The Chicago Bears (8-6) head on the road to Glendale this weekend to take on the Arizona Cardinals (5-9) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals are the Bears' most common non-divisional opponent. The two teams will square off for the 91st time since 1920, when both franchises were located in Illinois.
In the all-time series, the Bears own a 57-27-6 lead. Chicago holds a 20-16-1 edge in road contests against the Cardinals franchise. The Bears are 3-1 against the Cardinals in games played in Arizona.
Chicago is currently tied with four other teams – Minnesota, Washington, Dallas and New York , all 8-6 – vying for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. As such, the Bears must win out and hope those other teams, particularly the Vikings – who are currently in possession of the final wild card spot – start losing.
Considering the playoff implications, the Bears cannot afford to lose this week's contest.
-DT Henry Melton (chest) is listed as doubtful and isn't expected to play for the second straight week. Israel Idonije started in Melton's place last week and I expect that to happen again on Sunday, with Amobi Okoye rotating in.
-For the Cardinals, WR Early Doucet (concussion) and G Mike Gibson (calf) are out. LB Quentin Groves (foot), TE Rob Housler (knee), S Rashad Johnson (hamstring), T Nate Potter (ankle), S James Sanders (calf), FB Anthony Sherman (knee), DE Ronald Talley (ankle), DT Dan Williams (hamstring) are questionable. DE Calais Campbell (calf), LS Mike Leach (back/shoulder), CB Greg Toler (hamstring) are probable.
WR Brandon Marshall
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 16th (22.9)
Total offense: 29th (305.9)
Rushing offense: 12th (119.6)
Passing offense: 28th (186.4)
Arizona's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 11th (21.6)
Total defense: 11th (335.8)
Rushing defense: 28th (136.5)
Passing defense: 4th (199.3)
Turnover ratio: 13th (+3)
Matchups to Watch
Keys on offense
-The Cardinals have a young defense that is playing at a very high level. The club has 14 interceptions in the second half of the season, the most in the NFL during that span. Their 22 interceptions are also tops in the league, as is their 5.0 interception percentage, while their 32 total takeaways are fourth best in the NFL. Arizona has held opposing quarterbacks to a 68.0 passer rating, best in the league, and are holding opposing signal callers to a 54.5 completion percentage, third best. CB Patrick Peterson is second in the NFL with 7.0 interceptions, including one in each of the last four contests.
In Week 9, the Cardinals held Aaron Rodgers – the NFL's most accurate passer heading into the game – to a completion percentage of 46.7, the third lowest of his career. In Week 11, they forced Matt Ryan into a career-high five INTs, without allowing a TD pass, and limited him to a passer rating of 40.5, the second lowest single-game total of his career. Last week, they picked off Matthew Stafford three times.
This puts the emphasis in this game on Chicago QB Jay Cutler, who must be careful with the football. The Cardinals will take advantage of any errant throws – they returned two picks for touchdowns against the Detroit Lions last week. Cutler must take what the defense gives him, even if that means repeatedly working the underneath zones to move the ball down the field. Forcing deep passes into coverage – something Cutler does at least once in every contest – will be a recipe for disaster. If he's lazy with the ball, Cutler could singlehandedly lose this game for the Bears.
-It won't be easy for Cutler if he doesn't have time to throw the ball. The Cardinals have 36.0 sacks on the season, tied with the Bears for fifth most in the NFL. They are a team that blitzes on well more than 50 percent of their snaps, using exotic packages out of defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 formation. The Bears will be starting the fifth different offensive line combination in the past six weeks. This week's starting five: LT J'Marcus Webb, LG James Brown, C Roberto Garza, RG Chris Spencer, RT Gabe Carimi. If this new group can't work as a cohesive unit, it could be a long afternoon for Cutler, with repeated visits to the turf.
-WR Brandon Marshall will again be the focus of Chicago's passing attack. He has led the club in targets in all but one game this year. Don't expect that to change. The Cardinals will likely double-team him for most of the game, meaning Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett must take advantage of their one-on-one matchups. Bennett hasn't played in two weeks and will need to quickly shake off the rust to be a complementary weapon out of the slot. Jeffery needs to put last week's three pass interference calls behind him and continue to be the physical receiver he's been all season – without the push offs.
-TE Kellen Davis didn't receive a single target last week, which isn't surprising considering how unreliable he's been all year. Don't be surprised, though, if Cutler tries to work Davis over the middle of the field. With him disappearing last week, the Cardinals may overlook him, which could open up room for Davis to make plays down the seams.
-The best way to keep the ball out of Cutler's hands, and thus risk game-changing turnovers, is to run the ball. RB Matt Forte has received 20 or more carries in three of the last five contests, yet he hasn't topped the 100-yard mark in any game since Week 10. He needs just 93 yards to reach 1,000 yards on the season for the third time in his five-year career. This should be the game where he reaches that mark. He needs to get at least 20 carries, even if he's not picking up huge yards, to help control that clock and take pressure off Cutler. If coordinator Mike Tice bails on Forte and gets pass happy, the Bears won't be scoring much.
-In the run game, FB Evan Rodriguez will be key. He has been extremely inconsistent as a lead blocker this year and must improve if the Bears are going to pick up yards on the ground. Chicago is averaging just 4.2 yards per carry as a team, 19th in the NFL. That must improve. E-Rod will have to play a big role in that improvement.
DE Shea McClellin
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 3rd (17.1)
Total defense: 5th (319.6)
Rushing defense: 12th (109.0)
Passing defense: 6th (210.6)
Turnover ratio: 3rd (+14)
Arizona's offensive rankings
Points scored: 30th (16.0)
Total offense: 32nd (264.2)
Rushing offense: 32nd (80.0)
Passing offense: 29th (184.2)
Matchups to Watch
Keys on defense
-Let's not kid ourselves, the Cardinals are brutal on offense. That all starts with the quarterback position. Ryan Lindley, a sixth-round rookie from San Diego State, will be making his fourth start. He has yet to throw a touchdown this year, while tossing six picks. Lindley has looked overmatched in the NFL and now faces the sixth best pass defense in the league. The Bears should have plenty of opportunities for turnovers. If the secondary can take advantage of those opportunities and score a touchdown or two, that would likely be good enough to win the game.
-Getting pressure on Lindley will force those errant passes. As we all know, a collapsing pocket can eat up a rookie signal caller. The Bears have 36.0 sacks this year, fifth most in the NFL, yet just 11.0 in the past six games. This is a game where they should be able to get back on track, as Arizona's offensive line, like Chicago's, will be using its fifth different front five combination. Last week, the Cardinals started two rookies at tackle (LT Nate Potter and RT Bobby Massie), while Adam Snyder made his first start at center and Pat McQuistan made his first start since 2010. Injuries have plagued this unit, yet despite that, they didn't allow a sack last week and have given up just 17.0 sacks over the last games – after giving up 35.0 sacks over the first seven contests.
The Bears will be without Henry Melton, so Israel Idonije will likely start at defensive tackle for the second straight week. Chicago will be getting DE Shea McClellin back after he was out last week due to a knee injury. He, along with Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers, must bring it off the edge, while Idonije, Stephen Paea and Amobi Okoye need to push the pocket into Lindley's face. Consistent pressure will lead to turnovers, which will lead to a victory.
-WR Larry Fitzgerald, a six-time Pro Bowler, will be Lindley's main target all day. CB Charles Tillman will be tasked with covering Fitzgerald, who has arguably the best hands in the NFL. Don't be surprised if the Bears roll safety help over the top to be sure Fitzgerald doesn't beat them.
-The Bears can't sleep on rookie receiver Michael Floyd. With Early Doucet out, Floyd will serve as the club's No. 3 wideout. The big-bodied receiver can do damage against Kelvin Hayden, who has struggled of late. This is especially so in the red zone, where Floyd (6-3) can use his height advantage over Hayden (6-0).
-While Beanie Wells is Arizona's primary ball carrier, Chicago must be cognizant of LaRod Stephens-Howling, who is a shiftier, more-explosive back. His size (5-7, 185) and quickness make him hard to bring down in the open field.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.