What's at Stake?
After last week's loss to the Minnesota Vikings, it appeared the playoff hopes of the Chicago Bears (6-6) had been destroyed. Yet the Detroit Lions (7-6) lost to the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday, which means a win would put Chicago in a tie atop the division. The Lions hold the tiebreaker, so the Bears would technically be a game behind, but the Monsters of the Midway still have a great shot at making the playoffs.
And don't look now but the Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) are only a half game back after narrowly defeating the Atlanta Falcons yesterday. If Aaron Rodgers comes back this week, Green Bay will jump back in the hunt as well. The Bears will host the Packers in the season finale.
So for Chicago, the playoff implications in tonight's game are off the charts. If they lose, the season is, for all intents and purposes, over. If they win, it will breath life back into a city that had the wind knocked out of it last weekend.
The Cowboys (7-5) are also battling to keep their postseason hopes alive and are currently a half game back of the surging Philadelphia Eagles (8-5), who have won five straight.
The Bears will honor former Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka this evening and will retire his No. 89 jersey at halftime. Ditka not only earned a title as a coach but the former tight end was also part of the organization's last NFL Championship in 1963.
Ditka is the only player in the NFL's modern era to win a title with the same team both as a player (1963) and a coach (1985).
This will be the 24th meeting between the two franchises, with the Cowboys holding a 13-10 edge in the all-time series. The teams have split the last four meetings, with the Bears winning the last two at Cowboys Stadium. In the last matchup at Soldier Field in 2007, the Cowboys walked away with a 34-10 victory.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 5th (26.9)
Total Offense: 8th (381.4)
Rushing Offense: 19th (109.8)
Passing Offense: 6th (271.6)
Dallas' Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 22nd (25.3)
Total Defense: 32nd (421.6)
Rushing Defense: 27th (126.7)
Passing Defense: 294.9 (31st)
Turnover Ratio: 2nd (+12)
Matchups to Watch
WR Alshon Jeffery vs. WR Orlando Scandrick
Scandrick worked mainly as a nickelback and special teams player for the Cowboys, starting just 18 contests his first five years in the league. Yet this season, he's already started 11 games and has easily been the club's best cover corner. Scandrick (5-10, 195) leads the team in passes defended (11) but has historically struggled with receivers of Jeffery's size (6-3, 217). Heading into Week 14, Jeffery was fourth in the league in receiving yardage (1,109) and has emerged as one of the best playmakers in the game. His performance last week (12 catches, 249 yards, 2 TDs) featured one of the best touchdown catches you'll ever see, so Jeffery could give Scandrick fits, especially if Dallas rolls safety help over the top of Brandon Marshall.
G Kyle Long vs. DT Jason Hatcher
After Jay (Jeremiah) Ratliff was released in October, Hatcher moved from nose tackle to the 3-technique in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's scheme. Since then, Hatcher has flourished, leading the Cowboys with 9.0 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, the only defensive tackles to outplay Hunter as a pass rusher this season are Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh, both players Long already faced this year. Long was outstanding against McCoy in the season opener, but in two contests against Suh, he allowed 3.0 sacks – one of which resulted in a fumble that was returned by the Lions for a TD. If Hatcher outduels Long, Josh McCown will have pressure in his face, which could shut down the Bears' passing attack on a frigid evening. Get Hunter blocked and the passing game can have success.
Keys to the Game
-Statistically, the Cowboys have the worst defense in the NFL and the 31st ranked passing defense. As such, the Bears should have no problem moving the ball – assuming the weather doesn't shut down the passing attack. The Bears said this week they'll pass no matter how cold it is, which means Jeffery and Marshall must have big games. Marshall will square off against Brandon Carr, against whom he's dominated throughout his career. Marshall again must take Carr to school but in the middle of the field, TE Martellus Bennett needs to be active as well. In the cold weather, dump off passes are high-percentage plays. Bennett is a load to bring down, and he's also surprisingly nimble, so getting him in space against a weak tackling secondary could be the safest and most-effective way to slice up Dallas' pass defense.
-RB Matt Forte needs to get going early so as to wear down the Cowboys' front seven. On a slick field, Forte needs to set up his blocks and use the slippery sod to his advantage, particularly at the second level. If he can make a few guys miss, it could turn a 3-yard gain into a 50-yard touchdown. Depending on how windy it becomes, the Bears may have to abandon the pass, meaning Forte – and to a lesser extent Michael Bush – must be able to pound the rock effectively, moving the chains and wearing down the Cowboys' defense.
-LT Jermon Bushrod gets a tough test against DeMarcus Ware, who says he's fully recovered from a quad injury that has bothered him the past month and a half. The team has limited his reps the past three games but he'll likely be out there close to 100 percent of the snaps tonight. If Bushrod plays like he did against Terrell Suggs a few weeks back, Ware will have a field day and McCown could end up hurt.
-McCown must be aware of LB Sean Lee at all times. Last week, McCown threw two passes right at opposing linebackers he didn't see in underneath coverage. Lee, one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, leads the Cowboys in interceptions (4) and is recovered from the hamstring injury that held him out the past two weeks. Lee is great at staying hidden behind his defensive line before breaking on passes in his area. McCown has only thrown one pick so far but Lee will get at least one more if McCown doesn't keep him in the corner of his eye.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 28th (27.7)
Total Defense: 28th (386.9)
Rushing Defense: 32nd (153.6)
Passing Defense: 14th (232.4)
Turnover Ratio: 8th (+7)
Dallas' Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 3rd (27.4)
Total Offense: 23rd (328.4)
Rushing Offense: 27th (85.1)
Passing Offense: 15th (243.3)
Matchups to Watch
LB Jon Bostic vs. RB DeMarco Murray
The Cowboys rank 27th in rushing but don't let that fool you – they've had to pass a lot to make up for the porous defense. Amongst running backs, Murray is third in the league in yards per carry (4.9), so Dallas has been effective when they've had the opportunity to run, something they'll be doing early and often against Chicago's league-worst rushing defense. Bostic is an athlete but he's been extremely inconsistent filling his gaps against the run. On countless occasions the past few months, Bostic has been in position to make a play on the ball carrier yet he's consistently ran himself past the hole and out of the play, opening huge running lanes in the process. If Bostic can't break down and make plays at the point of attack, Murray could become the second runner in as many weeks to go over the 200-yard mark.
DT Stephen Paea vs. G Ronald Leary
The Cowboys feature a strong offensive line, yet Leary is the weak link. He's struggled mightily in pass protection this year and has been below average as a run blocker as well. In order for the Bears to limit Dallas' run game, Paea must take advantage of Leary and be disruptive. If Paea can't stay stout, Murray will run all over Chicago's defense – just like every back has done the past two months. Paea must have the game of his career to help stymie the Cowboy's run game.
Keys to the Game
-The Cowboys this week signed former Bears fullback Tyler Clutts. Up to this point in the year, Dallas had relied on tight ends to do the lead blocking but against the Bears, they want some extra beef up front. The signing of Clutts reveals the team's intentions: to run the ball down Chicago's throat.
-Chicago's secondary will have its hands full with Dez Bryant, who is one of the most athletically gifted receivers in the league. Charles Tillman has always played well against Bryant but Tillman is on the shelf, meaning Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman will be tasked with limiting Dallas' top pass catcher. If Bryant gets loose, he can be deadly down the field, meaning the safeties also must step up and make plays over the top. One way to stymie Bryant, who is always one play away from losing his cool, is to get in his head. Frustrating Bryant in any form usually leads to a borderline lunatic on the field who is nowhere near as effective.
-By his high standards, Jason Witten is having a down season (54 catches, 622 yards, 6 TDs) yet he's still one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. Tony Romo always looks to Witten in the clutch, meaning Bostic and James Anderson, Chicago's nickel linebackers, must be on their game during passing downs. If Witten has success between the seams, that will surely catch the attention of the safeties. If that happens, Bryant could get free down the sidelines, which would be a dagger to Chicago's playoff hopes.
-Don't let Tony Romo out of the pocket. He's not the most fleet-footed quarterback but on the run, Romo can be deadly. The Cowboys boast a pair of outstanding offensive tackles in Doug Free and Tyron Smith, so both Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin must work hard to keep contain on the outside. McClellin especially has struggled in this area. If he gets lost in the wash tonight, Romo will use the extra space to carve up the Bears' secondary.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.