By Dan Durkin –
(CBS) Nearly 29 years ago, these two team famously met – well famously at least for Chicago – in the second-most lopsided Super Bowl in NFL history, a 46-10 shellacking by the Bears.
At the time, Bears’ fans would’ve scoffed at the notion that the Lombardi trophy the team earned in January of 1986 would never find a companion in the trophy case at Halas Hall, yet that’s exactly how it’s worked out.
Since then, these organizations have traversed drastically different paths. For the Patriots, making the playoffs has become the rule, while for the Bears, it’s become the exception.
New England’s evolved into the league’s model franchise. Since the duo of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady serendipitously formed in 2001, they’ve gone on an unparalled decade-plus of dominance. Over that span, they’ve won 181 games (171 with Brady as the starter), 11 division titles and three Super Bowls.
Nearing mid-season, the Bears have reached a tipping point. They’re already down two games in the division, so a loss on Sunday would drop them to 3-5 heading into the bye week, with their nemesis Green Bay Packers waiting on the other end of the break.
The Patriots are winners of three-straight, but don’t resemble the dominant group the league has grown accustomed to over the past decade. Injuries to key players on both sides of the ball have certainly played a part, but their recent plug-and-play formula around Brady has been challenged.
An essential element to the Patriots’ success has been sturdy protection from the offensive line. This season, it’s been a game of musical chairs up front. Multiple combinations have produced mixed results. The most recent starting five has been on the field for back-to-back weeks which has helped stabilize the offense.
One matchup to keep an eye on is Bears defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff on left guard Jordan Devey. Since returning from a concussion, Ratliff has been dominant at both holding the point against the run and collapsing the pocket from the interior.
Brady frequently operates from the “home” position directly behind the center, so distrupting his timing and moving him off his spot with a strong interior rush will be critical for the Bears.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ passing scheme limits turnover opportunities by deploying short drops and a quick delivery of the football to tightly-timed option route combinations.
Outside of tight end Rob Gronkowski — who is nearing full strength — the Patriots lack receivers who can consistently beat man coverage on their own. Consequently, they frequently use pre-snap motion and stacked and vice formations to get free releases off the line of scrimmage.
When the Patriots want to push the ball down the field, they use play-action. Brady sells the run as well as anyone in the league, getting momentary pauses in the back seven which create vertical opportunities down the field.
The Bears have been cycling through linebackers all season. Recently, offensive coordinators have exploited the slow run/pass key recognition and indecision of the Bears’ second-level defenders using misdirection and play-action passes to find tight ends wide open in the flats and over the middle of the field on crossing routes. Surely, the Patriots will target Gronkowski on similar schemes.
With running back Stevan Ridley (ACL/MCL) on the shelf, the reigns have been handed over to Shane Vereen, a versatile threat who makes his biggest contributions in the passing game. Who shoulders the load in the Patriots’ running game moving forward remains to be seen.
The Bears offense has done far more talking than performing this season.
Expectations were high for this unit which ranked second in the league last year in points scored. This season, they’re scoring below league average and in three of their last four games, they haven’t run a single play in their opponent’s red zone for one half of the game. That’s a troubling trend and may be an alarming sign that teams have caught up with Marc Trestman’s scheme.
The Patriots’ pass defense is the league’s best, limiting opponents to 208 yards per game. However, their run defense has been vulnerable, allowing 126 yards per game. The question now becomes, will Trestman change his pass-happy play calling and strike a better balance on offense?
Running back Matt Forte leads the league in receptions, but he’s also the league’s fifth-leading rusher. Seven games into the season, Forte wasn’t sure what the Bears’ offense did best, but it’s clear they operate best when he’s the centerpiece of the game plan. Teams have had success attacking the edge of the Patriots’ defensive line.
Another marquee matchup will be on the perimeter between two All-Pros — Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis. Defenses have had great success zoning the Bears out this season, keeping a top on the defense and challenging quarterback Jay Cutler’s patience to work the ball down the field. Cutler’s thrown seven interceptions and has lost three fumbles, which have directly led to 37 points.
The Patriots typically opt for man coverage, so it will be interesting to see what type of game plan Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have devised with 10 days to prepare.
The numbers for any team heading into Foxboro are daunting. The Patriots are 24-1 at home in October since 2003, they’ve won 12 straight home games and 12 straight games against NFC North opponents.
The NFL has become a turnover league and there’s a stark contrast between these two teams. The Patriots play with excellent ball security, ranking second in the league with a plus-nine turnover differential. The Bears, on the other hand, are minus-one and are 0-4 in games in which they’ve lost the turnover battle.
This game won’t be any different. It will come down to ball security and in-game adjustments. Both of which favor the Patriots.