By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Patriots’ dominance against the NFC is well documented. Since 2002, they’re 40-9 against the NFC and have a 12-game winning streak against the NFC North. Those numbers are daunting, but this year has been unpredictable as ever.
Here are five matchups to focus on in this Sunday’s Bears-Patriots game.
Bears linebackers/safeties vs. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — Gronkowski is nearing full strength, evidenced by the increase in targets and explosive plays over the past three weeks. He’s beating both safeties and linebackers in man coverage. Last week, the Dolphins utilized their tight ends well on crossing routes, finding them six times for 91 yards. Bears linebackers gave free releases at the line and used poor technique in coverage, which the Patriots will look to exploit.
Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff vs. Patriots left guard Jordan Devey — Since clearing the concussion protocol two weeks ago, Ratliff has made an impact both against the run and the pass. Last week, he registered three-and-a-half sacks by overpowering blockers and finishing with burst. Devey has struggled all season, showing slow feet and an inability to anchor and hold the point. Interior pass rush is critical to disrupting Tom Brady’s rhythm.
Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall vs. Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis — Marshall made headlines last week not for his production on the field, but rather his postgame reaction. Marshall has only one 100-yard receiving performance this season and will draw Revis one-on-one this Sunday. Revis will mirror Marshall all game and physically challenge his release off the snap. Look for the Bears to utilize Marshall from the slot and off the line of scrimmage to try and get free releases.
Bears tight end Martellus Bennett vs. Patriots linebackers and safeties — With Revis not requiring help over the top and the Patriots likely to roll safety help to Alshon Jeffery’s side of the field, Bennett could find a lot of room over the middle of the field to operate. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was a focal point in their 41-14 win over the Patriots and was utilized on crossing routes and screens. The Bears would be wise to utilize Bennett in the same manner on controlled, quickly-timed routes.
Bears running back Matt Forte vs. Patriots defensive ends/outside linebackers — The Patriots are giving up 126 yards per game on the ground. At Halas Hall, the buzzword has been “balance” on offense, so Forte figures to shoulder the load. Teams have beaten the Patriots to the perimeter in the run game and have attacked the flats in the pass game. If Patriot defensive ends don’t read formation keys and outside linebackers don’t get to their landmarks, Forte could have a big day.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.