I recently wrote that this Bears-Panthers matchup should result in an easy victory for Chicago if things go as planned. But exactly what are these "things" and what has to happen for the Bears to improve to 6-1 on the season?
No matter what the records are, any NFL team can beat another NFL team on a given day. So just because Carolina limps into the game at 1-5, it doesn't mean they have no talent.
Recognizing that, let's dive right into the keys to the game.
1. Jason Campbell, get that helmet on!
Bears QB Jay Cutler is nursing sore ribs and there were even some calls for the Bears to rest Cutler and let Jason Campbell start this game, since it is a contest in which the Bears are huge favorites. That will not happen, of course, but I could certainly see the need for Campbell to be ready in case Cutler's ribs are cooked. (I shouldn't write that at lunchtime, it's making me hungry.)
Yet unlike last year, when Cutler went down and took the rest of the team with him, the Bears now have an insurance policy in Campbell. The former first-round draft choice has been a starter in the league and is auditioning for a contract to be a starter with some team after this season, so he is motivated.
JK's been in this league a year longer than me" Cutler said of his new backup. "He knows what this league is all about. He's a professional, he sits in meetings with me, he knows his stuff, he's ready anytime. Hopefully nothing happens, but if I go down we're in good hands.
That's good to hear, but leaves me with a question: why does he call him "JK" when his initials are "JC"?
Meanwhile, if Cutler's injury affects his passing to the point where he's ineffective, I would give Campbell a shot. If nothing else, it would give Campbell some playing time in case he is needed later in the year.
No matter what, if the Bears are either up big or down by a significant amount, I would remove Cutler from the game as soon as realistically feasible to limit further exposure.
2. Slow down Steve Smith
Smith is a different type of receiver than Calvin Johnson, but in many ways they are similar. By that I mean that while Smith is much shorter than "Megatron," he plays big. So Charles Tillman (or Tim Jennings) will have to play physical against him to prevent Smith from wreaking havoc in the Bears secondary.
There is no question that both cornerbacks have played well this year, although Jennings has come back to earth a bit the last two weeks. But they will have their hands full with Smith, who has torched the Bears to the tune of 38 receptions for 665 yards and two TDs in four games.
3. Need to get Devin Hester going in the return game
Devin Hester may have a "package" as a receiver, but to me, he earns his money based on his abilities in the return game. He is overdue to return a kick or punt for a touchdown. Last Monday, Hester was replaced by Eric Weems.
Last October, Hester returned a punt 69 yards for a TD against these same Panthers, so maybe history will repeat itself.
I recognize that the rules have changed, and that has probably affected Hester's ability in the kicking game. But this is the greatest return man in the history of the league, so I do not feel it is asking too much for him to break one this season.
It might as well be Sunday.
4. Pressure Cam Newton
It's funny how winning changes people's perspective on things. Newton is being chastised for his poor play because the Panthers are 1-5, while Cutler's struggles are being overlooked, at least in part, because the Bears are 5-1.
That is not to say that Newton's numbers aren't down from his historically great rookie season. But Carolina was equally bad last year at this time, so the difference likely is in the way that Newton has responded, whining about the play of his teammates and the coaching.
Still, he is a weapon that the Bears must game plan for, both with his arm and his legs. Matt Toeaina is playing poorly, but fortunately his teammates Stephen Paea and Henry Melton are doing enough to bring a pass rush without having to blitz a lot.
Former Carolina great Julius Peppers should be highly motivated to play against his old team. That will be needed, because last year the Bears didn't get pressure on Newton and the Panthers basically did whatever they wanted to on offense, although the Bears won that game 34-29.
Then there is the issue of takeaways, of course. The Bears are tied for the lead in that department and much of the reason behind that success has been due to the improved pass rush.
5. Commit to the run early and often
Even with the addition of Brandon Marshall, the passing game has struggled this season. But the two-headed monster of Matt Forte and Michael Bush should be an effective weapon against Carolina.
The Bears offensive line is better at run blocking, as most lines are, and with Gabe Carimi playing especially poorly, I'd prefer to see the Bears establish the run early and stick to that game plan, even if they fall behind early.
Unless the Bears get behind by a significant amount and are forced to pass a lot, Mike Tice should be calling a majority of run plays and screens on Sunday.