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Game Matchups: Rob Gronkowski is becoming a force

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN


It'll be tough sledding for the Patriots as they continue to adjust to life without Stevan Ridley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago against Buffalo. The Bears aren't quite as dominant defensively as they were during their heyday under Lovie Smith, but they entered Week 8 ranked 14th in rushing yards allowed per game. Injuries to Lance Briggs and Jon Bostic left Chicago with a linebacker trio that includes a second-year player (Khaseem Greene) and a player signed off waivers in September to play special teams (Darryl Sharpton). This is a matchup the Patriots could exploit even without Ridley as Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray could get more opportunities to carry the ball than they did against the Jets, but until that happens it's hard to give them the edge. ADVANTAGE: BEARS

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WHEN THE BEARS RUN


The Bears have arguably the league's most potent all-purpose weapon in Matt Forte, the veteran running back who entered Week 8 leading the league in receptions in addition to being the league's fifth-ranked rusher. He'd be hard enough to stop if the Patriots had healthy linebackers. Without Jerod Mayo, the team's defensive captain and play-caller in the huddle, and with Dont'a Hightower less than 100 percent, the Patriots have been forced to utilize special teamers and inexperienced backups in key roles. Newcomer Akeem Ayers could see some action with Chandler Jones expected to miss some time with a hip injury. This puts more pressure on the front, specifically Vince Wilfork, to pick up the slack. Expect Forte to attack the edge, where the Patriots have been susceptible this season even with Jones. ADVANTAGE: BEARS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS


Following a breakthrough performance in Week 6 in which he threw four touchdown passes with no interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter in a win over the Bills, it appears Tom Brady is heading in the right direction. The pass protection has been better in recent weeks, even with injuries to two starters, and, more importantly, tight end Rob Gronkowski is becoming a force while handling a heavier workload each week with no repercussions. Chicago's secondary is ranked near the bottom third in passing yards allowed and is severely banged up with Charles Tillman on injured reserve and impressive rookie Kyle Fuller dealing with a hip injury, so this is a good matchup for New England provided it can neutralize defensive end Willie Young, who enters the game with seven sacks. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE BEARS PASS


Jay Cutler is a dangerous quarterback but at times he can do just as much damage to his own team. The Bears have a terrific red-zone threat in tight end Martellus Bennett, who caught four touchdowns in his first six games, and big-play threats in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. Then there's Forte, who has more catches than anybody in the league despite being a running back. The reason the Patriots are a tough matchup here is because of their ball-hawking ability in the secondary. Whether it's forcing fumbles or coming up with key interceptions, the Patriots have a knack for making game-changing plays at the right time and Cutler has always been prone to turning the ball over when rattled. New England enters the game ranked No. 1 in the league in the turnover differential and passing defense. Look for Darrelle Revis to lock up with Marshall and while Brandon Browner deal with Jeffrey. The turnovers, or lack thereof, will determine this winner. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS


This matchup is somewhat of a wash considering both teams have reliable kickers, Chicago's Robbie Gould and New England's Stephen Gostkowski, but have yet to generate much of an advantage in the return game. Gostkowski missed a rare chip shot against the Bills due to a bad snap, but redeemed himself with three consecutive field goals down the stretch. The Bears allowed a punt return for a touchdown against Carolina, so perhaps this is the week the Patriots finally make a big play in the return game, but not before they clean up the penalties, which have cost them both in returns and in coverage. Danny Amendola gave a nice burst to the kick return game against the Jets and should continue in that role. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS


The biggest edge the Patriots have is their home-field advantage. They've been incredibly efficient at home in recent years against NFC opponents, but not as dominant as they were during the Super Bowl dynasty with home losses to San Francisco and Arizona in 2012 and a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in 2011. They're no longer a lock at Gillette Stadium, but still a pretty safe bet, and Cutler has had zero success in his career against the Patriots, losing once while with the Broncos and again four years ago with Chicago when he threw two interceptions in a 36-7 failure. There had been some talk of New England's demise, but Bill Belichick and his staff can still put together a solid game plan. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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