Bears vs. Lions: Breaking Down What Chicago Must Do to Keep Playoff Hopes Alive
One could try to sell Sunday's Week 17 matchup between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions as a clash of NFC North foes, but that would be overselling it. Quite simply, this is a "win-or-go-home" game for the Bears and a relatively meaningless stat-padding exercise for the Lions.
For today, let's just focus on the team that actually has something to play for on Sunday.
Chicago's destiny to the postseason is actually quite simple. The Bears need to win and have the Minnesota Vikings lose and their 10-6 record would hoist them to the No. 6 seed.
A loss, on the other hand, will leave the Bears making vacation plans in January and Lovie Smith looking for work. The Chicago head coach has been the target of scorn throughout the Windy City after his team started 7-1 before collapsing down the stretch.
How can the Bears keep their playoff hopes alive? Here is a look at what they must do to beat Detroit and keep their wild-card dream afloat.
Get a Heroic Performance From Matt Forte
It may have taken "acupuncture-like" treatments to get his ankle ready for Sunday's game, but Forte will be in the lineup on Sunday. The Bears running back, who has been hobbled all year by various injuries, comes into Week 17 just nine yards shy of his third career 1,000-yard season.
Forte sprained his right ankle in last week's victory over the Arizona Cardinals and his status had been very much in doubt. However, with Chicago's wild-card life on the line, it seems like Forte is going to tough it out, and he should be in line for a solid game.
Heading into Sunday, the Lions rank 18th in the NFL against the run, giving up 118.3 yards per game. They fall even further metrically, though, as Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic puts them No. 24 against the run.
If Forte can find some wiggle room at the line of scrimmage and display a burst at least somewhat reminiscent of his peak levels, there's little reason why he wouldn't excel on Sunday. Just don't expect him to make any impact in the passing game. Football Outsiders measures Detroit as the second-best team in the league against pass-catching running backs.
Jay Cutler Needs to Find Receivers Not Named Brandon Marshall
Somewhere along the way Cutler stopped being the gunslinger who would win as many games with scintillating plays as he did with boneheaded ones and simply became...a guy.
More accurately, he became a guy who only has eyes for Brandon Marshall.
Cutler comes into Sunday's matchup having one of the worst seasons of his professional career. The Chicago signal-caller has thrown for 2,776 yards and 18 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, with the first two statistics threatening career lows for seasons where he's played 14 or more games. And according to Football Outsiders, Cutler's DVOA ranks 28th in the league, behind illustrious names like Michael Vick, Christian Ponder and Ryan Tannehill.
More than anything, he's become the single most predictable quarterback in football. Just like Brady Quinn has never met a checkdown throw he didn't love, Cutler has yet to meet a Marshall route he didn't adore.
On the season, Marshall has 113 receptions for 1,466 yards and 11 touchdowns on 179 targets. The Bears' second-most targeted wide receiver, Earl Bennett, has 24 receptions for 266 yards and one touchdown on 44 targets.
To put it another way, Marshall has nearly five times as many receptions and about four times as many yards and targets as Cutler's second-favorite receiver.
If Cutler continues to ignore his other receivers, he'll pass on taking advantage of a massive deficiency in the Lions defense. Detroit's secondary ranks 31st against number two receivers but is middle of the pack against the rest of the position.
Without a big game from Bennett or Alshon Jeffery, this game may be closer than expected.
Don't Change Anything in Secondary
While Calvin Johnson may hold the NFL record for receiving yards, the Bears secondary may just be his kryptonite. In 10 career games against Chicago, Johnson has averaged only 4.8 catches for 72.9 yards per game and grabbed four touchdowns total. Those are by far the worst numbers Megatron has posted against a divisional opponent, and the Bears even had success against him earlier this season.
In the teams' Week 7 matchup, Johnson caught just three of his 11 targets for 34 yards in the Bears' 13-7 victory. That was one of just two times in the past 11 weeks Megatron has been held under 100 yards, with the other coming against the Seattle Seahawks' vaunted secondary.
Chicago has actually been brilliant against opposing receivers all season. Led by Charles Tillman, the secondary has forced number one receivers to a production rate 31.5 percent less than that of a replacement-level defense. With the Bears also ranking first against opposing tight ends in DVOA, they have essentially locked down Detroit's two best pass-catching options.
Smith may not want to write word for word the same game plan for Sunday that he did in Week 7, but there is little need for any overarching changes. Stick to the script and the secondary should do the trick.
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