Game Preview: Chicago Bears (7-6) at Cleveland Browns (4-9)

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The Bears will have an opportunity to take a half-game lead in the NFC North when they face the Browns on Sunday, thereby putting pressure on the Lions to win Monday night.

The big story of the week is the return of starting quarterback Jay Cutler and the surrounding controversy from his return sending the hot-handed Josh McCown to the bench. It seems like much of Bears Nation is divided with which quarterback the Bears should be starting this week, but everyone within the Bears organization — McCown included — is standing behind Cutler.

Cutler returns to face the 10th-ranked pass defense, one that is also ranked eighth in interceptions. As we know, Cutler has had great success in Marc Trestman’s offense this year, but he also has taken more risk than McCown and has had a tendency to get careless with the football throughout his career. Protecting the ball and limiting the Browns’ offensive snaps are big keys to the game this week. Given how poorly the Bears’ defense has played, Cutler and crew will have to play “keep away” and maintain time of possession.

Cutler will be aided by the fact that Alshon Jeffery has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver in this league and he and fellow wideout Brandon Marshall will help draw defensive attention away from one another. Add to the fact that the big-bodied, athletic Martellus Bennett will wreak havoc over the short-middle of the field and I have every confidence in the Bears to keep rolling with the same success they’ve had under McCown.

Matt Forte currently ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,073 rushing yards. His 65 receptions this season are a career high for him and it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surpass 80 for the season. That safety valve for Cutler is an invaluable tool and adds one more weapon to the mix that the Browns will have to account for. The offensive line has played really well this season in allowing the third-fewest sacks in the league, and Forte’s ability to pick up blitzes and make incredible blocks in the backfield have helped keep Bears quarterbacks clean as well.

The talk this week really should not be all about the quarterback position. Excuse my obscure metaphor here, but if the Bears were a country, their offense would be considered the upper class and their defense the lower class. Rather than squabble over which investment will make the Bears’ wealthy even wealthier, let’s focus on the poverty of the defense and how to put food on the table.

Okay, I said it was an obscure reference, but I think you get my drift. The discussion this week and beyond should be: how do the Bears stop opposing offenses and keep them in check? A few weeks ago, the defense made a star — or, at least, a fantasy star — out of Rams running back Benny Cunningham. This week, the fear is that the defense might do the same with Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker, with starter Willis McGahee out with a concussion.

This is a Browns team that can’t run the ball and has no business succeeding in running it. They’re 28th in the league and averaging a mere 84.3 rushing yards per game. But due to poor gap integrity and a lack of basic fundamentals from the linebackers and defensive backs, the Bears run defense is last in the NFL and is allowing an average of 157 yards per game. This is historically bad and it makes it difficult to watch when the defense is on the field.

Although the Bears might make bad Cleveland running backs “look” like stars, the Browns do have a legitimate budding star in wide receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon leads the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards — yes, even surpassing the Lions’ Calvin Johnson. The fact that Gordon is having this success with a revolving quarterback carousel — which has stopped on former Bear Jason Campbell — makes his numbers even more impressive. Gordon is a big-play receiver who leads the NFL with 24 receptions of more than 20 yards and is tied for first with eight receptions of more than 40 yards. Those are scary numbers for a secondary that has neither defended the run nor the pass well this year.

Despite their one big-play wide receiver and tight end Jordan Cameron, who leads the team in receptions, the Browns are not a very good football team. They lack offensive firepower, ranking 27th in the NFL with just 19.8 points per game, and they’re careless with the football, ranking 27th in turnover ratio with a minus-7.

Comparatively, the Bears rank second in the NFL with 28.3 points per game and eighth in the NFL in turnover ratio with a plus-7. In other words, they score more and take care of the ball better.

This is a game the Bears have no business losing, hence, it’s a defining game on their schedule. Is this team a playoff team? That depends on if your glass is half-full or half-empty. The half-full approach sees one of the top offenses in the NFL and knows that a good offense is enough to at least make you competitive every time you set foot on the field. The half-empty approach sees a historically bad run defense and wonders how that unit will ever stop playoff teams with good offenses.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I see that half of my glass has contents in it and the other half does not. Why limit it to one perspective?

I see that if Lance Briggs returns for the final few games and a potential playoff run, and if Jeremiah Ratliff continues working his way back into shape, and if the defense shows small signs of improvement, that this is a Bears team that can compete with any playoff team by virtue of their offense.

However, I also see that if the Bears allow the Browns to rush for 150-200 yards and score 24-30 points, you can kick over my glass and let the remaining contents spill out, because that would be an embarrassment to lose to three teams they have no business losing to — Rams, Vikings, Browns — and it would mean that this is a team that has no business being in the playoffs.

This week, though, you can keep filling my glass.

Prediction: Chicago 27, Cleveland 20

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