Bears offense vs. Saints defense
A lot of people might think that how the Bears handle the Saints offense is the single most important thing to watch in this contest. And while that certainly will be an important factor, it’s not the key to this game. That honor would belong to the Bears’ offense. We know the Saints have the top passing offense in the league. We also know that the Bears (28th) and Saints (26th) have two of the worst pass defenses. The key then becomes how the Bears’ run game performs against the Saints’ No. 20 run defense, and how the Saints’ run game stacks up against the Bears’ No. 6 run defense. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball, and if Matt Forte and the run game can take time off the clock and keep the Saints’ offensive players on the sideline, shivering and tightening up, it plays right into the hands of the Bears defense. Forte is still making a strong push for Rookie of the Year with 1,081 yards as the league’s 8th-leading rusher. He’s also the NFL’s leading receiver out of the backfield with 53 receptions. Whereas the Saints’ offense is quick-strike, the Bears’ offense needs to be time-consuming. And efficient. The Saints have punted just 45 times, 7th-fewest in the NFL. The Bears? 79 punts, second-most in the league, just 6 behind the woeful Bengals. To put it bluntly, if the Bears don’t get points out of the majority of their drives, they’re in big trouble unless the defense plays its best football of the season. No matter the weather, I see Forte and the Bears’ offense moving the ball against a bad Saints defense.
Bears defense vs. Saints offense
Would it be a stretch to believe the Saints have had more big, downfield plays in this season alone than the Bears have had this decade? Drew Brees leads the league with 4,100 yards passing and is tied for the league lead with his former backup in San Diego, Philip Rivers, with 26 touchdowns. As a quarterback who puts the ball up 503 times, it’s not surprising that he’s No. 3 in the league with 14 interceptions. The Bears are tops in the league with 27 takeaways, meaning, there will be plenty of opportunities for the defense to take the ball away, and possibly score points. It’s only natural for weather to have adverse effects on a team’s passing game. But if the Bears cannot generate a pass rush and they give Brees plenty of time to find the open receiver, he will do just that. That’s because he’s got some of the most dangerous weapons at his disposal. Leading receiver Lance Moore has come from nowhere to be a force in the passing game. He has the speed to stretch the defense and can get behind the secondary for the big play. Devery Henderson can do the same opposite Moore. Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey are big targets over the middle and Colston also has the speed to create mismatches. And speaking of mismatches, very few players in the league create as big of one as Reggie Bush does. Although Forte leads the league in receptions among running backs, he can thank a lengthy injury to Bush for that honor. Perhaps no running back is a better weapon out of the backfield than Bush. Before he went down with an injury more than a month ago, he was leading not only running backs, but all players in receptions. As a running back, he’s hardly a factor and he’s below average running between the tackles. The Bears’ team speed on defense is a strength in stopping a back like Bush. But they can’t lose sight of him in the passing game while trying to cover all the Saints’ weapons. Due to the Bears’ lack of a pass rush and the explosiveness of the Saints’ offense, New Orleans gets a big edge here.
Bush may have his biggest impact of the game returning punts. He’s returned three punts for touchdowns this year, two against Minnesota. He averages 14.9 yards per return, compared to Devin Hester’s 6.2. On kickoff returns, backup running back Pierre Thomas averages 26.1 yards per return whereas Danieal Manning averages 28 per return for the Bears. The Saints have had instability in their kicking game all season until recently. Garrett Hartley, who joined the team five weeks ago, has been perfect on all of his kicks. He’s 11-for-11 in field goals and 15-for-15 in extra points. Robbie Gould continues to kick accurately, but hasn’t gotten many field goal chances this year. It’s hard to judge the Saints’ punting because they don’t kick too often, but in an example of how bad their coverage unit is, punter Glenn Pakulak is 4th in the league with a 48.3 average, yet drops to 22nd with a 36.7 net average. Could this finally be the week Hester returns a punt for a touchdown? Possibly. But I could envision Manning taking back a kickoff this week. The threat of Bush on punt returns and the injury to Garrett Wolfe — the Bears’ leading tackler on special teams — keeps this close. But, once again, the Bears edge their opponent on special teams.
The forecast for kickoff calls for 27 degree weather and a 30% chance of flurries, plus 12 mph winds. Those are hardly ideal conditions for the NFL’s most explosive offense. However, it’s going to take much more than weather to beat the Saints. The crowd has to get loud and try to cause some offensive penalties for the Saints. Lovie Smith, a defensive mind, needs to create a game plan with Bob Babich to counter what the offensive genius, Sean Payton, across the field will do. But most of all, it comes down to the players on the field. It’s time they suck it up and put forth their best effort of the season. Anything less than that could result in an almost certain conclusion to their season. If the Bears lose and the Vikings beat the Cardinals this week, Minnesota clinches the division title. But even if both the Bears and Vikings lose, the Bears would be forced to win their final two games and the Vikings would have to lose their last two in order for the Bears to win the NFC North. Why do fans want to see their teams make the playoffs? Simple: they want to see their teams compete for championships, watch extra football, and have a sense of pride that their team is one of just 12 remaining teams. But most of all, it’s about the intense competition that kicks up a notch in front of a national audience. I’ll tell you what, the Bears may not be in the postseason yet — and they may not make it there at all — but what more could you want than a matchup between two teams with the same record vying for the playoffs in a lose-or-go-home situation? For all intents and purposes, this is a playoff game played on national TV. And with their backs to the wall, and the weather and the 4th Phase supporting them, I say the Bears play just well enough to eke out a victory and live to see another week.
Final Score: Chicago 24, New Orleans 23