Game Preview: Dallas Cowboys (7-5) at Chicago Bears (6-6)

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With playoff hopes dwindling, the Bears will have a last stand of sorts on Monday night when they host the visiting Dallas Cowboys.

The Bears are virtually two games back in the NFC North standings with only four left to play, so their window is closing rapidly. And because the Bears play on Monday night, we — and they — could find out their chances of winning the division before they even step on the field. The Lions will travel to Philadelphia on Sunday to face an Eagles team that is playing surprisingly solid football lately behind quarterback Nick Foles. If the Lions drop that game, the Bears can tie them in the standings with a victory over the Cowboys. But a Lions victory would make this Bears-Cowboys game a mere formality.

With a 7-5 record and some talented players on the Cowboys offense, this game might look like a daunting challenge for a Bears team with a defense that can’t seem to stop anybody. But the truth is that this game is here for the taking. As poorly as the Bears run defense is playing — still ranked dead last — the Cowboys can’t stop the run, either. They’re ranked 27th in that department. Matt Forte could have a big Monday night. We could see a lot of running from both sides.

Making matters worse for the Bears is that despite practicing this week, neither Jay Cutler nor Lance Briggs will be available for the game. That means Josh McCown will make his fifth start of the season at quarterback. The Bears offense has looked good under McCown’s leadership, but fans also forget how efficient and explosive it looked under Cutler’s guidance earlier this season. McCown is completing 65% of his passes, is averaging 298 yards per start, has thrown for nine touchdowns and just one interception, and has a 103.6 passer rating. He’s moved the offense down the field with regularity. But he’s also not Cutler, and the Bears offense has gone down in point production with McCown under center.

That’s not good news as the Bears are preparing to face a high-scoring offense on Monday night. The Cowboys rank third in the NFL with 27.4 points per game. They’re led by quarterback Tony Romo, a versatile quarterback who avoids the pass rush well and protects the football. He’s thrown 24 touchdown passes this year (4th-most) versus seven interceptions.

Romo’s top target is wide receiver Dez Bryant, one of the top receivers in the game. Think Calvin Johnson, but on a slightly lesser scale. Bryant has 68 catches for 896 yards and 9 touchdowns. His 9 receiving scores rank him 6th in the NFL, tied with the Bears’ Brandon Marshall. Bryant will be a tough matchup for the Bears’ corners and I expect him to make a big play or two at some point in Monday’s contest.

What the Cowboys offense doesn’t do well is run the football, and that could be a huge break for the Bears. Not only does Dallas rank 27th in defending the run, but they’re also 27th in offensive rushing. It’s not as if the Cowboys necessarily can’t run the football; it’s that they don’t. They’re a passing offense. But running back DeMarco Murray is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and has scored 7 touchdowns.

Will the Cowboys alter their pass-happy game plan to exploit the Bears run defense? Or will they stick with what has worked for them this year? That’s the million-dollar question.

The Cowboys have traditionally been a very physical team. These are the games that players can circle on the calendar and say, “I’m going to be sore for the next week.” But the Bears have matched that physicality, having beaten them the past two meetings — in 2012 and 2010. Both games were in Dallas, so Monday night’s frigid temperature and slow-track field will be a change of pace.

There will be some familiar faces staring down from opposite sidelines this week. Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was the former Cowboys coordinator. Defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Landon Cohen both played for the Cowboys recently. And tight end Martellus Bennett was with the Cowboys for the first four years of his career. And former Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will be on the other side of the field as defensive line coach for the Cowboys. Will some of these players and coaches have insider knowledge about the other organization? A little, I’m sure. But it’s hard to believe that that knowledge will play that much a factor in the game planning and execution on Monday night.

I’m having a hard time picking this game. For the fifth-straight week, this is a game I believe the Bears can — and should — win. However, not since the Packers game have I predicted a Bears loss — when the Packers had a healthy Aaron Rodgers — and the Bears have only won one of the past four games. I just can’t predict them to win this game given how poorly we’ve seen them play against bad teams like Rams and Vikings. This is a pretty solid Cowboys team that, while not a team that’s going to make any noise whatsoever in the playoffs, is good enough to exploit a bad defense. Do I believe the Bears could win this game if they played a complete, three-phase game and avoided broken plays? Absolutely. But do I believe they’ll play flawlessly? Recent history has proven otherwise.

Prediction: Dallas 27, Chicago 24

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