Two NFC contenders face off on Monday Night Football as the Jason Campbell-led Chicago Bears head to San Francisco to take on the 49ers—without Alex Smith.
The Bears (7-2) have one of the most devastating defenses since, well, the Bears of last decade. Much like the Rex Grossman-era Bears that were able to make it to a Super Bowl on the back of a turnover-creating machine, these Bears are able to win as long as their offense doesn't become a liability. Problem is, it might be on Monday night with Jay Cutler out.
If Campbell can lead this team and (more importantly) stay upright behind that offensive line, the Bears defense will keep them in any game against any opponent.
The 49ers (6-2-1) have a record similar to the Bears, but they have not been nearly as dominant this season. Alex Smith is having a career year (though he is out for Monday night with a concussion), and that offensive line is playing like one of the best units in football, but the Niners have dropped games to the Vikings and Giants and tied last weekend with the Rams. Worse yet, the Giants and Rams were at home.
When this team is on, it can be fantastic. The defense (at least statistically) is up there with that of the Bears, and the offense can move the ball with the best of them.
Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden have the call, but who gets the win on Monday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Are the Bears Smoked Without Jay Cutler?
I mentioned it in the intro, but it bears repeating: If the Bears offense isn't a liability, they win. Period. That defense is that good to win games, any game, as long as the offense doesn't screw things up.
So, what's it going to be, Campbell?
It's not quite as simple as replacing Cutler with Campbell, however. If it were, this would probably still be the Bears' game to lose. Campbell is a very good quarterback, but maybe not starter good. Certainly not good enough to overcome the decades of crap football the Redskins and Raiders had before trying him out as starter. He's good though, and he's one of the best backups in the NFL.
The problem is, he's had one week to get ready with the first-string offense. He's only had one week to try to create some chemistry with those receivers and understand what the heck that thing is in front of him where the offensive line should go.
Against the 49ers? One week might not be enough.
Key Storyline No. 2: Will the Real 49ers Please Stand Up?
Then again, the 49ers are just as likely to shoot themselves in the foot on Monday night as they are to do anything else.
Seriously, what is the deal with this team? One moment they look like world-beaters, and the next they look like an also-ran in the NFL contenders' race. In hindsight, they've only had one truly legitimate win (two if you count the Seahawks, who are incredibly beatable on the road), and that was against the Packers in Week 1.
Are the 49ers just an average team with an easy schedule that met up with the Packers at the best possible moment, or is this a top-tier team that is just dealing with some minor speed bumps?
Monday night should answer that question pretty convincingly even without Alex Smith.
Keys for the Chicago Bears
Against the league's third-ranked pass defense, honestly, I'm not sure the Bears' game plan has changed much without Cutler. Running the ball is going to be important no matter who is under center, and the Bears' rushing attack (ranked 10th in the NFL with 127 yards per game) is capable of carrying the load.
More importantly—especially with Cutler out—the passing attack benefits from Matt Forte and Michael Bush being such a good tandem on the ground and (Forte especially) being dangerous as receivers out of the backfield. Look for both of those guys to get an extra dose of targets as Campbell auditions for the lead role in the latest rendition of "Captain Checkdown."
Who Wins on Monday Night?
Don't be surprised if the Bears don't line up in run-heavy formations all night. Campbell is comfortable with multiple-receiver sets and (even though his timing won't be fine-tuned) is more capable with short-to-intermediate timing throws than Cutler and is less apt to hit big throws over the top of the coverage downfield. Spreading the 49ers out and making their nickel and dime backs play heavy snaps is just as much about "protecting" Campbell as it would be to line up in max protect all night long.
On defense, just be yourselves. Honestly, what are they supposed to change schematically from the butt-whooping they've put on the league so far? Statistically, you would like them to be a little less bend-but-don't-break, but anyone who actually watches the games knows the yardage they give up means nothing to the near-constant pressure and the turnovers they create.
It isn't going to be easy against the Niners offensive line, especially if Smith gets into a rhythm, but lining up and playing football usually means a net-win for the Bears defense.
Keys for the San Francisco 49ers
With Colin Kaepernick getting the start (h/t ESPN's Chris Mortensen), this game has a chance to get ugly.
It isn't that Kaepernick isn't good (he is, and he's getting better). No, it's that he's still a "rookie" in terms of learning a pro offense, and he's far more mistake prone than Smith has been this season. The offense will have to be more gimmicky and will need to lean on big plays. Honestly, it might turn the ball over more than it scores.
Without Smith, the 49ers will need to lean on Frank Gore. He can run with seven men in the box. He can even run with eight in there. Smith has been good enough this season to keep teams from creeping up, because he's made them pay when they have. Will Kaepernick? It's possible, but doubtful.
Look for the Niners to try to press the seam with Vernon Davis. If the Bears are vulnerable anywhere, it's against those safeties. The Niners offensive line should be good enough to protect Kaepernick while he's working down the field, at least occasionally.
Ball security is, of course, of the utmost importance. The Niners have been pretty great in that regard this year, only giving the ball away nine times. Of course, one game against the Bears with a backup QB can severely change that.
Defensively, the Niners need to make Campbell pay anytime he puts the ball in the air. If Josh McCown is forced to play, this game is over. With the Bears offensive line, that isn't an unlikely occurrence. More likely, however, is that Campbell's timing (which is already behind the eight ball) is disrupted and he misfires a couple of passes into the hands of the defense.
If the 49ers allow the Bears to maintain any sort of clean pocket or simply run down their throats, they will lose.
Bold Prediction: 49ers Have More Takeaways on Monday Night Than the Bears
OK, I know these "bold" predictions get more and more bold each week, but this one isn't as far outside the realm of possibility as many may think (especially Bears fans who are sure to throw some form of processed meat at the mere insinuation that the Bears defense won't get 30 interceptions).
Hear me out.
Smith (who is out) hasn't been throwing many interceptions and the Niners are not fumbling. Yes, that will change when they meet the Bears, but they shouldn't magically turn into the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night.
That being said, as many takeaways as the Bears have had this season, they are turning the ball over as well. Their mark of 16 giveaways (according to ESPN) isn't the worst in the NFL, but it's certainly not good. With Campbell under center, that trend should continue, if not worsen.
In all, expect the Niners to win the turnover battle and, thus, win the game on Monday night.
Player of the Game Prediction: Frank Gore
If the 49ers win, it won't be because Kaepernick did his best Steve Young impersonation, it will likely be because the Bears defense was forced to play a number of extra short-field possessions and Gore gets rolling. He should cross the century mark and should get a number of red-zone carries in what will need to be a more-conservative-than-usual offensive game plan.
All this changes if Gore puts the ball on the turf or if the 49ers make mistakes when they need to air it out, but look for the Niners' ground attack to run away with a victory.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers 21, Bears 20
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."