This game has two primary storylines: Todd Collins starting at quarterback for the injured Jay Cutler and the return of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers to the place where he made his living for eight years.
Cutler suffered in a way that was painful to watch in Sunday night’s game against the New York Giants, taking nine first-half sacks. On the ninth, he suffered a concussion and was out for the rest of the game — a 17–3 Chicago loss.
Now, with Cutler out, will the Bears’ offense — which only mustered 110 yards and six first downs against the Giants — will be even less threatening with Collins, whose less mobile than Cutler? Peppers, meanwhile, comes back to Carolina for the first time since he left in early March to sign a massive deal with Chicago. He was a controversial player at Carolina in his final years — mostly because he made no secret of the fact he wanted to go elsewhere — and so his reception will probably be a little colder than the one Donovan McNabb received last week in his return to Philadelphia.
Keys for the Panthers
• A mistake-free Clausen. Rookie Jimmy Clausen will make the third start of his career at quarterback. He was turnover-free at New Orleans last week and nearly led the Panthers to a game-winning field goal in the final seconds — instead, Carolina lost 16–14. But Clausen is prone to some rookie mistakes when the game starts moving fast, and he must avoid them here.
• Find a Steve Smith replacement. It’s likely Panther wide receiver Steve Smith — the team’s one downfield playmaker — will miss this game with a severe ankle sprain that has had him on crutches most of the week. That means Carolina will likely start a couple of rookies in David Gettis and Brandon LaFell, at least one of whom needs to have a big game.
Keys for the Bears
• A decent offensive line. Chicago’s O-line has been crucified all week after allowing 10 sacks in the loss to the Giants. Not all of those sacks were the O-line’s fault — Cutler sometimes held the ball too long — but Chicago has to improve its pass-blocking quickly or even the Panthers (who have only four sacks this season) will have a field day against Collins.
• Stop the run. Carolina’s offense is very much run-first. It has also been atrocious this season, averaging a league-low 11.5 points per game. For the Bears’ opportunistic defense, stopping the run early in the series and getting Clausen in 3rd-and-long should be a recipe for success. The Panthers this season have been almost seven times more likely to either punt or turn the ball over (34 times combined) than score a touchdown (five total).
Both teams are coming off losses, and the Panthers will enter their bye week after this one. They’d hate to sit on an 0–5 record for two weeks, and they are playing better. Chicago’s offense got embarrassed on national TV Sunday night and will be trying to ensure that its offensive line gets more help. The Bears have more playmakers than the Panthers do, particularly since Steve Smith should be out. Peppers also will be motivated and will disrupt a few things, too. Bears 16–10.