uses a late charge and some rare Tony Romo fourth-quarter magic to beat the Bears and move up to 3-1. Too much drama surrounding Jay Cutler and the Bears, who drop to 2-2 in this close matchup.
Predicted Final Score: Dallas 20, Chicago 14