Two teams with similar records may have dissimilar trajectories.
The Patriots (4-2) head to Chicago this week to take on a Bears (3-2) team that's off to a nice start under first-year head coach Matt Nagy.
But while New England has won three games in a row thanks to a resurgent offense that's topped 38 points in three straight weeks, including a season-high 43 in last Sunday night's big win over the Chiefs, the Bears are coming off a disappointing trip to Miami that concluded in an overtime loss last weekend.
Still, as the Patriots seek their first road victory of the season the Bears have yet to lose at Soldier Field.
And as Bill Belichick's team attempts to make its annual midseason run toward contender status thanks to the output of the Tom Brady-led offense, the Bears are buoyed by a talented, effective defense.
On paper it's a matchup that could lead to competitive action and intrigue Sunday afternoon.
But are second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the upstart Bears ready to compete with Belichick, Brady and a Patriots team that annually competes for Super Bowls?
On the surface it would appear Chicago has something to prove, just like Kansas City did in last Sunday night's shootout in Foxborough.
But according to Brady, New England has something to prove as well.
"This is the best defense we've played in a long time," Brady proclaimed Friday afternoon. "We're going to have to go out and play really well on the road. We've talked a lot about playing on the road this week and kind of what we need to do to get a win. We haven't played very well on the road this year and we're going to need to play a lot better than we played the first two times on the road in order to win."
As the hours trickle toward this traditional Sunday-at-1 kickoff in Chicago, here are some keys to this inter-conference battle of division leaders and, maybe, would-be Super Bowl contenders.
Protect Brady – The Bears are ranked No. 3 in the NFL in sacks per pass play and have maybe the No. 1 feared pass rusher this season in trade addition Khalil Mack. Though Mack is dealing with an ankle injury he's expected to play to lead a front that has had 10 different players record a sack this season. New England's offensive line has been stellar in pass protection, barely allowing just eight sacks in six games. With Marcus Cannon out of action due to a concussion, super-sub LaAdrian Waddle will get the nod at right tackle and face off against Mack, whom he dealt with relatively well in a battle with the Raiders last season. The Patriots are likely going to want to throw the ball regularly in Chicago, but to do so Waddle and the rest of the line must ensure that Brady is clean and comfortable in the pocket more often than not.
Protect the football – Chicago is ranked third in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-6 for the season. The Bears have 14 takeaways, including 10 interceptions spread among eight different players. Brady and the Patriots passing attack have been prone to interceptions this season, with six in six games. But the passing attack is coming together as Julian Edelman hits his stride and Josh Gordon builds a rapport with Brady. Still, the Patriots need to be on point in the passing game and in ball security to ensure that the Bears aggressive defense doesn't get game-changing turnovers. The speed of Chicago's linebackers could force Brady to look away from James White and down the field more often, but he needs be careful when he does so.
G.T.F.B. – The Patriots must get back on defense and put an end to the big plays that were a problem against the Chiefs. New England's coaches and defenders have spent the week praising Trubisky's deep balls. He has three different targets with catches of 47 yards or longer. Taylor Gabriel and Tarik Cohen are dangerous after the catch and in the open field. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon need to be much better as the last lines of defense and with their tackling. The Patriots have given up too many chunk plays this fall, with the work against Kansas City the most glaring example. Make the youngster Trubisky and the Bears beat you with long drives.
Throw to run – Over the last few weeks New England has been able to establish an early ground game behind the work of rookie Sony Michel and the offensive line. That led to the play-actoin passing game. That may not be the best approach against a Chicago front that's allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. Some balance will be needed to put together a full 60 minutes of execution against the Bears, but this may be a week where the passing game sets up the running game. That includes spreading the field both horizontally and vertically, taking full advantage of the budding corps of weapons Brady has at his disposal. Throwing with Michel on the field may also be in the running in this one, rather than with White in the backfield as a personnel tell.
Start up the road show – New England has yet to win on the road this season and part of that was falling behind early in Jacksonville and Detroit. The Patriots, like all teams, play much better from ahead and with the game on their terms. Belichick, Brady and others talked all week about the need to start faster and play better on the road. That's even more important against a Bears team that's played its best football in the middle of games, outscoring opponents a combined 81-15 in the second and third quarters this season. Chicago has shown fight this fall, with four of its five games decided by one score, including three by three points or less. Taking control of the game early would be a good way for the veteran Patriots to put the young Bears in a tough spot.
Prediction: While these two teams have similar records, the NFL is now a very much offensive league and the New England attack is rounding into form. It will be tested by the Bears, but the Mack injury is huge. After the massive win over the Chiefs, the Patriots feel like they are back to contender status and hitting their stride, even with the problems and questions on defense. Given time, which is a question, Brady should be able to find open receivers with the depth of his weapons outflanking the depth of the Chicago secondary. More importantly, the Bears feel like a poor man's Chiefs. Nagy comes from Andy Reid's tree and all the Chicago weapons are lesser versions of what Kansas City fielded last Sunday. That victorious warm-up might help McCourty and the rest of the Patriots defenders. In the end, this has the makings of the first Patriots road victory of the season, as they find a way to stay in relative control of the game throughout a 38-21 victory. The high-scoring and the winning continue.
What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!