The Patriots (5-2) are in the midst of a three-game winning streak and playing some of their best football of the year, certainly on offense, as the team embarks on a six-game stretch that many believe will define New England's regular season. Chicago (3-4), on the other hand, heads to Foxborough having lost three of its last four in the first half of a disappointing season that's led to some emotional frustrations being aired in the locker room. There is little doubt that Jay Cutler heads into this battle with Tom Brady armed with some impressive offensive talented surrounding him. But the physically-gifted Cutler has never ascended to the elite hierarchy of NFL passers, a stratosphere that Brady has helped define for more than a decade. The Patriots are facing some questions on defense and an injury report that's causing more concerns by the week, but still are the clear favorite for another home victory. As you get ready for a beautiful fall early afternoon kickoff enjoy this Windy City brewed Bears at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Forte-forte Club** – Stopping the Bears offense clearly starts with stopping Matt Forte. Bill Belichick said the Chicago running back just might be the best in the game right now. The Patriots coach also had one of the quotes of the week when he said that Forte "has the ability to turn nothing into something in a hurry and he can turn something into a lot in a hurry too." Forte is second in the NFC with 436 yards rushing. He leads the entire NFL with 52 catches. His nearly 900 yards from scrimmage are more than a third of the Bears total yards on offense. Suffice it to say the Patriots front seven has its hands full with Forte. His running and receiving ability are somewhat similar to what New England faced with Jamaal Charles earlier this season, although Forte is probably a more powerful yet less dynamic playmaker. The Patriots defensive line needs to prove it can stop Forte in the ground game, a week after allowing Chris Ivory and the Jets to put up 218 yards rushing. The linebackers and safeties need to prove they can tackle well against Forte as both a ball carrier and a receiver. Forte's forte is taking it to opposing defenses and the banged up Patriots front seven needs to be ready for that challenge Sunday afternoon at Gillette.
- Big guns** – Forte may be the centerpiece of the Bears attack and straw that stirs the Chicago offensive drink, but he's not nearly the only weapon. Marc Trestman's offense fields three big playmakers in the passing game in the form of tight end Martellus Bennett and oversized receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The trio has combined for 105 catches for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns. The production is split pretty evenly as Bennett has the most catches (41), Jeffery the most yards (504) and Marshall the most TDs (5). Individually each would be a challenge for any secondary, but taken as a group they put even greater stress on a pass defense. The Patriots have statistically the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL through seven games, but things haven't exactly been perfect in the back end. Opposing tight ends have found success in the middle of the field with at times alarming efficiency. That's a concern heading into this battle with Bennett. Darrelle Revis has been relatively impressive to date and it will be interesting if he draws a matchup against either Marshall or Jeffery. Given that big-corner Brandon Browner is now in the mix and prefers to play on one side, this might be a week where Revis remains on the left side. It also could be a matchup that Belichick and Matt Patricia prefer to play zone and force the Bears to put together long drives with efficiency through the air. Revis is the centerpiece of the Patriots pass defense, but this matchup with the Bears will probably be more about the success the safeties have in the middle of the field and the backside cornerbacks' work if the Patriots are to keep Chicago's multi-weapon attack in check.
- Turnover a victory** – A week ago Geno Smith entered his battle with the Patriots having turned the ball over nine times previously. But he played a clean game and New England found itself in a dogfight with the Jets. Cutler enters this contest with 10 turnovers of his own (seven interceptions and three fumbles). Cutler is the ultimate hot-or-cold quarterback. When he's on his game he can make incredible plays and make a defense look really bad. But he also falls victim to his own mistakes with, from a Bears perspective, frustrating frequency. The Patriots remain No. 2 in the NFL with a plus-9 turnover differential. When they play to that number – take care of the ball on offense and turn it over as a defense – games generally played out on New England's terms. But when opponents take care of the rock, it very much closes the gap with the Patriots. The bulk of Cutler's turnovers have come in the team's four losses. There is a direct connection between the two. The Patriots need to make Cutler make mistakes and take advantage of the game-altering plays when he's loose with the football. Do that and the win should be a result. Fail to do that and the margin for error is greatly decreased.
- Air you go again** – In the last three games Brady has notched three passer ratings over 100 while throwing nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Rob Gronkowski has been a more formidable force in the passing game with each week. Complementary targets like Brandon LaFell, Tim Wright and Danny Amendola have chipped in to add to the consistency of Gronk and Julian Edelman. Put it all together and the New England passing attack has looked like the offense that is generally expected from Brady and the Patriots. Bears opposing quarterbacks have a combined rating of nearly 92 this season and completed better than 64 percent of passes with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The back end of the Chicago defense isn't exactly impressive, deep or healthy. The biggest concern facing the New England aerial assault, as it's been all season, is protecting No. 12. The Bears have 19 sacks on the year led by Willie Young (7). Jared Allen is getting healthy and though he has just one sack, the veteran is tied for the Chicago front lead with 14 QB pressures. Lamarr Houston also has 14 pressures. New England's line seems to be getting healthy as both Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork appear ready to return to the lineup after missing time to concussions. The protection has not been perfect of late but it's been a bit better. If Brady has time to work and stays upright he and the Patriots passing attack should continue to put up impressive numbers against the Bears. If not…
- Fill-ins focus** – The list of key contributors missing from the Patriots lineup continues to grow. The Bears game will be the second contest since Jerod Mayo and Stevan Ridley landed on IR. It will be the first of what could reportedly be a month of games without Chandler Jones (hip). Shane Vereen missed time to an illness this week as he prepared to take on his brother, Bears rookie safety Brock Vereen. New England's Vereen brother could once again be the focus of the backfield with plenty of runs out of passing sets against a Chicago defense that allows 4.3 yards per carry. Maybe Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden get their chances, too. Dont'a Hightower will again likely have green-dot duties on defense for a New England unit that must have better communication up front. Recently-added Akeem Ayers could see his first playing time just days after arriving via trade and it bears watching what he might bring to the front seven. But maybe the most interesting spot to keep an eye on is the void left by Jones' injury. New England doesn't really have an experienced backup at the spot, meaning rookie Div. II product Zach Moore might be thrown to the fire. Chris Jones may also see increased snaps. If the Patriots are to run the ball, stop the run and get after the quarterback it will all come with contributions from fill-in players. If those guys stumble in those areas it will be obviously good news for the visitors from Chicago.
6. Home cooking – The Patriots are and always have been one of the best home teams in football under Belichick. New England has won 12 straight at Gillette. It's won 12 straight against NFC North competition. The home win over the Bengals a couple weeks back included one of the best home crowds in recent memory. Chicago is a team that's actually been better on the road than at home. The Bears three wins all came away from Soldier Field this fall. The team has scored at least 24 points in each of its four road games. But the Patriots are averaging 31 points a game at home. So while it's a weird scenario in which both teams may actually like the fact that this game is being played in Foxborough, the Patriots still maintain the major advantage playing at home.
The Bears weapons are certainly a major concern in this matchup. Really, though, it all comes down to Cutler. If he takes care of the football and makes good decisions I fully expect Chicago to be in game for an extended period and this could even turn into a mild shootout. Criticisms in the Windy City have swirled around Forte not getting enough chances to run. But given the Patriots porous run defense look for the back to get his carries in this one. I am not sure the New England front has fixed its issues. In a lot of ways I look at the Bears offense in a way I looked at the Chiefs, only with better targets. We know how that road battle turned out. But the Patriots offense is a much better unit at this point and I fully expect Gronk, Brady and the rest to put up yards and points against a very suspect Bears defense. As always, though, turnovers and red zone will be the key. If Chicago takes care of the football and then puts it in the end zone when it has the chance the Bears will be anything but walkovers. Both offenses should put up points. Both defenses will struggle at times. In the end I think the home squad continues to roll in that environment with a 35-24 victory to keep some mid-season momentum churning along heading into the latest installment of the Brady vs. Manning rivalry. But, nobody can't look ahead to that one until the Patriots take care of business against the Bears.