Following last week’s loss to the Detroit Lions, the Bears find themselves on the outside of the playoff race looking in. They’re virtually two games behind the Lions in the divisional hunt by virtue of their two losses to the Lions this year, and they’re trailing both the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers for the wild card.
The Bears can keep pace with their conference foes as they take on the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens this week. When a Super Bowl champion is crowned, the team can take one of two directions the following season. Either they play with confidence and contend for the Super Bowl the very next year, or they struggle under the pressure of the position or because they’re entering rebuilding mode.
The Ravens are definitely the latter. Quarterback Joe Flacco played out the final year of his deal last season with the hopes of cashing in on a big payday. Due to his Super Bowl MVP, he received the richest deal for a quarterback in NFL history. The thought of that still leaves me cringing as Flacco is neither the best quarterback in history nor is he even the best quarterback in the NFL. Frankly, he doesn’t even fit in with that illustrious “elite” category we like to label the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s in a class only slightly above Jay Cutler — which is to say, those with playoff success and above average talent. The Ravens’ loss of salary cap flexibility with the costly Flacco contract is every other team’s gain, and the 4-5 Ravens are feeling Year 1 of the experiment.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to see the Cutler-Flacco duel. Due to Cutler’s high ankle injury from the Lions’ game, the Bears quarterback will be out this week and backup Josh McCown will take his place. Thus far, we have to like what we’ve seen from McCown in his little action this season. The Monday night victory over the Packers two weeks ago paired with the fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Lions that nearly tied the game has Bears fans feeling warm and giddy.
So, which McCown will we see in this one? I think we see one who looks a little more human, one who resembles a backup quarterback but a competent one. McCown looked as though he could do no wrong the past two weeks but against a Ravens defense that attacks the quarterback like few other teams in the league, I expect we’ll see McCown’s first noticeable mistakes. However, I also expect Marc Trestman’s quick-pass offense to help alleviate some of that heat from the defense.
Running back Matt Forte can help stymie the Ravens’ pass rush, too. The Ravens are ranked 10th in defending the run, so Forte will have his work cut out for him, but a dedicated run game will have to keep the Ravens defense honest. Plus, Forte’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield is a perfect remedy for a blitzing team. Coming off a subpar performance against the Lions, Forte is due for a bounce-back game.
Perhaps the biggest reason why McCown has had success the past two weeks is because he has a cache of weapons around him. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are one of the top wide receiver duos in the NFL. Together, they have caught 107 passes this year, one of the highest totals in the NFL. And according to ChicagoBears.com, the duo has even higher acclaim with receiving yards: “Marshall and Jeffery have combined for 1,521 yards this season, the most by two NFL teammates.” When you throw into the mix tight end Martellus Bennett (who is questionable this week), third receiver Earl Bennett, and Forte’s receiving skills, not to mention an offensive line giving up the third-fewest sacks this year, it’s no wonder why McCown has been able to operate efficiently.
The other side of the ball is where Bears fans have to be most concerned. The Ravens are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, even when you consider they have the All-Universe Flacco taking snaps. Their best receiver is Torrey Smith, who has 41 catches this year for 753 yards. He is averaging 18.4 yards per reception, third highest in the NFL. Given the Bears’ problems at safety this season as well as the loss of cornerback Charles Tillman, there is cause for concern that the defense will be beaten by the deep ball. I know I give Flacco a lot of flak-o (somebody cue the drummer sting), and it’s all rightfully deserved, but the one thing he’s always had since entering the league is a big arm. Safety Chris Conte had a decent performance last week by some accounts — we still saw him whiff in run defense — but he was better in coverage. The duo of him and Major Wright will have to stay deep and keep everything in front of them.
Fortunately, Ravens running back Ray Rice is having an awful year by his standards. The normally stout, bowling-ball-style runner is averaging a woeful 2.5 yards per carry. In his five years prior to this season, he’s never had an average below 4.2 yards per carry. The Bears run defense is among the worst in the league, currently ranked 31st, but this could be a game where it gets rejuvenated. As a result, the safeties may not need to play up in the box so much and can hang back to protect in the passing game.
The Bears have injuries all over the field — then again, who doesn’t? But with Cutler, Lance Briggs, Tillman, D.J. Williams, and Henry Melton all missing from the team’s starting lineup to enter the season, along with key backups Nate Collins and Kelvin Hayden, the Bears have done much better this season than most other teams would have with so many pieces taken away. And I think it says something about Trestman and his offense that I still feel very good heading into this game despite the big losses of Cutler, Briggs, and Tillman. Given the strength of the Ravens’ defense and the woes of their offense, I expect this one to be a low-scoring affair, with the game’s better offense coming out on top — and that’d be your Trestman-led Bears.
Prediction: Chicago 20, Baltimore 17
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