MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON OFFENSE
Bears' Offensive Line vs. Patriots' Front Seven
New England has to find a way to protect its secondary, which is ranked 31st in the NFL in terms of total yardage allowed. In order to do that, Players like Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham have to find ways to beat their blocks to collapse the pocket around Jay Cutler, while not exposing the New England secondary to the run. Wilfork will absorb double blocks throughout the night, creating an opportunity for New England's linebackers and ends to get pressure. Just how the Bears' offensive line handles this could change the strategy of the game. Extra blockers in to protect Cutler will slow the rush but allows New England's DBs to focus on fewer threats downfield.
TE Greg Olsen vs. Ss Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather
As was expected since offensive coordinator Mike Martz has never gone out of his way to feature the tight end position, Olsen has only caught 30 passes for 336 yards in 12 games. But he does lead the Bears with five touchdown receptions, including three in the last five games, as his 6-5, 255-pound frame can more easily be found in the red zone than receivers Devin Hester, Johnny Knox or Earl Bennett – all of them are 6-feet or shorter. The Patriots have been vulnerable in the secondary most of the year, with Chung and Meriweather in particular struggling from time to time.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON DEFENSE
Bears' Linebackers vs. TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
The Patriots offense has morphed from the standard wide receiver spread formation with two or three WRs to more of a 2-TE, 2-WR and 1-RB set. Key to that success has been the play of Gronkowski and Hernandez, both rookies. Teams have traditionally played the Patriots with extra corners to cover the spread offense but used LBs to cover the TEs, without much success. The Patriots will try to exploit mismatches in the Chicago front seven by using heavy-TE sets to disguise runs and allow Tom Brady to find the mismatches, similarly to how he was able to connect with Gronkowski in the Detroit
CB D.J. Moore vs. WR Wes Welker
Originally billed as a fourth-round steal in the 2009 draft since many talent evaluators gave him a second-round grade, Moore made zero impact as a rookie and was a game-day inactive more often than not. However, the former Vanderbilt Commodore has been a revelation during his sophomore campaign in Chicago, leading the team with four interceptions from the nickel back position. The Patriots move Welker all over the place but he is particularly dangerous in the slot, so Moore needs to make sure those short throws from Brady go for short gains by being a sure tackler.
WR Wes Welker
THE PATRIOTS WIN IF...
... Tom Brady is Tom Brady. The New England QB has consistently shredded heavy-pressure fronts from opposing defenses, while still managing to
check to the right matchup downfield. Even when Brady's been sacked, he hasn't turned the ball over. His efficiency with the football has led to blowouts in games against good defenses like Miami, New York and Pittsburgh and allowed New England to win close games against the Ravens and Chargers.
THE BEARS WIN IF...
... they dominate the third-down battle, meaning they are converting on offense and getting off the field on defense. Time of possession can sometimes be a very misleading stat, but, since Brady and the current New England air attack tends to work its way down the field with short throws, as opposed to delivering 50-yard daggers to the departed Randy Moss, whichever team wins TOP has a better chance to win this game. Cutler and the Bears have been fantastic converting third downs during their five-game win streak, and that trend must continue.
THE PATRIOTS LOSE IF...
... their defense can't get off the field on third down. The Pats are last in the league, allowing opposing offenses to convert 49 percent of their third-down attempts. New England must find a way to prevent the Bears from marching down the field time and again. Sustained drives have hurt the Patriots, though they've been better of late, limiting teams like the Jets to under 40 percent.
THE BEARS LOSE IF...
... they are forced to bring extra blitzers to put pressure on Brady. As evidenced last week in New England's 45-3 dismantling of the AFC-East rival Jets, Brady knows how to diagnose any blitz thrown at him and is unequivocally unflappable when the pocket is collapsing around him. Everyone knows the Cover 2 is designed to rush the passer with the front four alone, and it is extra important this week to have seven defenders – and seven pairs of eyes – dropping into zone coverage and doing whatever they can to take the ball away from a team that makes precious few mistakes.
Jon Scott: I think the Patriots have the type of offensive matchups now that teams aren't ready for. New England isn't running traditional sets on
offense. They've been finding unique ways to use fresh faces to get the ball downfield. As long as New England wins the turnover battle – they haven't turned the ball over in four straight – then I think it's another Patriots win. ... PATRIOTS 27, BEARS 20.
John Crist: Defensively, the Bears thrive on takeaways, yet Brady hasn't thrown an interception in seven games and may be playing even better now than when he was the league's MVP back in 2007. On offense, while Cutler and Co. have been relatively sharp since the bye and face a New England defense not worthy of Bill Belichick's reputation, I don't see them being able to match this ballclub score for score. Unless Chicago can somehow be plus-two or plus-three in terms of turnover ratio, the Pats are simply superior. ... PATRIOTS 24, BEARS 17.
To go back and read Part I of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where Jon answered five questions from John, Click Here. To read Part II, where John answered five questions from Jon, Click Here.
John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Jon Scott is the publisher of PatriotsInsider.com.