NFL prediction: Wounded Chicago Bears Visit Blessed Denver Broncos
Sunday, December 11, 2011
by Aengus Moorehead
The surprising AFC West co-leaders attempt to deliver a sixth consecutive victory with Tim Tebow under center when they host a reeling Chicago Bears team that enters Sunday's critical interconference clash from Sports Authority Field at Mile High without both Cutler and standout running back Matt Forte.
The primary storyline for this Week 14 matchup was expected to be Cutler's return to Denver for the first time since the strong-armed signal-caller was dealt by the Broncos to the Bears in April of 2009 following a well-publicized personality clash with then-head coach Josh McDaniels. But with the former first-round draft pick to sit out a third straight week while recovering from surgery on a fractured right thumb, the focus has instead shifted to the remarkable run Cutler's ex-club has put together to vault itself into the thick of the AFC playoff mix.
Denver's turnaround has coincided with Tebow's insertion at quarterback in place of the since-released Kyle Orton, part of the blockbuster swap that sent Cutler to the Windy City. The Broncos are 6-1 since the switch and drawn even with Oakland for first place in the division standings heading into this season's final four weeks.
Four of those wins have come in games where Denver had trailed in the fourth quarter, including last week's thrilling 35-32 road triumph over Minnesota in which the never-say-die Broncos rallied from an eight-point second-half deficit and pulled ahead on two Matt Prater field goals inside the final two minutes. The final one, which came as time expired, was set up by an interception from cornerback Andre Goodman deep in Vikings territory with 1:25 to go.
Tebow has certainly done his part as well, with the polarizing young lefty having thrown five of his 10 touchdown passes and producing an impressive 109.7 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter. Of the season-high 202 passing yards he compiled against the Vikings, 94 of them came in the last 15 minutes.
The Bears may be on the lookout for additional help at the position with Caleb Hanie having struggled mightily in the two games Cutler has missed. The Colorado State product has been intercepted six times in back-to-back losses to AFC West inhabitants Oakland and Kansas City that could potentially serve as significant blows to Chicago's playoff fortunes down the road.
The offense particularly stalled in last Sunday's 10-3 home upset by the Chiefs, mustering just 181 total yards and a mere 88 through the air. Hanie completed only 11 of his 24 attempts for 133 yards and was sacked seven times in addition to throwing three picks.
Chicago received a double whammy in the defeat, with the valuable Forte spraining the MCL in his right knee that could sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. The impending free agent has amassed 1,487 yards from scrimmage this year and accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Bears' offense.
Despite its current funk, Chicago remains in position to grab one of the NFC's two Wild Card spots at the moment. The Bears are tied with Atlanta and rival Detroit in the race and own a win over the Falcons as well as a better conference record than the Lions.
The Bears took a 7-6 lead in its overall series with Denver after posting a 37-34 overtime win in the teams' most recent matchup, which took place in Chicago in 2007. The Bears also came out on top in their last visit to Sports Authority Field, earning a 19-10 decision there in 2003. The Broncos' last triumph over Chicago occurred at home in 1996, a 17-12 verdict at the old Mile High Stadium.
John Fox owns a 3-1 lifetime record against Chicago as a head coach, with all of those games coming during his time at the helm of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. Lovie Smith won his only previous encounter with the Broncos with the aforementioned 2007 result, but is just 1-2 when going against Fox head-to- head. That includes a 29-21 loss to Fox's Panthers in the 2005 NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Time & Venue:
- 4:05 PM ET, Sunday, December 11, 2011. Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado
NFL Football Odds: Broncos -3.5, O/U 35.5
Denver is tied for first in the AFC West with Oakland, which plays at Green Bay on Sunday. Tebow has one interception and two lost fumbles to go along with 10 touchdown passes and three rushing scores. Linebacker Von Miller and his NFL rookie-leading 10.5 sacks are expected back after missing last week with a thumb injury. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas had career highs in yards (144) and touchdowns (two) against Minnesota. Denver finishes with New England, at Buffalo and Kansas City.
Hanie has two touchdowns and six interceptions, and hasn’t displayed the form which nearly rallied Chicago against Green Bay in last season’s NFC Championship Game. The Bears will try to replace Forte with Marion Barber, who is expected to get the hard carries, and Kahlil Bell, who is better coming out of the backfield. It looks like the Bears will have to win three of their last four games to have a shot to make the playoffs. They finish with Seattle, at Green Bay and at Minnesota.
The battle at the line of scrimmage between the Denver offense and Chicago's defense will definitely have a say in the outcome of this game. It's a matchup of strength on strength, with the Broncos have rushed for 150 yards or more in seven of their last eight games and the Bears yielding a minuscule 74.3 yards on the ground over their past seven contests. Though Tebow's been terrific in terms of leadership and coming through in the clutch, he's still far from a polished passer who the Bears will try to make beat them with his arm.
While Chicago's defense is fully capable of keeping the Broncos' read-option scheme in check, the Bears aren't going to win this week without better play out of Hanie. Cutler's slumping understudy is going to need some make some throws and get his team into the end zone, and another multiple-turnover effort could spell doom against an opponent that's done a very good job of taking care of the ball.
Denver's calling card on defense is a knack for pressuring the quarterback, and how a Chicago front wall that surrendered seven sacks last week handles itself in protection will also go a long way in determining Sunday's victor. Running the ball efficiently would help to neutralize the Broncos' pass rush, meaning Barber and Bell must step up and provide a boost in Forte's absence.
Denver's No. 1 rushing offense (158.9 yards per game), led by Willis McGahee (886), meets Chicago's No. 9 run defense (99.8). McGahee (knee) missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but said he will play Sunday.
This is the Bears' fourth consecutive game against an AFC West team. They are 1-2, including a 25-20 loss at Oakland in Week 12.
Denver is 1-5-1 ATS in its last 7 games when playing Chicago
Denver is 1-4 ATS in its last 5 games at home
The total has gone OVER in 5 of Denver's last 6 games at home
The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Chicago's last 5 games when playing Denver
Chicago is 5-2 SU in its last 7 games
The total has gone OVER in 4 of Chicago's last 5 games
The Broncos are starting to gain some believers, and it's hard not to be impressed with what they've done to stamp themselves as a serious contender for the AFC West crown, while plenty seem to jumping off the Bears' bandwagon based on the injuries to Cutler and Forte and Hanie's shaky play under center. Chicago shouldn't be counted out just yet, however, as its defense has been exceptionally stout and Hanie's certainly eligible for improvement in his third go-around as a starter.And Denver hasn't exactly been blowing teams out of the water during its surge, with all but one of its wins over the course of its present tear coming by seven points or less. The Broncos have been winning nonetheless, however, and until Hanie proves he can beat a team of some quality at the NFL level, they still rate as the choice.
NFL Football Pick: Take Broncos.
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