A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Chiefs on Dec. 4, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Chiefs defense
Considering last week’s game against the Raiders was Caleb Hanie’s first NFL start and that the Bears were playing in a tough road game on the west coast, the performance wasn’t as bad as it initially seemed. The biggest positive that can be taken out of the Raiders game was that Hanie and the offense got better as the game went on. Hanie grew more comfortable in the pocket, made better decisions with the ball, and was more accurate with his throws as the game progressed. He was sacked four times and had three three interceptions on the day, but no sacks came in the fourth quarter and all of his picks occurred in the first half. That kind of in-game improvement and quick turnaround is encouraging moving forward as the Bears face some easier opponents down the stretch. This week, the Bears will be at home against a Chiefs team that is struggling mightily. They’re ranked 20th in the league defensively and 26th against the run. The Bears should be able to move the ball more consistently than they did last week and the combination of Matt Forte and Marion Barber are due for another big game. Where the Bears could wind up in trouble is if Hanie gets careless with the ball just as he was in the first half against the Raiders. Kansas City is ranked ninth in the league with 14 interceptions, and they have spread the wealth in that department with six different players picking off at least one pass and each of their starting defensive backs recording at least two interceptions apiece. Cornerback Brandon Flowers leads the team with four interceptions and free safety Kendrick Lewis is second with three. Both are strong is run support, too, as they rank third and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively. Cornerback Brandon Carr and strong safety Jon McGraw each have added two interceptions. Veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson is the player to keep an eye on on the second level. The seventh-year pro leads the team in tackles and has recorded a sack and an interception. Up front in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense are ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson along with nose tackle Kelly Gregg. The Chiefs have an above-average pass defense in spite of the fact that they are ranked last in the NFL with just 13 sacks. Hanie should have plenty of time to throw, he just needs to settle down in the pocket, slow the game down, and play simple pitch-and-catch with his receivers.
Bears defense vs. Chiefs offense
Last year the Chiefs were a playoff team fueled by their league-leading rushing attack led by running back Jamaal Charles. Charles played in just two games this season before suffering a season-ending injury and the Chiefs just haven’t been the same team since. Kansas City now employs a three-back attack with Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones, and Dexter McCluster, and the Chiefs do a good job of balancing the workload among the three. Last week against the Steelers, each back got at least 9 carries and they combined to rush 31 times for 85 yards, an average of only 2.7 yards per carry. In other words, they’re engine of the offense but the vehicle ain’t going anywhere. They remind me of the Giants’ offense from a few years ago when New York had Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw, but that backfield was much more effective than this one. The Chiefs have almost no choice but to continue to grind it out on the ground because the passing game is so shaky. The Chiefs have a talented trio of receivers in Pro Bowler Dwayne Bowe, rookie Jon Baldwin, and veteran Steve Breaston, but they don’t have anybody to get them the ball after starting quarterback Matt Cassel was lost for the season with an injury a few weeks ago. Tyler Palko has been taking snaps the past few games and he has been entertainingly bad, reminding Bears fans of some of the bad quarterbacks to have taken snaps around these parts in the past two decades. The team put in a claim on former Bear Kyle Orton prior to last week’s game but they apparently don’t feel comfortable inserting him into the lineup yet because Palko is still slated to start this week. Or, maybe head coach Todd Haley is playing coy with the decision and Orton will, indeed, start this Sunday against his former team. Orton would certainly give the Chiefs a better passing attack but the Bears are playing too well defensively for the change at quarterback to matter much. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are still playing at a high level and Julius Peppers continues to be a beast along the defensive line, but he’s going to need more help from his linemates moving forward. Against stone-footed Carson Palmer last week, the Bears managed to pick up four sacks, two from Peppers and one each from defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye. The biggest key to the Bears success has been the rare treat of the level of play from the secondary with safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright playing well, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings playing stout all season, and Corey Graham filling in nicely for D.J. Moore at nickel back. If Orton starts, the Chiefs have the opportunity to put up a few more field goals than they otherwise might have with Palko at the helm, but I don’t think this offense will have much success moving the ball.
Last week the Bears were outplayed by a pair of perennial Pro Bowl-caliber specialists in kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler and the poor starting field position really hurt Hanie and the offense. You haven’t seen that happen too often during the Lovie Smith-Dave Toub regime and I expect a much better performance this week. Kansas City’s Ryan Succop is ranked 24th in the league with just 16 field goals made and he’s converted on just 84% of his kicks this year. Punter Dustin Colquitt, the last remaining player on Kansas City’s punt team from four years ago when Devin Hester returned a touchdown against them, is ranked 15th with a 39.5 net punting average. Robbie Gould and Adam Podlesh are better and more consistent than their counterparts. Each week, the big question is whether or not Hester will have the opportunity to return any kicks, and for the most part he always has a few shots each week. The Chiefs have given up a punt return score this year, but have only allowed a paltry 19.6 yards per kickoff return on Succop’s 14 kickoffs. Chris Massey didn’t have any egregious errors last week in his first start as Patrick Mannelly’s replacement at long snapper, and he’ll need to make sure nothing bad does happen in a close game in the coming weeks.
Let’s lay it all out on the line right now. If the Bears cannot beat the lowly Chiefs at home this week, they don’t belong in the playoffs. What Kansas City does best — run the football — the Bears are eighth in the league at defending. The Bears also thrive on takeaways and the Chiefs can’t wait to give the ball away. They’re ranked 25th in the league with a minus-5 turnover ratio. Kansas City’s defense doesn’t get after the quarterback well, they don’t stop offenses from moving the ball (ranked 20th in yards allowed per game), and they don’t keep opponents off the scoreboard (ranked 23rd in points allowed per game). For Chiefs fans out there, I’d love to tell you that Kyle Orton is the answer to your prayers, but he’s not. He’s just a smarter, more accurate version of Tyler Palko, but he’s got little to no foot speed and will be a sitting duck in the ever-collapsing pocket. If Jay Cutler were playing in this game, I’d tell you to run to the betting window and bet the farm on the Bears. But without him in the lineup, it should be a little closer. Still, even with Hanie running around in the backfield and making questionable decisions, I like the Bears to win this game comfortably, advance to 8-4 on the season, and maintain their grasp on a wild card spot. And, with the Falcons (7-4) playing in Houston and the Lions (7-4) playing in New Orleans without Ndamukong Suh, the Bears could be in a more comfortable position after this week.
Final Score: Chicago 23, Kansas City 13