KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Phil Simms, Jim Nantz
PREDICTION: Patriots 30-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: A lot will depend on how much pressure Chicago can apply on Patriots QB Tom Brady with its front four. He was excellent in deciphering the Jets' blitz packages Monday night, but he's also intimately familiar with that defense and the Bears possess a true elite pass rusher in DE Julius Peppers. The Bears will focus on keeping receivers in front of them out of the Cover-2, and the key will be how many yards the Patriots' possession receivers rip off after the catch.
The Bears have allowed 45 sacks this season, which is a primary reason why offensive coordinator Mike Martz has become far more balanced in his play-calling. But if the Patriots are playing pinball on the scoreboard, don't look for Martz to stay conservative for long. New England has a modest 21 sacks on the season and plenty of youth in CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots clinch a playoff spot with a victory. ... The Bears have a five-game winning streak. ... New England has won 20 of its past 21 regular-season games against the NFC. ... The Patriots won the last meeting, 17-13, at home in 2006 with CB Asante Samuel intercepting three passes.
When preparing to face an opponent you haven't seen in four years, you don't wait until the week of the game to begin digging for clues -- not unless you're trying to put your team in a position to lose.
For the New England Patriots, their groundwork on Sunday's opponent, the Chicago Bears, began long before they ever stepped onto the field.
"I think the process starts in the offseason," head coach Bill Belichick said. "You get the schedule and you see that you're going to be playing Chicago in a short week. You see you're going to be playing Detroit on a short week, so you try to do your offseason preparations on them and get a feel for what they were like the year before.
"With both these teams, it's difficult because the Lions had some new players coming onto to their roster and of course with Mike (Martz) coming in (with Chicago), he brings a new offense -- some of the same players, but then how he uses them in the system is different than what you're going to see from the '09 season. You kind of prepare for that the best you can, but, ultimately, you end up in a short week and you have to try and get a jump on them during the long week, during the Monday night week."
The Patriots faced a similar challenge when they played the Lions on Thanksgiving -- a shorter week than the one they're dealing with now. Perhaps the saving grace was that Detroit just isn't a good football team, as evident by their second-half collapse.
The Bears are much tougher. At 9-3, they have the second-best record in the NFC and one of the league's top-ranked defenses (third overall). There are more factors -- and weapons -- to consider as the Patriots prepare to make their trip to Chicago.
"What you hope for is that when you come back in here on Thursday, is that you are pretty close to being on schedule for a normal Thursday," Belichick said. "If you can do that, then I think you can stay on track for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"It's a challenge and one of the main things we emphasize to the players is how important everything is with paying attention and the walk-throughs and the films and the game plans and getting on it and being on top of it, even though we haven't had a chance to do as much preparation on Tuesday as we normally would with the Monday game."
The chess match between Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Patriots defensive guru Bill Belichick is the game within the game that could determine the outcome in Sunday's clash.
Their most memorable matchup came in Super Bowl XXXVI, when Belichick's Patriots edged Martz's Rams 20-17, even though the losers outgained the winners 427-267, including 365 passing yards by Martz's triggerman, Kurt Warner.
"We moved the ball exceptionally well," Martz recalled. "(But) we turned the ball over three times. We had a protection error, we had a wide receiver slip and fall on a slant, and we fumbled right before the half. They got 17 points off those three turnovers. They were a great team, obviously. I'm not taking anything away from that. It was more about turning the ball over like we did that gave them those great opportunities that affected the outcome more than anything else."
The gamesmanship for the latest rematch began early in the week, with both coaches singing the praises of his opponent.
"He will study everything that you've done," Martz said. "He'll take it apart piece by piece. He'll identify what your strengths are and he'll try to eliminate your strengths. He will make you adjust. There is no question about it."
The Patriots have compiled an AFC-best 10-2 record this season despite a turnover in personnel that has several previously untested young players plugged into key roles. The defense has struggled, especially against the pass, but there have been signs of improvement.
Martz's offense also struggled early but has shown consistent improvement as players get a better grasp on Martz's scheme.
"It seems like they've gotten more comfortable with coach Martz's offense and the execution of it as the season's gone along," Belichick said. "And they've been very productive running the ball in recent weeks, (converting) third downs, red zone and all the situational things."
If Martz is forced to make adjustments based on what Belichick's defense tries to take away, he's capable of adapting according to the Patriots' coach who is only the second in NFL history to lead a team to 10 straight winning seasons.
"We always have trouble against Mike," Belichick said. "He does a great job with the formations, the personnel groupings; and his passing concepts are very difficult to defend. If you stop one, then that opens up something else. They complement each other well."
One of the factors Martz has cited in the overall improvement of the offense is improved discipline and a more precise attention to detail, which is of paramount importance in his scheme.
According to Martz, Belichick has an advantage there. In 11 years as the head coach in New England he has built a rigid system that demands discipline.
"This is something that we try to do on offense," Martz said. "He's been there for so long that there is an aura of discipline that he demands out of those guys. That's what we're trying to get to. I say 'limit mistakes, get better every week.'" They're that way now every week because it's ingrained in them.
"When they bring somebody in, they have to buy into that. You never see them out of position. They adjust extremely well. That's the best compliment you can give the guy, I think, they're just very, very tuned in to what they're doing. They just don't make errors."
Over the past four games, Martz's offense has averaged 322 total yards per game, which still pales in comparison to the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf. But it's a noticeable improvement over the previous five games, when growing pains and inconsistencies limited the Bears to an average of just 254 yards per game. The offense has benefited from its ability to utilize several different players in key roles from week to week.
"He's a hard guy to defend," Belichick said. "His schemes are always very creative, and they give you a lot of things to worry about. Their plays complement each other so, if you're stopping one thing, you're probably not going to be able to stop the play that he has that goes with it. You never feel safe when you're playing Mike's offense; they're one play away from a big, explosive play."
--DL Myron Pryor is back at practice, albeit in a limited fashion, despite a back injury that has forced him to miss the last four games. With any additional progress, Pryor might be ready for Sunday's game.
--S Patrick Chung was not on the field during media availability at practice Thursday. No word yet on whether his absence is injury-related, though he didn't appear to suffer any setback Monday.
--LB Brandon Spikes was also not on the field during media availability at practice Thursday. As is the case with Patrick Chung, it does not appear his absence was injury-related.
--CB Jonathan Wilhite has missed the last three games with a hip injury and will likely miss his fourth game in a row Sunday unless he gets back on the practice field this week.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) did not practice Thursday and will not play Sunday.
--LB Nick Roach (back) was limited at Thursday's practice and could be in the starting lineup Sunday but will probably be listed as questionable.
--LB Rod Wilson, a five-year veteran, could get his first NFL start Sunday on the strong side if Nick Roach (back) is unable to suit up.
--CB D.J. Moore, the Bears' nickel back, is expected to get increased playing time with the Bears relying more on their nickel package against the Patriots and because their top two strong-side linebackers might be out with injuries.
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