Can you believe that it's already Week 6 of the 2020 NFL season? Despite all of the issues that COVID-19 has caused this season, the NFL has continued to push forward.
And this week features a matchup between two NFC teams coming off of big wins. The Chicago Bears (4-1) defeated Tom Brady for the first time in franchise history when they beat Tampa Bay in last week's edition of "Thursday Night Football." And with last Sunday's victory in Atlanta, the Carolina Panthers (3-2) have won three straight after opening the season with consecutive losses.
The Bears are looking to start a new winning streak, while the Panthers want to keep their streak going. A win would give both of these some much-needed momentum. Here we go...
Chicago at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 18 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Panthers -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The back-and-forth Bears offense
The passing game hasn't been an issue for the Bears, especially since Nick Foles (63.7 completion percentage, 680 yards, 6.0 ypa, 5 touchdowns, 83.9 passer rating) took the reigns at quarterback. Although Foles continues to battle inconsistency (3 interceptions, 4 sacks taken), throwing the ball downfield is the least of the Bears' offensive worries. Running the ball, however, continues to be problematic. The Bears averaged just 2.5 yards per carry against Tampa Bay and are barely hitting four yards per carry on the season.
David Montgomery continues to get the bulk of the carries (247 rushing yards, 3.9 ypc, 1 touchdown) but has yet to have a breakout game (49.4 ypg). Cordarrelle Patterson hasn't made a ton of difference yet (21 carries, 69 yards, 3.3 ypc), Ryan Nall has only been used on special teams, and Artavis Pierce was elevated to the active roster in the wake of Tarik Cohen's ACL tear but has yet to see the field. Bears fans were hoping that the team would consider signing Le'Veon Bell when the Jets released him, but Bell wound up in Kansas City instead. A strong running game has been the foundation of Bears history, but right now, that element is missing.
Not only does the rushing attack need to be better, the Bears will also need to present a more balanced offense on Sunday. That's because they'll be facing a Carolina defense that ranks in the top 15 in both in total defense (14th, 356.4 ypg) and scoring defense (13th, 23.6 ppg). They're also fifth in passing defense (223.0 ypg) and tied for fourth in takeaways (8), while hybrid linebacker-safety Jeremy Chinn is fifth in the league in tackles (44).
2. The Bears' defense is improving
This side of the ball finally started to come to life against the Buccaneers last week. They sacked Brady three times (two from Khalil Mack), hit him eight times (three times by Mack), and collected five TFLs (two belonged to Mack). Seeing Mack create havoc on an opposing offensive line was a very welcome sight, as he'd been dealing with a sore knee since the end of training camp, which slowed him down during the opening weeks of the season. The question now is whether or not Mack is finally at full speed, the good thing is that he's no longer listed on the injury report.
The Bears will need Mack at full speed in order to chase Teddy Bridgewater, who has been outstanding to the tune of a 73.4 percent completion rate, 292.0 yards per game, 8.2 yards per attempt, a 101.9 passer rating, and six touchdowns to three interceptions. And although he doesn't have the accolades that Brady has, Bridgewater is more athletic than Brady and adds another layer to this offense. He's able to avoid the pass rush, move around in the pocket, use his quick release on his throws, and take off downfield when needed. The Bears will need to keep Bridgewater in the pocket in order to limit his effectiveness.
Overall, the task will be to at least contain a Panthers offense that ranks sixth in total offense (399.6 ypg), fifth in passing offense (281.8 ypg), and 14th in rushing offense (177.8 ypg) — adding up to 24.4 points per game. The Bears will have their work cut out for them on both ends.
3. The red-hot Panthers
The Panthers began the season with an 0-2 start in which they were outscored 65-47. They gave up over 30 points in both of those games, they were held under the 10-point mark in six of those eight quarters, and Bridgewater threw two interceptions and took six sacks. But since then, the Panthers have gotten it together. They've turned it around on both sides of the ball and have won three in a row. They've also created a three-way tie atop the NFC South with Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
They've outscored the Chargers, Cardinals, and Falcons by a 75-53 margin. Carolina held all three opponents to 21 total points or fewer, including holding them to single-digits in the fourth quarter, all while posting six takeaways. During this streak, Bridgwater has recorded 824 passing yards and is responsible for six total touchdowns. Mike Davis has stepped up in the absence of Christian McCaffrey (219 rushing yards, 132 receiving yards, three combined touchdowns), Bridgewater has thrown the ball to nine different receivers, while the defense has collected five sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and 15 tackles for loss. Matt Rhule's team is more than capable of giving the Bears fits on both sides of the ball.
The Bears are 6-4 all-time against the Panthers and have won four of the last five meetings. The Panthers did, however, win the last game in Charlotte back in 2014. But individually, Bridgewater is 4-1 lifetime against the Bears with his teams outscoring Chicago 123-92. Against the Bears, Bridgewater has averaged 213.2 yards and touchdowns per game, and the Bears have only sacked him eight times, with five of those sacks coming back during his rookie year of 2014.
Bridgewater's individual success against Chicago and Carolina's recent defensive efforts give them a clear advantage. So unless the Bears can slow Bridgewater down — and be more balanced and successful on offense for a full four quarters — Carolina pulls out the win on Sunday.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Bears 21
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of chicagobears.com)