Matchup to watch when the Broncos are on offense:
WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Trumaine McBride
Without a doubt, Marshall is Cutler's go-to guy, and the matchup with the rookie McBride makes this a no-brainer. Expect QB Jay Cutler to attack early and often. With Rod Smith and Javon Walker sidelined due to injuries, Marshall leads the team with 55 catches for 750 yards (13.6 avg.) and three touchdowns. On the Bears' side, McBride's done a pretty decent job replacing starter Nathan Vasher, but he's still prone to rookie mistakes and at 5-9 he'll definitely have his hands full with the 6-4 Marshall.
This matchup will be crucial for the Bears. Take away Cutler's biggest threat, and things could change quickly in their favor.
Matchup to watch when the Broncos are on defense:
DE Elvis Dumerville vs. OT John Tait
The Broncos desperately need to bring the rush this week, and Dummerville, who ranks third in the AFC with eight sacks and three forced fumbles, will be the man leading the charge. He's got great speed off the line, and although he's somewhat undersized by most standards at 5-11 and 260 pounds, he's been able to hold his own against much larger opponents.
Tait, a nine-year veteran out of BYU, has done a nice job protecting Grossman's blind side, but the Bears have given up a total 29 sacks so far this season and the Broncos will be looking to exploit this. At 6-6 and 312 pounds, he'll need to beat Dummerville off the line and try to stay with him to keep him contained on the inside.
WR Muhsin Muhammad and CB Champ Bailey
Grossman has no problems forcing the issue downfield every now and then even if his target is pretty well covered, which means he better be a little more wise with his decision-making Sunday.
Matchup to watch when the Bears are on defense:
DEs Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye vs. OTs Matt Lepsis and Erik Pears
Denver head coach Mike Shanahan loves to get his quarterback out of the pocket on bootlegs and such, and Cutler has proven to be quite an effective passer on the run. That means it will be paramount for Anderson and Ogunleye – plus Alex Brown, who's been getting more snaps lately off the bench – to hold containment off the edge and keep the second-year signal-caller in the pocket as much as possible. Denver tends to employ a very light offensive line by today's standards, and Lepsis (290 pounds) and Pears (305) are no exception.
Since the Bears are still without Vasher at right corner, the secondary can't be asked to cover receivers for four and five seconds at a time because Cutler will ultimately make a play.
The Broncos will win this game if ...
... they continue to open it up for Cutler. As the season's progressed, Shanahan has given the second-year starter free reign to make things happen and over the past two games it's worked out great. Currently he ranks seventh in the league in completion percentage (65.8%), ninth in the league in passer rating (88.9), and he's got a 120.5 rating on third-down conversions.
Cutler outside the pocket can be dangerous, and with Marshall and Brandon Stokley, he's got two receivers he can count on to bring it home. Mix in a solid running game with Selvin Young and Andre Hall, and the Broncos should be able to walk away with their third consecutive win.
The Broncos will lose this game if ...
... they continue to give it up on the ground. Although the Bears have struggled with the rush this season, currently ranking 31st in the league, it's not out of the question that they could put up some good numbers on Denver's porous defensive line.
The big key will be the point of attack. The Broncos tend to have huge gaps up the middle, and if the Bears come out as strong as they did last week against Seattle, establish a decent rushing attack and control the time of possession, Denver may be in for a long afternoon.
The Bears will win this game if ...
... offensive coordinator Ron Turner commits to the running game and feeds the ball to Cedric Benson as much as possible. While Benson has had a lackluster season replacing Thomas Jones as the starter at tailback, he showed some signs of life last Sunday in Seattle and may have gotten his hunger back. However, Turner only called Benson's number nine more times after he ripped off runs of 43 and 20 yards on his first two carries of the game, a product of wanting to get backup Adrian Peterson more involved in the offense. Most of Chicago had been clamoring for Peterson because he's a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield in addition to being a better blocker in pass protection, but Turner needs to do a better job of playing the hot hand.
The Denver rushing defense is vulnerable and allows 149.2 yards per game on the ground, plus it would be foolish to air it out all day with Bailey and Bly patrolling the secondary.
DT Tommie Harris and RB Andre Hall
The Bears will lose this game if ...
... Young and Hall continue to run the football like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis. Once again, it just doesn't seem to matter who's in the Denver backfield so long as the offensive line has a good day with its zone-blocking scheme. The Bears have been terrible defending the run since Week 3, allowing 125.7 yards per game (26th in the league) and 4.5 yards per carry (T-28th) through 10 contests. Young is a game-time decision and listed as questionable on the injury report, but Hall filled in nicely this past Monday with 89 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries.
Tommie Harris didn't play very much last week as he continues to battle a knee sprain he suffered against the Cowboys back in September, so his fellow defensive tackles, Anthony Adams and Darwin Walker, need to step it up big time in the trenches Sunday.
Michael John Schon: With both teams struggling for their playoff lives, you know somebody‘s going home bloody. The Broncos have done a pretty fair job on the road (2-2) and actually hold the advantage over Chicago, which has managed only one win at Soldier Field the entire season. The Bears come in with a revamped Grossman, who's put up some nice numbers since his return to the lineup: 31-of-51 passing for 408 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 92.6. Still, I'm not convinced he's got what it takes to have two decent games back to back, especially in a must-win situation. I think Denver takes it in the final quarter ...
BRONCOS 24, BEARS 17
John Crist: The Monsters of the Midway have been terrible at home this season, dropping three straight along Lake Michigan after defeating the Chiefs in Week 2. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception Grossman receives at Soldier Field, especially if he gets off to a slow start in the first quarter. Just when you think this team is going to right the ship and get back into the NFC playoff picture, another mind-numbing loss takes the wind out of their collective sail once again ...
BRONCOS 26, BEARS 20