NFC division leaders share the spotlight tonight when the Chicago Bears take on the Philadelphia Eagles at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Both the Bears and Eagles enter this game at 8-6 and atop the NFC North and East, respectively, and one of them can punch their playoff ticket with a win and a little help.
If Philadelphia wins and Dallas loses to Washington, the Eagles will win the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach. If Chicago wins and Green Bay and Detroit both lose, then the Bears will win the NFC North in Marc Trestman’s first season as an NFL head coach. And the similarities don’t end there either, as both the Bears and the Eagles are among the NFL’s top offenses and the worst defenses. Put it all together and it should result in an entertaining game with plenty at stake.
3 Things to Watch
Both the Bears and the Eagles are among the top seven offensive teams in the NFL, as each have productive running games and explosive passing attacks. The Eagles lead the league in rushing (152.9 ypg) and Philadelphia is the only team averaging five yards per carry. The Bears are averaging 4.6 yards per carry and have rushed for at least 135 yards in each of their last three games. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Matt Forté are first and third, respectively, in the NFL in rushing with at least 1,200 yards and both are dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Both teams have used multiple starting quarterbacks this season, but that hasn’t slowed down their passing games. Chicago has had both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown under center, and the Bears are fifth in the league in passing at 275.8 yards per game. They also are sixth in terms of completion percentage at 65.1 percent. Because of the success of their running game, the Eagles haven’t had to throw as many passes, yet they are still 10th in passing offense (261.1 ypg). Both offenses have done a good job of protecting the ball, as they have combined for 57 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions. In fact, Nick Foles, who took over the starting job for the Eagles after Michael Vick got hurt, has posted an impressive 23:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 11 games, eight of those starts. Put it all together and you have two teams that are averaging a collective 55 points per game. Combine that with their defensive issues (see below) and you have the makings of a high-scoring affair at Lincoln Financial Field tonight.
As well as the offenses have produced for these two teams, the defenses have had their struggles. Both rank near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed, with Chicago coming in at 27th (380.4 ypg) and Philadelphia 30th (402.4 ypg). The difference has been in how opposing teams have attacked each defense. The Bears are dead last in the league in stopping the run, as they are giving up 152.4 yards per game on the ground. Prior to holding the Browns to just 98 yards rushing last week, the Bears had been coughing up 204.1 per game over their last seven contests. Chicago also was able to snap its streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher in six straight games, which tied an NFL record. The Bears’ inability to stop the run does not bode well for tonight’s matchup with the league’s No. 1 rushing offense. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ problems on defense revolve around the pass. Philadelphia is second to last in passing defense (291.6 ypg), as Dallas (297.4 ypg) is the only team giving up more yards through the air per game. The defense actually had been playing better recently, but that was until the Eagles gave up 382 yards passing to Minnesota’s Matt Cassel last week. While the Bears have surrendered fewer passing yards per game (228.0) than the Eagles, both defenses have yielded around the same number of touchdown passes (22 for Chicago, 21 for Philadelphia) and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete better than 60 percent of those passes. Philadelphia has done a better job of minimizing the damage, giving up three points fewer per game (24.9 to 27.9) than Chicago, but both defenses look to have their hands full tonight trying to slow down two of most productive and explosive offenses in the NFL.
Who’s Feeling the Pressure?
Chicago and Philadelphia are each among the top five offenses in the NFL in touchdown passes and in the bottom half of the rankings in interceptions thrown. One of the easiest ways to disrupt a productive passing game is with pressure. Unfortunately, that has not come easy for either defense this season. The Eagles are tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with 32 and the Bears are dead last with just 26. Chicago has done a better job when it comes to protecting the quarterback, especially compared to last season. After giving up 44 sacks in 2012, the Bears addressed the offensive line in both free agency and the draft and the results are clearly visible. Through 14 games, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown have been sacked a total of 24 times, only Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford (16 each) have gone down fewer times. The Eagles have been a little more generous in the sack department, as Nick Foles (21), Michael Vick (15) and Matt Barkley (3) have been brought to the turf a total of 39 times, which is tied for the tenth-most. If Chicago’s defense were able to take advantage of this apparent weakness tonight that could help take the pressure off of a secondary that’s without All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman and let the unit focus its efforts more on stopping the run. The Bears could get a boost in that department with the potential return of All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs, who has missed the past seven games with a shoulder injury. Whether it’s Chicago or Philadelphia, if neither defense can find a way to make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket, it could end up being a long and frustrating night at the office.
Chicago Key Player: Jay Cutler, QB
In the final year of his contract, Cutler has been limited to nine games this season due to a groin and ankle injury. He’s posted the best numbers of his Bears tenure in first-year head coach Marc Trestman’s offense, including a career-high 63.9 completion rate, but he’s still prone to turnovers (16 TDs, 13 TOs) and also has been largely out-performed by backup Josh McCown. A 10-year veteran, McCown got his first start since 2011 when Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7. McCown started the next week against Green Bay and then took over again after Cutler hurt his ankle in Week 10 against Detroit. In five starts and seven games total, McCown has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,809 yards (258.4 per game) and 13 touchdowns with just one interception. Cutler is averaging 241.4 yards per game with a 16:10 TD:INT ratio in his nine games. McCown was doing so well that there were reports of locker room discord when Trestman made the decision last week to start Cutler against the Browns. After starting out slowly, including two first-half interceptions one of which was returned for a touchdown, Cutler picked things up. He finished the game 22-of-31 with 265 yards passing, three touchdowns and those two picks, as the Bears won 38-31 on the road to put them in first place in the NFC North. Cutler’s strong second half silenced some, but certainly not all, of the critics. Tonight he gets a shot at the 31st-ranked passing defense in the NFL and an opportunity to put his team one step closer to a division title. Trestman said all along that Cutler was his starting quarterback, now’s the time for the player to show everyone why.
Philadelphia Key Players: Secondary
Chicago’s offense is fifth in the NFL in passing thanks to the production of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett, as well as running back Matt Forté. These are the Bears’ leading receivers, who have combined for 295 catches, 3,631 yards and 24 touchdowns. Besides being productive, they also are big targets. All four are at least six feet tall, with Jeffery (6-3), Marshall (6-4) and Bennett (6-6) looking like they belong on a basketball court and not the gridiron. This trio has used its size to its advantage this season and it also could be a problem tonight for the Eagles’ secondary. None of the defensive backs on Philadelphia’s roster are taller than 6-1 and of the 10 total cornerbacks and safeties, only four are at least 6-0. Philadelphia has struggled in pass defense to begin with, ranking second to last in the league in that category, and it could be another tough night against these lanky, rangy and athletic Bear receivers. Despite the clear height disparity, the Eagles’ defensive backfield needs to find a way to stand tall tonight.
Chicago and Philadelphia both enter tonight’s game leading their respective divisions, but still in must-win mode. The Bears lezad the Packers by less than a game in the NFC North, but need to win out because of Green Bay’s earlier tie and the fact that Chicago would lose the division tiebreaker with Detroit should they end up tied. The Eagles are in a similar situation, leading the Cowboys by one game, but trailing Dallas in divisional play.
Ironically enough, both teams finish up with divisional games against their closest pursuer, which makes a win tonight even more meaningful and possibly season-defining. The Bears are just 3-4 on the road this season, but are coming off of a big 38-31 win in Cleveland last week that saw the return of starting quarterback Jay Cutler. The Eagles had their five-game winning streak snapped by Minnesota, a disappointing stumble for a team that seemed to have grabbed full control of the NFC East.
Marc Trestman and Chip Kelly are both rookie NFL head coaches, who could make huge statements by leading their team not only to the playoffs, but a division title in their first seasons. Both are offensive-minded, which shows in the production of their respective systems. The defenses have had their issues, however, so don’t be surprised if this game features plenty of offensive fireworks.
Kelly has used three different starting quarterbacks with Nick Foles emerging as the best of the bunch. But again, offense hasn’t been the problem for Philadelphia and while I think the Eagles will fare just fine against Chicago’s defense, the same can be said for the Bears offense against Kelly’s defense. In the end, I think Chicago’s size at wide receiver and tight end will be too much for Philadelphia’s secondary to handle and the Bears leave The City of Brotherly Love victorious following an exciting, back-and-forth affair.
Chicago 31, Philadelphia 27