SERIES: 11th meeting. The Patriots lead the series 6-4, including a 33-30 victory in the most recent meeting on Nov. 10, 2002, which was played at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium while the Bears' new Soldier Field was being built. The Patriots outscored the Bears 27-3 in the final 18:04. Tom Brady's third touchdown pass won it for New England with 21 seconds remaining.
2006 RANKINGS: Bears: offense 13th (14th rush, 13th pass); defense 1st (10th rush, 1st pass). Patriots: offense 7th (8th rush, 12th pass); defense 4th (2nd rush, 15th pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 20-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots will be happy to set foot on the FieldTurf installed since the team's last home game. New England has to run the ball effectively, and the Bears have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of their past four games. Chicago's secondary can be vulnerable, but New England also doesn't want to over-expose QB Tom Brady to the Bears' deep and talented group of pass rushers. Chicago's offense will lean on its ground game, which produced a season-high 173 yards last weekend. Of course, the Bears offense will likely go only as far as QB Rex Grossman takes them -- which is a matter of whether Jekyll or Hyde shows up. The Patriots are still minus FS Rodney Harrison, but coach Bill Belichick is a master of devising game plans to confuse inexperienced quarterbacks -- and a few Grossman turnovers could swing the outcome.
FAST FACTS: Bears: Can clinch NFC North title with victory and losses by Green Bay and Minnesota. ... Are 11-1 all-time when Grossman throws a touchdown pass. Patriots: WR Reche Caldwell has set career highs in receptions (35), receiving yards (405) and touchdowns (four). ... Are 18-4 when playing a team visiting Gillette Stadium for the first time.
--RB Thomas Jones (groin, probable) returned to the practice field Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice.
--CB Dante Wesley (knee) was upgraded from questionable to probable and practiced Thursday.
--TE Desmond Clark (foot) was removed from the injury report after being probable on Wednesday.
--WR Bernard Berrian is expected to start Sunday after getting blanked in limited action last week, missing the week before with bruised ribs and left the game prior to that after one play, a 10-yard reception.
--WR Mark Bradley, a non-starter, is the Bears' leading receiver over the past two games with eight catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
--The players didn't practice on Thursday. They were given the day off to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.
--The Patriots are hurting at defensive back. CB Ellis Hobbs (wrist), S Eugene Wilson (hamstring), CB Asante Samuel (knee) and CB Chad Scott (groin) are all questionable for Sunday's game. Hobbs started last week against the Packers, but Samuel and Wilson missed the game. Scott is a new addition to the injury report. At least two of these players must be on the field Sunday or the Patriots are going to be in big trouble.
--P Josh Miller (shoulder) is was placed on injured reserve this week. Miller had been punting poorly lately, leading to speculation that he's been injured.
-- P Ken Walter was signed by the Patriots on Wednesday to replace the injured Miller. Walter was with the Patriots from 2001-03 and was the holder on Adam Vinatieri's snowy field goals against the Oakland Raiders in 2001 AFC playoffs.
--TEs Daniel Graham (ankle) and David Thomas (groin) are both questionable for this week's game. Graham played against the Packers, while Thomas was inactive.
The Bears will be without their leading interceptor and No. 1 nickel cornerback Sunday, when Ricky Manning Jr. serves a one-game, league-mandated suspension as punishment for his April arrest for battery to which he pleaded no contest.
"It stinks," said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. "I'm not real excited about that. I don't know why they decided to do it right now, but that's the NFL for you. Obviously, he's a great player for our team; he's done a good job this year for us. We're going to miss him. He's a fiery guy."
That leaves the Bears contemplating several contingency plans to fill the void left by Manning's absence, but coach Lovie Smith gave no hint Wednesday as to how he would reconfigure the secondary in passing situations. Evidently it's such a delicate matter and of such top-level security that no information can be disseminated.
"We have a few guys we're going to choose from a little bit later on," Smith said.
Smith was asked from whom he would be selecting Manning's replacement.
"The defensive backs on our roster," he said.
He was asked if he knew which ones specifically would be in the running.
"No," Smith said, "but you can look on the roster and get them."
The Bears lost Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Brown after Game Six, but they are No. 1 in the NFL in points, total yards, first downs and passing yards allowed.
"I have no idea what we're planning on doing," Urlacher said. "But we'll have guys step up and fill the void just like they have (with) Mike Brown out."
Starting strong safety Todd Johnson has played some nickel before, but he doesn't play pass defense as well as Manning, whose four interceptions are twice as many as Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Alex Brown and Nate Vasher, all of whom have two.
"It's something we've been doing all year," said Johnson, who started the Browns game last season as an extra defensive back when the Bears opened in a nickel alignment. "We've had different guys in there. So we feel comfortable with it. I've done it in some games so far. I feel comfortable, and the (other) guys we have in there feel comfortable doing it."
Using Johnson at nickel when the Patriots go with three wide receivers would move backup safety Chris Harris into the starting lineup at strong safety. He started 13 games at free safety last season as a rookie. The Bears could also move free safety Danieal Manning to the nickel spot and put Harris at free safety.
Harris claims he doesn't know how it will shake out come Sunday, when the Bears must defend two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady, who is second in the NFL with 19 touchdown passes and 10th with a passer rating of 88.1.
"That's a good question," Harris said. "We didn't do any nickel (Wednesday). We might give Zoom (former nickel corner Jerry Azumah) a call and get him to come back out of retirement."
Another option is rookie cornerback Devin Hester, who has exhibited tremendous improvement at cornerback this season. Hester was drafted as a return specialist and a project at corner, where he played only part-time at Miami, but his development as a full-time defender has been a pleasant surprise.
"It's coming along very well," Smith said. "Devin's a good player."
One way for opposing offenses to score points on the tough Bears defense is to cause turnovers and make Chicago defend a short field. Arizona and Miami were able to force Rex Grossman into turning the ball over and the Bears struggled in both games.
The key is putting pressure on Grossman. Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain need to bring the heat from the outside. If New England allows the young quarterback to get comfortable in the pocket early on, he can catch fire and hurt the Patriots injured secondary.
The Dolphins were able to confuse Grossman and forced him into making some bad decisions. Miami and New England run similar defenses, so that could be a problem for the Bears. It's not likely that Chicago will be able to run the ball on the Patriots front, so it will be up to Grossman and the passing game to make some plays.
This should be a low-scoring, defensive battle. That means the side that comes away with the key turnovers will likely come away with the victory and improve its playoff seeding.
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