The Chicago Bears host the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field in a Week 13 game bubbling with potential NFC playoff implications. The Packers are right on the heels of the Bears in the NFC North, and should Chicago fall into the Wild Card race over the next month, they'd likely be competing with Seattle for one of the two NFC spots. It's a huge game on both sides, with Seattle desperate to pick up a win on the road and the Bears trying to maintain their impressive home record with a depleted roster.
Starting quarterback Jay Cutler returned to the lineup last week, and it immediately paid dividends on the offensive side of the ball. The Bears were woeful in the two-game stretch without him, and just the threat of Cutler dropping back to pass changes the dynamic of Mike Tice's offense. Seattle let one get away in Miami last week, yielding 10 points over the final five minutes and falling on a last-second field goal. The Seahawks have just one road win this year, and they'll need to pick up a victory away from CenturyLink Field at some point if they want to be in contention down the stretch.
Meet the Bears
The Bears jumped out to a 7-1 record but the Cutler injury sent them into an ugly two-game slide. Cutler has a solid stable of offensive weapons around him, but once again, it's the defense that provides the identity in Chicago. The Bears are in the top 10 in the league against both the pass and the run, and save for that performance in San Francisco, they have imposed their will in every game.
The mainstays on the defense are well-known names at the linebacker position -- Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher -- but another Chicago staple in the secondary, Charles Tillman, has garnered much of the national notoriety this season. Tillman is getting plenty of hype as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate, with his trademarked punch move forcing fumbles across the NFL. But "Peanut" is hobbled by a foot injury, and while he's probable to go, having the veteran corner at less than 100 percent has to be cause for concern on the defense. He's a huge part of the Bears run defense, providing support as a sure tackler. The strength of the Seahawks offense is on the ground, so the Bears stout rush defense will need to play up to its high standard.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears were hammered by injuries along an already shaky offensive line. Teams have had success getting to Cutler, and now he'll face a daunting Seattle pass rush without guards Lance Louis and Chris Spencer. Louis is done for the season, and Spencer has already been ruled out for Week 13. Seattle's Brandon Mebane is outstanding at creating push up the middle, so the two losses on the interior of the offensive line could be huge this week. On the outside, both Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons will pin their ears back and come off the edge against tackles that have looked overmatched at times this season. Andre Gurode and Gabe Carimi are two names that will likely be thrown into the new shuffle up front.
Cutler didn't throw for a huge number in his return last week, but he did look sharp, as incompletions were few and far between. Keeping him upright this week will be the challenge, as Seattle has some steady corners who may force Cutler to stand in and wait for his receivers to find room. Brandon Marshall is the top target outside the numbers, and his size will present a problem in the Seattle secondary.
In addition to the injuries up front, the Bears may also be without their No. 1 option out of the backfield. Running back Matt Forte is probable after suffering an ankle injury last week in the win over the Vikings. It initially looked serious, as he struggled to even hobble off the field and into the locker room. He'll likely play against Seattle, but he won't be 100 percent. Chicago has the 10th best rushing attack in the league, and their run-pass balance on offense has been one of their strongest attributes. The Bears will definitely have their hands full, but it will be up to the offense to put together some sustained drives and let the defense do their work against a Seahawks team trying to operate in hostile territory.
Meet the Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks are a top tier NFC team, but a couple hard-luck losses on the road have them fighting to stay above .500 as the calendar turns to December. Seattle is unbeatable at home, but the skeptics instantly like to cite their road record when questioning Pete Carroll's club.
Russell Wilson seemed to be put in the box of "game manager" early in the season, and while the play calling was exceedingly conservative, the rookie has improved significantly each month. He had only six incompletions in 27 attempts last week, pushing Seattle to a second-half lead. He's a solid dual-threat and he rarely makes mistakes that cost his team the game. That will be much, much harder to do against a Bears defense that excels at takeaways, but it's likely Seattle goes into management mode in what could be a back-and-forth defensive affair.
Wilson has hit on key big plays at opportune times, but the bread and butter of Seattle's offense is Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is already over 1,000 yards rushing, and only Arian Foster has more carries this season. Seattle is eighth in the league in rushing at nearly 140 yards per game, and the onus will be on Lynch to provide an early threat on the ground. Adrian Peterson had success last week against Chicago's vaunted run defense, and Seattle will need Lynch to set up the play-action for Wilson as the game progresses. The Bears seem to be more vulnerable on the ground, giving up more than 100 yards rushing in five straight games.
Carroll's defense has an excellent combination of feared pass rushers and ball-hawking defensive backs. Luckily for Seattle, corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will be available after it became clear that the NFL would not rule on their appeals of four-game suspensions in advance of Week 13.
The aforementioned Clemons, Irvin and Mebane must get to Cutler early and force him to wing it into tight spaces. That's where those corners feast, and it's a large reason why the Seahawks have the third-best pass defense in the NFL. It's a passing league and their ability to stop teams through the air has kept them in every game this season. Only the Bears and Niners are giving up fewer points per game, but can that defense lead Seattle to their third win at Solider Field in as many seasons?
Local Takes: Bears
Sam Householder of Windy City Gridiron provides his four keys to the game, including the Bears' ability to get Cutler rolling early against the Seahawks secondary:
We all know the Bears are better with Cutler than without him. There were a number of articles this week about the topic and I explored it last Friday. That said, we saw last Sunday that when Cutler is on, he can make any throw and even without gaudy numbers, be can be the difference maker for the Bears. For Mike Tice to get him in a rhythm early, using the short passing game, getting the plays in quickly and keep the offense moving, etc., will be imperative. Cutler completed 74.2% of his passes last Sunday and was slinging the ball into tight windows with ease. It's important that Tice gets Cutler that comfortable again and get Brandon Marshall involved. Last week Cutler targeted eight teammates and it would be well-advised against a stingy Seahawks secondary to get that many guys involved again. That especially means the TEs and Earl Bennett.
Local Takes: Seahawks
Rob Davies at Field Gulls goes through the exercise of breaking down the spread as the Seahawks hit Chicago for the vital NFC regular season game:
Aside from Seattle always playing tough in Chicago and the fact that the Seahawks are coming off an emotional loss, another factor to consider, and not unrelated to the latter point, is the Bears looking past us and towards the two weeks following this. A look at their schedule shows NFC North foes Minnesota and Green Bay up next, two games with far greater magnitude than this Sunday's matchup against an upstart team from out west somewhere who just happened to have their wings clipped recently a million miles from home.
As disappointing as it is, the Seahawks are no match (as it stands) for a place in the hearts and minds of the Bears with the Vikings and Packers on the horizon. Don't let it get you down fellas, it works in our favour.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
@DaneNoble - Windy City Gridiron
Free Agent Tackles would Break the Bears Bank sbn.to/TvlUJm— Dane Noble (@DaneNoble) November 29, 2012
@VxMcClure23 - Vaughn McClure, Bears beat reporter
Urlacher, Melton hit with fines from Sunday's Vikings-Bears game. trib.in/TuZfde— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) November 30, 2012
@Eric_D_Williams - Seahawks beat reporter
Two weeks ago the NFL's No. 1 defense (49ers) met the NFL's No. 2 defense (Bears). This week it's the No. 2 defense (Bears) facing the No. 3 defense (Seahawks). I like Seattle a lot, but I don't know how it is going to score enough to hang with the Bears. Matt Forte's injury status may make this interesting, but Chicago has this one.
The pick: 24-13, Bears
The Bears opened as the favorites with the standard home-field edge of three points, and according to OddsShark, that has gone up a half point at most books.
The Bears will travel to Minnesota for their second game in three weeks against the Vikings. After two weeks out on the road, the Seahawks return home where they'll host NFC West rival Arizona in Week 14..