Patriots / Bears Preview

<p>For those fickle fans of New England who have twisted their ACL's jumping on and off their beloved Patriots bandwagon this year, it's time to re-cast your votes. Are you a believer of those defending Super Bowl champions who started out 3-0 and demolished the Bills on the road last week? Or are you casting your ballot in the direction of that same team that had previously lost four straight games with careless penalties, poor execution, and a matador run defense? </p>

p>The Patriots travel to Chicago Sunday with exactly half the season behind them, possessing a 4-4 record and needing to win six of their last eight games if they plan on defending their Super Bowl crown. The Bears, 13-3 last season, have been decimated by injuries this year and have come out of the gate limping to a 2-6 start. Their offense has struggled, with the A-Train, Anthony Thomas, averaging barely more than three yards per carry. I watched Thomas run at Michigan and always thought he was a bit lethargic, and quite frankly was surprised at his success last year. He still doesn't move too well laterally and, unlike the quicker, scat backs like Clinton Portis, Priest Holmes etc, the Patriots have a good history of defending the straight ahead, plodding, power-type backs.

Jim Miller is as he has always been, an average quarterback with a below average arm and foot speed. He has world class talent at the WR spot with the likes of Marty Booker, Marcus Robinson, and David Terrell, but so far in 2002 Robinson and Terrell have both been hurt and if Booker gets double teamed, the Bears have few viable alternatives. The strength of the Bears last year was their defense, with all-world ILB Brian Urlacher (who according to the NFL has had more sales of his 54 jersey than any other NFL player in the last two years) and an equally disruptive linebacking corps that ranks along with Denver's as the the fastest and perhaps best unit in the league.

Injuries have hurt the Bears this year and now that the playoffs are out of the question, it will be interesting to see how the Bears respond this Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champs.

The Patriots appear to be righting their ship both offensively and defensively. Rookie TE Daniel Graham should play a major role in the offense, now that he is healthy and has learned the offense. Graham is a complete TE who can block as well as catch. His greatest strength might be his ability to run after the catch. At 6'3" and 250 pounds, he can run over cornerbacks and has the agility and speed to outrun linebackers. With the cold weather upon us, it is imperative that the Patriots continue to run the ball effectively. Last week against an obviously weak Buffalo defense, RB Antowain Smith had his first 100-yard game of the season and looked excellent catching the ball out of the backfield, scoring twice on screen passes.

I expect the Patriots, playing for only the second time this season with their Super Bowl offensive line intact, to continue to pound the ball at the Bears with the same balanced attack that worked so well a week ago. Gone are the days of Brady throwing the ball 50 times and spending 3/4 of the game in the spread offense. Kevin Faulk has also proven to be an excellent change of pace and third down back and is having his best year ever for the Pats.

Defensively, the aging Patriots appear to have gotten a second wind. Ted Johnson, Bobby Hamilton, Teddy Bruschi, and Willie McGinnest all have played well since the second half of the Denver game, and with the Bears appearing to be a one dimensional offensive team, expect coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to force Jim Miller to beat them with his arm.

In the secondary, Ty Law is having another excellent season. After a sub-par 1999 and 2000, Law played well last year; and this year he leads the team with three interceptions and has done well, covering the opponent's number one receiver the last few weeks (see Rod Smith and Eric Moulds, etc).

The Patriots do need to improve their kicking game. Adam Vinitieri has been excellent on field goals but his kickoffs rarely make it into the end zone, and allowing teams to start their possessions at the 35 or 40 yard line is simply not acceptable. Punter Ken Walter is also having trouble this year, and as we have seen so many times in the past, a special teams play can turn an entire game around.

I think the Bears will continue to struggle offensively Sunday and while their defense is still good, I think the Patriots simply have more offensive weapons. I expect it to be close, but when the votes are tallied, it will be the Patriots giving their victory speech on Sunday, 23-16.

- Craig Natale Special Thanks To http://

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