The 4-4 Patriots will travel to Champaign, Ill. to face the 2-6 Bears Sunday at 4:15 p.m. The game is the second of a three-game road trip that will challenge the Patriots in the heart of the NFL season.
Chicago is a team that is struggling of late, currently in the midst of a six-game losing streak after starting the season with a 2-0 record. The Bears have the 29th ranked offense in the NFL and the 27th ranked defense. A team that rolled to a 13-3 record in 2001 behind a strong running game and an opportunistic, ball-hawking defense has not been able to recapture the same success in 2002.
That being said, the Bears do have significant talent on both sides of the ball and have been able to stay close to most of their opponents this season. While starting quarterback Jim Miller is expected to miss Sunday's game, backup Chris Chandler is an experienced veteran that has shown an ability to win games in this league. And although running back Anthony Thomas is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry behind an offensive line that has seen eight different starters, the back does have the potential to carry the team in a ball control offense. In wide receiver Marty Booker the Bears have a physical player that also has big-play ability. Booker has caught 47 passes for 697 yards and five touchdowns this year.
"This is a team that obviously has good football players," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "They are a real talented team. Offensively, the Bears are a real physical team, they have a good running game and they're a very strong team both up front, their running backs are big powerful guys. Their receivers are big, they come in and block in the secondary and crack on those linebackers. They are really a physical group. But on top of that, they league the league in big play passing. Booker is an outstanding receiver. They do a good job of running the ball and making you come up and play the run and making you respect their ability to pound it out and run some ball control passes and then hitting you for big plays."
On the defense side of the ball the Bears are anchored by dominant middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Urlacher has 109 tackles to lead the NFL at the midpoint of the season, but is also a factor in the passing game with coverage and pass rushing skills. The unit has not played as well as they did last season, but they have forced 14 takeaways and have scored 12 defensive touchdowns in the last four seasons under coordinator Greg Blache.
"Of course defensively they have a lot of outstanding players on that defensive unit," Belichick siad. "They have been banged a little bit and are getting some of those guys back. They have two real good safeties with [Mike] Brown and [Mike] Green. [Jerry] Azumah, [R.W.] McQuarters is a good secondary. Obviously the linebackers with [Rosevelt] Colvin and Urlacher, [Mike] Caldwell, those guys, it speaks for itself."
Belichick went on to throw high praise in the direction of Urlacher and the many abilities of Pro Bowl linebacker.
"Urlacher does a lot of things well," Belichick said. "I think one of the greatest strengths that he has is his versatility. He runs very well. He has a lot of range, he comes off and covers a lot of ground. Of course we know that he has a background as a defensive back. Unlike some linebackers, he is very good at pass coverage. But he is also big and he is a good blitzer."
So while based on records and the Bears current losing streak Sunday's game may look like a mismatch on paper, it may not be so cut and dry. As has been the case numerous times this season, any team can win on any Sunday in the NFL. If the Patriots want to work back into the AFC playoff picture and build a winning streak, the team will have to bring a high level of play to Sunday's game.
One advantage the Patriots do have is that the game will be played on a somewhat neutral site. While it may be a home game in a technical sense for the Bears, Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois does not present the formidable atmosphere of Soldier Field.
The game marks the first time the Patriots will play at a college stadium since playing the 49ers at Stanford Stadium in 1989. … This week's game marks the Patriots second straight on artificial turf. The has won its last six games on turf, including playoff action. … The game will be the only time this season the Bears host back-to-back games this season. The Bears fell to the Eagles at Memorial Stadium last week 19-13. … Bears Head Coach Dick Jauron attended Swampscott (Mass.) High and played under Belichick with the Lions in 1976-77. … These two teams have met nine times, with the Patriots holding a 5-4 series advantage. The Bears have been held to seven points or fewer in four of the five Patriots wins. … Booker has recorded a reception in 37 consecutive games for the Bears. … Chicago has played all its games on artificial surfaces this season and won't play on real grass unitl Dec. 1 at Green Bay. … Cornerback Jerry Azumah attended the University of New Hampshire and is a Worcester, Mass. native. … Rookie tackle Marc Colombo attend Boston College and went to Bridgewater-Raynham (Mass.) High School. … 11 Patriots have caught touchdown passes this season, the highest touchdown distribution in the NFL and most in franchise history.