The Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints come into their Monday Night Football matchup with identical 5-8 records, but couldn't be in more different positions. The Saints are still in contention in an awful NFC South and have everything to play for as they try to keep their postseason hopes alive, while the Bears reside in the basement of the NFC North and have been officially eliminated from playoff contention.
New Orleans is looking to rebound from the biggest home loss in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, a 41-10 blowout in the Superdome last Sunday against a Carolina Panthers team that had not won a game since October. The Saints were thoroughly embarrassed on both sides of the ball in that defeat, yet somehow they are still just percentage points behind the Panthers and a half-game ahead of the Atlanta Falcons in the division standings.
The Saints own the second-easiest remaining schedule in the league, with games against the Falcons (5-9) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12) in Weeks 16 and 17. However, New Orleans cannot afford to look ahead and is facing a must-win game tonight if it is going to remain in the postseason hunt, with zero margin for error in the final three weeks of the season.
The Bears are playing for pride now that they are guaranteed to miss the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. They have to win out the rest of the way to simply finish .500, and need to find one win in their final three games to avoid double-digit losses for the first time since 2004. While the Bears probably have the talent to compete with the elite teams, the reality is that they've only been able to beat the bottom-feeders. Chicago is 4-1 against teams that entered Week 15 with a losing record and 1-7 against everyone else.
Don't be surprised if the final score of this game is something like 56-52, with the Bears and Saints owning two of the worst defenses in the league this season. Here are the ugly numbers: New Orleans ranks 30th in points, 31st in yards per game and 31st in yards per play allowed; Chicago ranks 32nd in points, tied for 28th in yards per game and 29th in yards per play.
Both teams are also on the verge of etching their names in the franchise record books -- but for the wrong reasons. The Saints have given up at least 27 points in five straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL and tied for longest streak in team history. The Bears are on pace to rank last in the league in scoring defense for just the second time ever; the 1945 squad finished 10th in the 10-team NFL, allowing an average of 23.5 points per game.
The key to a Saints victory might be whether they can take advantage of the Bears' struggling pass defense. Drew Brees, one of the league's elite quarterbacks, should easily pick apart their secondary with his pinpoint accuracy and ability to keep the chains moving with his arm. Brees leads the NFL among qualified quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 69.3 percent and ranks second in passing first downs (205). The Bears, on the other hand, have surrendered the most passing touchdowns in the NFL, and rank 30th in both opponent passer rating (103.4) and pass yards per game (265.5).
Facing a Saints team that was gashed for 271 yards on the ground by the Panthers last week, Chicago needs to make a commitment to the run game from the start if it is going to play the role of spoiler. The Bears have one of the NFL's most talented running backs on their roster in Matt Forte, yet they continue to ignore him when the offense breaks the huddle. The Bears rank last in the league in the percentage of rushing plays called (32.4 percent), and have rushed for a total of 48 yards in their last two games combined.
Who to watch
Jimmy Graham - The All-Pro tight end has virtually disappeared from the Saints' offense in the last two weeks. He caught just three passes for 25 yards and had a career-high three drops against the Panthers -- a performance that came on the heels of the Week 13 game at Pittsburgh where he wasn't even targeted once. Graham's overall numbers this season remain strong, ranking in the top five among tight ends in both receptions and receiving yards, but he needs to produce at a high level each game down the stretch if the Saints are going keep their postseason hopes alive.
Martellus Bennett - The seven-year veteran has quietly emerged as one of the league's best tight ends, and is clearly one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal Bears season. Bennett leads all players at his position with 77 catches and ranks third in receiving yards (821). He has set a new career high in receptions and yards for the third straight year, and last week broke Mike Ditka's single-season Bears record for receptions by a tight end. Bennett is also one of the league's best tight ends in pass protection, ranking fourth in Pro Football Focus ratings with only two pressures allowed in 68 pass block snaps.
This updated version of Soldier Field opened in 2003, replacing the original stadium that was the Bears' home field for more than 30 years. Although the 61,500-seat new stadium is the league's smallest venue in terms of capacity, it still remains one of the most revered stadiums in the NFL. The organization decided to keep the historic Greek colonnades of the old Soldier Field during the refurbishment, and demolished the rest of the structure. One of the unique features of the venue is a 250-foot granite-wall sculpture that acts as a memorial to those who served in the armed forces.
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How to Watch
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden
The Saints are 3-point favorites on the road against the Bears, and the over/under is set at 53.5, according to OddsShark.com.
For more on the Saints, check out Canal Street Chronicles.
To keep up on the Bears, head over to Windy City Gridiron.