The New England Patriots head to Soldier Field on Sunday to take on the Chicago Bears in one of the most crucial matchups of the season. For the second week in a row, the Patriots will be taking on a team with nine wins. Believe it or not, this weekend is a potential Super Bowl preview (I can't believe I just typed that either). Yes, the Bears with Jeff George..err...I mean Jay Cutler at quarterback, are 9-3.
Like the Patriots, they lead their division by one game so they have very little margin for error. You can bet your bottom dollar they'll be ready to play on Sunday. Oddly enough the Patriots face the team behind them, the Packers, next week. In a way, New England controls the fate of the NFC North.
Not that the Bears are counting on the Packers losing. They'd much rather take care of business themselves, which is what makes this game so dangerous for the Patriots.
Chicago is the most unheralded 9-3 team in recent memory. Maybe that's the way they like it. Maybe they want teams to take them lightly. Maybe they hear the talk of twice needing the referees' help to beat the Lions spur them to greater heights. After all, the Patriots don't have exclusive rights to the "no respect" card.
New England, on the other hand, is riding high after a Monday night evisceration of the New York Jets. They have a short week to prepare, made even shorter thanks to travel time. The last time the Patriots were this hot, they had just beaten the Vikings in Randy Moss's return to Foxboro. They went into Cleveland and got their hides tanned by the Browns.
Needless to say, they can't afford the same mistake this time around. Any lapse in focus will spell disaster, particularly along the offensive line. Julius Peppers is the type of player, a ferocious speed rusher off the edge, who gives Matt Light fits. Look for the Patriots to once again utilize Danny Woodhead, particularly using screen passes and draw plays, to help neutralize Peppers' speed on Brady's blind side.
That means Light and Mankins will need to get into the second level in a hurry to prevent linebacker Brian Urlacher from disrupting plays.
New England can also minimize Urlacher's impact defensively by forcing him into coverage ,and they have the perfect personnel to do it. The Bears play primarily a Tampa-2 defense, essentially a zone with little to no deception. On passing downs, the linebackers drop into coverage to take away the short and intermediate routes, which is almost exclusively what the Patriots run. By sending tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski over the middle, they can take Urlacher out of the box and keep him from disrupting the Patriots' offense.
The rookie tight ends should enjoy success as more than just decoys, however. That Tampa-2 zone is vulnerable in the second level, especially to tight ends up the seam. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bears assign a cornerback to shadow Hernandez, which would open things up for the wide receivers. It would also mean Gronkowski playing the conventional tight end role, and potentially having great success in between Urlacher and the safeties.
Defensively the Patriots will have their hands full. Running back Matt Forte has rediscovered the burst he displayed during his rookie campaign, and can hurt the Patriots as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. Luckily, New England is familiar with the Mike Martz system and has had success against it in the past. I would expect them to treat Forte the same way they treated the Rams' Marshall Faulk during the Super Bowl, by assigning a linebacker to him at all times.
I suspect that linebacker will be Jerod Mayo. Although I would rather see the NFL's leading tackler free to roam the field and make plays, I don't believe any of the team's other players can effectively stay with Forte like Mayo can. Besides, if Forte is going to be as involved as I think he will, the Patriots will need their best linebacker on him.
In the passing game, Jay Cutler's mercurial nature plays right into the Patriots' hands. He has a habit of making poor decisions under duress. He also seems overly confident at times, relying on his strong arm to force throws. If New England can keep him in the pocket and make him uncomfortable, it's a good bet he'll throw two or three interceptions, especially considering the Patriots lead the AFC with 18 on the year.
Perhaps the single most important player this week for the Patriots, besides Brady, is Vince Wilfork. Chicago's offensive line play has been just that. Offensive. Wilfork, and to a lesser extent Gerard Warren and crew, should enjoy one of their most successful games thus far. Cutler crumbles with pressure in his face and simply put, the Bears can't block Wilfork.
Who will win on Sunday
Which is why I think Martz will look to get Forte involved in an effort to limit mistakes and play safe.
New England's special teams will also have to bring its "A" game. Devin Hester remains one of the league's most dangerous return men, so special team aces like Devin McCourty will need to contain him and keep the Bears from starting with short fields.
Overall, if the Patriots can get an early lead and limit Matt Forte's touches, it will force Cutler into a difficult position. The more passes he throws, the more hits he absorbs and the more interceptions he throws. Essentially, the more likely a Patriots' win becomes.
My prediction: 27-16, Patriots.