The Chicago Bears (8-3) will host the Seattle Seahawks (6-5) at Soldier Field at noon this Sunday. The Bears currently sit atop the NFC North by one game over the Green Bay Packers (7-4) and two games ahead of the Minnesota Vikings (6-5). This will be one of just two non-divisional matchups remaining on Chicago's schedule. It will be the third of six consecutive NFC contests for the Bears.
Sunday's contest will be the 16th meeting between the two franchises, with the Seattle holding a 9-6 edge in the series. It is the eighth time in the last seven seasons the two teams have met, which includes two Divisional Playoff matchups. The Seahawks won last year's meeting 38-14 at Soldier Field.
Bears on Offense
WR Brandon Marshall
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 11th (25.1)
Total offense: 30th (299.1)
Rushing offense: 10th (121.9)
Passing offense: 32nd (177.2)
Seattle's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 3rd (16.8)
Total defense: 5th (309.4)
Rushing defense: 12th (108.6)
Passing defense: 3rd (200.7)
Turnover ratio: 13th (+2)
Matchups to Watch
LT J'Marcus Webb vs. DE Chris Clemons
Clemons is one of the most underrated pass rushers in the league. He has 11.0 sacks in each of his past two seasons, with 8.0 already this season – 14th most in the league. Webb was solid last week against Minnesota's Jared Allen, which is a good sign as far as his development. Historically though, Webb has struggled with edge rushers of Clemons' caliber. If Webb can somehow put together two strong pass-protection games in a row, it will go a long way toward giving Jay Cutler time to throw the ball.
WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Richard Sherman
The Seahawks boast two of the biggest cornerbacks in the league. Sherman is 6-3, while Brandon Browner is 6-4. Sherman will likely get the bulk of the duty against Marshall, with Browner serving as a change-pace-look, which will be very challenging for Chicago's top wideout. So far this season, the passing attack has gone as far as Marshall has taken it. When he gets shut down, so does the Bears' offense. It will be up to Marshall to be physical at the line of scrimmage, as well as when the ball is in the air, to out-muscle Seattle's big corners. If he gets pushed around, the Bears will have little to no chance of moving the ball against the NFL's third best pass defense.
Keys on Offense
-The Seahawks rank 12th overall against the run but are just 26th best in opposing rushing yards per attempt. So the Bears have an opportunity to establish the run in this game, which will be key considering the Seahawks' stellar secondary. Matt Forte will play but expect to see a lot of Michael Bush as well, so as to not re-aggravate Fort's ankle injury. Chicago rushed 39 times last week, and dominated in time of possession as a result. They will have to follow that same formula again this Sunday.
-While coordinator Mike Tice has shown commitment to the run the past month, the results have been less than stellar. The Bears rushed for just 2.9 yards per carry last week and 3.0 the week before. Due to injuries to Spencer and Lance Louis, who is done for the season with a torn ACL, Chicago will use a brand new starting guard combination: LG Edwin Williams and RG Gabe Carimi. If those two can provide an upgrade along the interior, the Bears should have success moving the ball on the ground.
-With Jeffery and Hester on the shelf, the onus will be on WR Earl Bennett to take some pressure off of Marshall. Bennett has been a relative disappointment this year and has yet to step up and claim the club's No. 2 wideout role. Now is his opportunity to prove he can be a weapon out of the slot. In addition, Dane Sanzenbacher and Eric Weems will also have to contribute on passing downs. If those three are invisible, the Seahawks will just bracket Marshall all day, which could lead to costly interceptions.
-Speaking of helping Marshall, this is a game when TE Kellen Davis has to be a threat in the middle of the field. The Seahawks have a pair of quality safeties in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Chancellor is another big member of Seattle's secondary (6-3, 232). He'll surely attempt to be physical with Davis, in both coverage and against the run. Davis has to have one of his better games, otherwise Chancellor could have a big day.
-Last week, Cutler completed 23 of 31 passes for 188 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. He was on target and efficient, with his only turnover coming on a tipped pass. In essence, he was a game manager, and the Bears won by 18 points. Cutler does not need to light the world on fire every week. If he can work the short and intermediate routes, and not turn the ball over, that should be good enough for a Bears victory. This game pits the NFL's 31st passing offense against the 32nd passing offense. So the game will be won on defense and special teams, and through turnovers. If Cutler is safe with the ball, he'll give his team the best chance to win.
Bears on Defense
DE Corey Wootton
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 2nd (15.9)
Total defense: 3rd (307.0)
Rushing defense: 8th (96.9)
Passing defense: 6th (210.1)
Turnover ratio: 2nd (+13)
Seattle's offensive rankings
Points scored: 23rd (19.9)
Total offense: 27th (316.7)
Rushing offense: 8th (138.2)
Passing offense: 31st (178.5)
Matchups to Watch
DT Stephen Paea vs. C Max Unger
Seattle's offense goes as far as RB Marshawn Lynch goes. He's currently the third leading rusher in the NFL (1,051), while his 1,189 yards from scrimmage rank fifth overall. He's the workhorse and if he gets going, so will Seattle's play action. Stopping Lynch is crucial, especially in the middle of the field, where he does his most damage. Unger is one of the best run-blocking centers in the league. Paea will have his hands full but if he can hold his ground in the A gaps, that will allow Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs the ability to make plays. Paea's presence inside will be huge in this game, as will that of DT Henry Melton, who has shown stark improvement this year as a run stopper.
DE Corey Wootton vs. RT Breno Giacomini
On the left side of Seattle's offensive line is tackle Russell Okung, one of the best pass blockers in the game. So pressure will have to come off the right side, where Giacomini can be beat – he has given up four sacks this year, while his 25 hurries are 11th most amongst NFL tackles. Wootton has commandeered the starting spot from Israel Idonije and will have a juicy matchup in this one. He must take advantage and keep quarterback Russell Wilson out of his comfort zone.
Keys on Defense
-Lynch is an absolute beast when he gets into a rhythm. His downhill running style can wear down opposing defenses, especially if the Seahawks are in a position to run him 20-25 times. Chicago's offense needs to post points early, forcing Seattle into passing mode. Defensively, the key is to corral Lynch early. If you can stop him from getting into a groove, you put the ball in the rookie quarterback's hands. That's a trade off the Bears will take any day.
-Yet even though Wilson is a rookie, he's a darn good rookie. He has thrown for 2,051 yards (63.6 completion percentage), with 17 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His completion percentage and passer rating (93.9) are second amongst rookie signal callers, behind only the Redskins' Robert Griffin III. His 17 TDs are most among the rookies, while his 227 rushing yards are fifth most in the league amongst quarterbacks. The Seahawks don't rely on their pass game, asking Wilson only to limit his mistakes, something at which he has excelled. Getting pressure on him, keeping him rattled with different looks and keeping him in the pocket will be key to limiting his effectiveness as a passer.
-The Seahawks don't have a pass catcher in the NFL's top 50 in receiving yards this year. Their biggest threats are Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, yet Rice is questionable with a calf injury. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are first and second in fan voting for the NFC Pro Bowl, and should be able to have their way with Seattle's mediocre wideouts. Both receivers have speed though, so it would be wise to drop the safeties 20 yards deep on passing downs.
-Speaking of safeties, Major Wright will need to have another big game. All season he has been very good stopping the run as an in-the-box safety. In all but one contest, his pursuit and tackling have been great. With Lynch coming into town, he'll once again be tested. If he can serve as an extra linebacker, especially considering Briggs' sore ankle, the Bears should be able to hold Lynch in check.
PREDICTION: Bears 23, Seahawks 13
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.