Bears at Patriots: What to Watch for Sunday

The 9-1 Chicago Bears will have to jump their highest hurdle of the season in Week 12 against the New England Patriots. This may not be the same Patriots team that won three Super Bowls in four years, but with Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick calling the shots, they will always be contenders. Here are 10 things to watch for on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.

1. Can Thomas Jones stay hot against the Patriots run defense?
Jones got off to a slow start this season and may have been in danger of losing his job to backup Cedric Benson a few weeks ago. Lo and behold, Jones is one of the hottest backs in football and on pace to best last year's career high of 1,335 yards on the ground. He's cracked the century mark in four of his last six games and elevated a disappointing Bears running game to 14th in the league. The Patriots surrender just 76.2 rushing yards per game - good for second-best in the NFL - and could make it very difficult for the Bears to establish their ground attack. But if Jones can move the chains against this defense, he can do it against anyone.

2. How much will the defense miss Ricky Manning Jr.?
He may not technically be a starter, but Manning is on the field just about as much as strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Manning, a free agent signee from Carolina, has fit in very well on a defense full of superstars and leads the team with four interceptions. He single-handedly turned the tide of the Seattle game in Week 4 with two first-half picks of Pro-Bowler Matt Hasselbeck. Head coach Lovie Smith was pretty tight-lipped about who he'll use to replace Manning in the nickel package, but look for former starter Chris Harris to be on the field much more on Sunday and free safety Danieal Manning to cover opposing slot receivers in the Patriots' three- and four-wide sets. Tom Brady loves to spread the field and knows how to exploit a defense's weakness.

3. Will Cedric Benson continue to thrive as the change-of-pace back?
Benson seems to flip-flop back and forth between content and frustrated with his role. But as of late, he's been getting some action on the third or fourth offensive series in the first half and then pounding the rock at end of the game. The former Longhorn ran hard against the Jets last week with 10 carries for 51 yards. Jones is the starter and has been coming on strong of late, but that doesn't mean Benson isn't a big part of this offense. As long as he doesn't revert back to his pouting ways, he'll have plenty of chances to flash his first-round talent.

4. Is Todd Johnson on his way out as the starter at strong safety?
Mike Brown certainly has been missed in the secondary, both in terms of production and leadership. The Bears had the top rushing defense in the NFL when the former Cornhusker was healthy, but in the four games he's missed, they've been gashed on the ground. The Monsters of Midway are down to 10th in the league defending the run and gave up some huge numbers to Frank Gore, Ronnie Brown, and Tiki Barber. The Jets also ran the ball with some success in the first half with Cedric Houston. Johnson played pretty well in his first start but has struggled since then, so Chris Harris could become a starter again before long.

5. Can Mark Bradley keep making plays in the passing game?
Bernard Berrian was the pleasant surprise of the Bears offense in the early going, catching deep balls with regularity and scoring a touchdown in four of the first five games. He was really missed against Miami when he exited early with bruised ribs, but since then, Bradley has picked up the slack. He's caught eight passes for 159 yards and two scores in two weeks and given the Bears that deep threat they so desperately need to open up the offense. Berrian got the start last Sunday and appeared to still be dealing with his injury, but he'll get the start again against the Patriots. For a team that was supposed to be weak at the wide receiver position, all of a sudden, the Bears have a plethora of talent on the outside.

6. Should Ian Scott be starting again over Tank Johnson?
Johnson replaced Scott as the starter at defensive tackle a few weeks ago and is certainly a more well-rounded player. Not many tackles are great pass-rushers, but Johnson is gifted in that capacity and has 6.5 sacks the last season-and-a-half. But perhaps not by coincidence, the rush defense has been beaten up badly since Scott has been relegated to the backup role. He has a wide body and can fill a gap as well as any run-stuffer on the team. Increased playing time for rookie end Mark Anderson could also be a factor because he is light years better at chasing the quarterback than defending the run.

7. Can Rex Grossman take advantage of a thin Patriots secondary?
It seems like the Patriots are dangerously depleted in the defensive backfield every year. Wide receiver Troy Brown saw a ton of time at nickelback the last two seasons because they were simply out of bodies. Safety Rodney Harrison is out for this game with a bum shoulder, and New England will miss his fiery attitude just as much as his playing ability. Grossman had a tough time against Eric Mangini's version of the 3-4 defense a week ago, and it will only get tougher this week facing Mangini's mentor, Bill Belichick. The Patriots will throw the kitchen sink at Grossman in their efforts to confuse him, but if he gets some time to throw, he could have a lot of success facing a secondary that is average at best.

8. Do Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman deserve to make the Pro Bowl?
The Bears are the top-rated pass defense in football, surrendering just 152.5 yards per game through the air. That's more than 100 yards less than the 254.4 the Cincinnait Bengals are allowing every Sunday. Most of the credit seems to go to the front seven and their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, but Vasher and Tillman have both been playing extremely well. They have two interceptions each and combined for 12 passes-defensed, plus their tackling ability is superior to most cornerbacks in the league. Vasher made the Pro Bowl last season on the heels of his eight INTs, and although he's done nothing to give the impression that performance was a fluke, Tillman might be even more deserving of a trip to Hawaii.

9. Can the Bears get to Tom Brady and force some mistakes?
When he's hot, Brady is arguably the most accurate passer in the NFL and incredibly calm in the clutch. He wouldn't have three Super Bowl rings on his fingers if he wasn't. He got off to a little bit of a slow start this season after losing his top two receivers from a year ago - Deion Branch and David Givens - but he's starting to feel more at ease with the likes of Reche Caldwell. Tight end Ben Watson actually leads the team in receptions and is developing into Ben Coates Version 2.0. The Bears absolutely have to get pressure on Brady throughout this ballgame because he'll simply pick the secondary apart if given time, especially with Ricky Manning Jr. suspended.

10. Could this game be a Super Bowl preview?
The Bears are the best team in the NFC and will most likely have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots should win the AFC East and have more recent success in the postseason than the other top teams in the conference: Indianapolis, San Diego, and Baltimore. It's a long way away from the first Sunday in February, but this game could certainly be replayed on the NFL's grandest stage in Miami Gardens. A Patriots win would be scary for the rest of the AFC. A Bears win would make believers of us all.

JC

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