GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas
SERIES: 3rd meeting. Series tied 1-1. In the last meeting on Dec. 22, 2002, the Panthers got two rushing touchdowns from Dee Brown and capitalized on four fumbles by the Bears, allowing Carolina to finish 4-4 at home that season.
2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (24th rush, 16th pass); defense 8th (2nd rush, 21st pass). Bears: offense 28th (5th rush, 30th pass); defense 1st (8th rush, 3rd pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: This figures to be the game Bears rookie QB Kyle Orton is finally pressed into making plays downfield. Chicago's offense has survived by pounding the ball on the ground, but Carolina is second in the league, allowing 81.0 rushing yards per game. The Bears expected RB Thomas Jones (ribs) to start, but Orton will have to do his part to soften the run defense. He has thrown for more than 150 yards just once, and Carolina CBs Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas have a combined eight interceptions. The story is the opposite for the Panthers' offense, which has a big-time playmaker in WR Steve Smith. The Bears will focus on neutralizing him with the belief their stout run defense can contain RB Stephen Davis, who is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry. If strong winds return to Soldier Field, it could wreak havoc with Carolina's pass-heavy offense.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Have no individual 100-yard rushing games this season. ... Seek to tie the franchise record with a seventh consecutive victory. Bears: Have one more victory than they had all of last season. ... Seek sixth consecutive victory. ... Orton needs three touchdown passes to break Jim McMahon's (nine, 1982) rookie team record.
--DE Mike Rucker leads a Carolina defense that has caused more turnovers since the start of the 2003 season than any other team in the league.
--DE Julius Peppers said he may play without a cast on his right hand this week, depending on how it feels. Peppers broke a bone in his hand prior to the bye week, but it hasn't slowed his production. He has 4 1/2 sacks in the last two weeks.
--TE Kris Mangum was downgraded to doubtful on Thursday, so don't expect him to play this week.
--TE Mike Seidman will be activated and could have a few balls thrown his way this week. Seidman has been inactive four of the last six games because the team has only gone with two tight ends.
--WR Steve Smith looks to bounce back against the Bears after catching just three passes for 34 yards against the Jets. It will be interesting to see how the Bears defend Smith. It seems anything less than rolling a safety over the top on every play is a risky move for a defense trying to defend Smith.
--RB Stephen Davis goes for his 13th touchdown of the season against the Bears on Sunday. He has yet to rush for more than 81 yards in a game and could have a tough time against the league's top-ranked defense.
--CB Chris Gamble has three interceptions in the last two weeks.
--LG Ruben Brown (chest) was removed from the injury report after practicing on Thursday.
--RB Thomas Jones practiced for the second straight day on Thursday and is not listed on the injury report for the first time in a month.
--C Olin Kreutz (elbow) returned to practice Thursday and was removed from the injury report.
--RT Fred Miller practiced again on Thursday and was upgraded from questionable to probable despite having Nov. 7 surgery for his fractured jaw, which had a steel plate inserted into it.
--CB Charles Tillman, who should spend most of his time covering Panthers WR Steve Smith, missed practice Thursday with a sprained ankle. He is probable and is still expected to start Sunday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
The Panthers should be pretty healthy heading into Sunday's game at Chicago, with running back Stephen Davis and safety Mike Minter returning to practice on Thursday. Both are listed as probable and are expected to start.
Center Jeff Mitchell (hip), safety Thomas Davis (thigh) and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu (back) also practiced on Thursday, and they were all upgraded from questionable to probable.
Only one player remains in serious doubt for Sunday, and that is starting tight end Kris Mangum, who was downgraded from questionable to doubtful.
Mangum, who also missed last week's game against the New York Jets, is not likely to play this week, and there's a chance he could miss next Sunday's game at Buffalo as well.
Look for second-year player Michael Gaines to get the start in Mangum's place.
Neither Mangum nor Gaines are particularly key targets for Jake Delhomme, but both do a good job of blocking. Mike Seidman will be Carolina's No. 2 tight end and could see a few balls thrown in his direction against the Bears.
Thomas Jones, who is ninth in the NFL with 753 rushing yards despite sitting out last week's game with bruised ribs, practiced Wednesday and Thursday and will be healthier Sunday than he has been in more than a month.
"It helped me a lot," Jones said of the rest. "If I had taken a pounding on it and re-injured it last week, that wouldn't have made much sense. But we've got a long stretch right now, and I want to be as comfortable as I can for the next seven games. Definitely, sitting down last week was the right move."
With rookie Cedric Benson out at least two more games with a sprained knee, Jones and Adrian Peterson are the Bears' only tailbacks against the Panthers' No. 2-ranked run defense.
Jones suffered a sprained knee on Oct. 9 against the Browns and then the rib injury on Oct. 30. He expects to be back in the starting lineup Sunday and to have a full week of practice for the first time since Week 5.
"I feel a lot better than I did last week," Jones said. "It's definitely not sore when you touch it, but it's still a little uncomfortable. It's going to be that way Sunday. As far as taking a hit, when your mind is in the game, you're not thinking about it. The only thing is (being worried about) fumbling the ball. But I'm really not thinking about that. I feel good."
Because of the Bears' inability to throw the ball successfully most of the season, productivity in the running game has been essential. The Bears are ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards and sixth in average gain per running play, but they have not faced a run defense as stingy as the Panthers' this season.
Fortunately for the Bears, the offensive line, bothered all week while downplaying the fight between center Olin Kreutz and right tackle Fred Miller, should be close to full strength. Despite his broken jaw, Miller was upgraded to probable after practicing Thursday, and left guard Ruben Brown (chest) was removed from the injury report.