The last time they faced Jay Cutler in 2010, the Patriots got the better of him, with a 36-7 win. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s contest between the Patriots and Bears:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon (other than the Darrelle Revis-Brandon Marshall showdown, which we detailed here):
1. Running back Matt Forte against the Patriots defense: Forte is the driving aspect to the Bears defense — no other back in the league presents himself as much of a dual threat than the 29-year-old, at least according to Vince Wilfork. Forte leads the league in receptions (52, to go along with 436 receiving yards), is second in the league in combined yards from scrimmage (884, trailing only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, who has 1,072), and is tops on the team in rushing (111 carries, 448 yards, three touchdowns). Stopping (or at least minimizing) the impact of the 6-foot-1, 221-pound Forte figures to be the top priority for the New England defense. With their size and depth in the secondary — the deepest part of the defense after the injuries up front and at linebacker — the Patriots likely feel pretty good about their chances when it comes to slowing down the supersize tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. While tight end Martellus Bennett remains a different story (more on him in a second), their ability to slow down Forte will likely play sizable role on Sunday afternoon.
2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski against the Bears linebackers and safeties: The Bears have struggled to defend tight ends in the passing game all year long — according to Football Outsiders, they are 30th in the league against opposing tight ends at 29.7 percent, having yielded an average of 7.8 catches and 69.9 passing yards per game against tight ends. And with Gronk back to what appears to be full-on Gronk status (18 catches on 30 targets for 262 yards and a touchdown in his last three games), this sets up to be a winnable matchup for New England. Last week against the Dolphins, Chicago frequently gave free release to Charles Clay and Dion Sims, and then struggled to catch up — the Miami duo ended up with a combined six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. If the Bears show the same sort of issues this week against Gronkowski and Tim Wright, the Patriots should make them pay.
3. Quarterback Jay Cutler against his instincts: Cutler against himself is really going to be one of the more fascinating battles of the afternoon. The Vandy product has some of the best arm strength in the league. At the same time, on a weekly basis, he manages to make at least one questionable decision. The quarterback tossed two interceptions in each of the team’s three previous losses heading into Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, and last week, he committed two more turnovers (an interception and a fumble) against Miami. According to ESPN, in each of the team’s four losses this season, Cutler’s turnovers have led to a total of 37 points for the opponent. That doesn’t bode well for Chicago, which is facing a New England team that enters this week’s action best in the league at plus-9, a stat that includes 14 takeaways (seven fumbles, seven interceptions).
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: It’s easy to get lost in an offense with high-profile names like Marshall, Jeffery and Forte, but Martellus Bennett has really done a good job as a consistent pass-catching presence for the Bears. The occasionally quirky 6-foot-6, 265-pound Bennett — who answers to the nickname “Black Unicorn” — has 41 catches for 422 yards and four touchdowns over the first seven games of the season. He’s been limited by a hamstring issue as of late, but given the fact that the Patriots have had issues when it comes to defending even mediocre tight ends in the passing game, he’ll be one to watch come Sunday afternoon.
5. By the numbers: 1 – Only one running back has more than four catches in a game against the Patriots this season (Minnesota’s Matt Asiata, who finished with five), while only two backs have more than 20 receiving yards against New England’s defense this season (Asiata with 48 and Minnesota’s Rhett Ellison, who had one catch for 24 yards in the same game). On the other side of the equation, Forte, who leads the league leader in receptions with 52, has caught at least five passes in every game this season and gone over 60 yards receiving four times. As they say, something has got to give on Sunday. (One more: Tom Brady and the Patriots have a 12-game winning streak against the NFC North — the only game Brady lost to an NFC North team was when he and the Patriots lost to the Packers at Gillette on Oct. 13, 2002 by a 28-10 margin.)
6. Quote of note: “The Gronk? I watch him all the time. He’s like the Terminator of tight ends. I enjoy watching him play. He’s just…like I say, he’s like the Terminator. … You look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the way he moved in Terminators [he's] similar to Gronk. He’s a hell of a player. He does a lot of great things. It’ll be fun to talk to him before the game. He’s a great guy.” — Bennett on whether or not he watches Gronkowski
7. Patriots fans should be worried about… a consistent Cutler. A quarterback with the unique ability to keep both teams in the game at the same time, there’s a question as to what Cutler the Patriots will see Sunday. Will it be the steady and consistent Cutler, the one who leans on a reliable option like Forte, doesn’t take too many chances and makes solid (if unspectacular) decisions at the line? That was the one who showed earlier this season against the Niners, and was rewarded with an upset win in San Francisco, a game where he tossed four touchdown passes and completed 68 percent of his passes in a 28-20 win over the defending NFC champs. That quarterback deserves to be mentioned among the best in the league. Or will be bad Cutler, the one who checks down out of runs and into deep passes, tries to fit throws into the tightest of windows and turns the ball over at a scary clip? That was the guy who showed up last week against the Dolphins. If it’s the former, it could be a long day for the Patriots. If it’s the latter, it’ll be bad news for the Bears.
8. Bears fans should be worried about… Brady getting enough time in the pocket when it comes to pass protection. Our own Ryan Hannable did an impressive breakdown of the time the quarterback had to throw the ball as of late, and the amount of time he had against the Jets opposed to what he had to work with earlier in the year is astounding. Not all of that is on the offensive line — there’s been a concerted effort to get the ball out quickly in an attempt to try and negate the opposing rush. But at the same time, the fact that Brady’s numbers have spiked dramatically over the last few weeks is at least due in some part to the work of the offensive line. If that grouping can continue to give Brady the time he needs — a good bet, since it appears that center Bryan Stork and guard Dan Connolly will be able to come back this week after missing time because of head injuries — it’ll go a long way toward determining whether to not the Patriots will win this game.
9. One more thing: When it comes to game-planning for Forte, there’s one other possibility: On more than a few occasions in the past, the Patriots have entered the game with the understanding that a exemplary back is going to get his yards on the ground, no matter what you do, and it’s simply more advantageous to yield those yards on the ground because it’s better than the alternative. In Super Bowl XXI, the Giants allowed Thurman Thomas to pile up the yardage because it kept Buffalo’s fast-break offense in a lower gear. The same was true for Super Bowl XXXVI when facing the likes of the Rams and Marshall Faulk. To an extent, it was the same philosophy the Patriots utilized against the Broncos in the regular-season matchup last year, a game where Denver had 48 carries for 280 yards. (In that same game, Denver’s Peyton Manning was 19-for-36 for 150 passing yards.) Just a thought, but maybe the Patriots believe that if Forte is running the ball, that’s another minute that Cutler isn’t throwing it to the likes of Marshall, Jeffery or Bennett. Ultimately, maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the names Marshall Faulk and Thurman Thomas came up when talking about Forte this week. The same sort of game plan could be in store for the Tulane product.