Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jets vs Bears Preview

New York Jets (10-4) at Chicago Bears (10-4)
December 26, 2010, 1:00 PM
Soldier Field
Line: Jets +2

After righting a season that could have easily spiraled out of control last week in Pittsburgh, the Jets look to clinch a berth in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Chicago accomplished that feat last week, assuring themselves of the NFC North title last Monday night. The Jets will be the more desperate team, but the Bears also control their own destiny for a first-round bye, so they have motivation as well. These are two similar teams in a lot of ways. Both the Jets and the Bears have been road warriors this season, with 6-1 road records and 4-3 home records. Both teams rely on stout defenses with shaky offenses. In cold Soldier Field, look for a tight, low-scoring battle between two fairly evenly matched teams.

When the Jets have the ball...
The biggest key for the Jets winning this game is not turning the ball over. The Bears thrive on forcing turnovers. They've forced 31 turnovers this season, so avoiding them will be a huge obstacle. Mark Sanchez has not been a very good quarterback in his young career in very cold weather games, so this will be a big test for him. He got by the Polamalu-less Steelers without turning the ball over. If he can do it again, it would be huge for his confidence going forward.

Last week, the Jets were able to get more room on the ground than expected against the mighty Steelers. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and the Bears' front seven will be a similarly difficult test. The Bears allow 3.8 yards-per-carry on the year, although teams have been able to punch in 12 touchdowns on the ground. The lack of Damien Woody will once again hurt, but the Jets will probably continue to give RT Wayne Hunter help on the outside by using OL Robert Turner as a tight end. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson simply haven't been impressive lately. Tomlinson showed flashes last week, but he needs to do more. Both seem to be one broken tackle away from breaking a few longer runs, but they just can't seem to do it. On a cold, windy day in Chicago, the Jets will need their running game to make their mark and at least be a threat, or they will have a very difficult time winning this game. The unit doesn't have to be dominant, but it must make the Bears respect the run.

If the Jets want to score this game, it will be on the shoulders of Sanchez and the passing game. As tough as the Bears defense is, they do allow opposing quarterbacks to dink and dunk. Lovie Smith is a disciple of the Tony Dungy/Herman Edwards Tampa-2 system that doesn't allow plays deep down the field. A stout run defense and a unit that doesn't allow big plays is tough to score on, especially with the Jets as shaky as they have been offensively. Chicago will force them to string out long drives and grind out first downs. Converting those long drives into touchdowns has been a constant problem this year, and that's exactly what Chicago will force the Jets to do. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, Dustin Keller, and Tomlinson all have the ability to win their individual matchups, but we've seen far too many plays on third down that leave you shaking your head to assume the Jets will convert on third down like they have to. Sure enough, the Bears defense holds opponents to a 35% conversion rate on third downs, one of the best in the league.

In each of the four losses this year, the Jets failed to score a touchdown. Last week, the special teams picked up the slack with Brad Smith returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Sanchez had the one offensive touchdown on a naked bootleg. The Jets are undefeated this year when they score a touchdown and winless when they don't. With points sure to be at a premium, look for that trend to hold, for better or for worse. 

When the Bears have the ball...
The Bears' offense has been odd to watch all season long. There are speedy playmakers like Johnny Knox and Devin Hester that can get deep and make plays in a Mike Martz offense. Yet, the Bears are near the bottom of the league in passes of both 20+ yards and 40+ yards. The offensive line has gotten Cutler sacked a league-high 48 times this year, yet the running game has been slightly better than last season.

Still, against the Jets, running room will be hard to find. Rashard Mendenhall's 99-yard performance last week was impressive, but Matt Forte is not nearly as talented as Mendenhall. Forte is still a versatile threat who can do some work inside the tackles and outside in the passing game. He's been running well of late, but the Jets will be the best run defense he's faced in a while. Look for him to be more of a threat in the passing game on third downs.

Passing the ball, the Bears are another one of those teams, like New England and Cleveland, where there is no clear-cut number one receiver to gameplan against. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will take turns matching up with Knox, Hester, and Earl Bennett. If Cutler is smart, he'll try to follow the lead of other quarterbacks against the Jets and attack the nickel back. He's said this week he'll challenge Revis, but that's probably foolish. Knox and Hester do have elite top-end speed, though, so if Revis or Cromartie were to get beat, it would probably be on a deep ball.

That is, if Cutler has time. While the Jets' pass rush has been solved by a large part of the NFL, the Bears are a very good matchup for the Jets. Mike Martz's offenses traditionally send a lot of people into passing routes, which would give the Bears less help against the Jets' pass rush. As much maligned as the front seven has been this season in getting to the quarterback, the Jets do have 35 sacks on the year. Cutler gets sacked more than anyone in the NFL, so look for the Jets to disrupt Cutler's timing and possibly even force some turnovers for once. If Cutler takes a lot of five and seven step drops, the Jets will make him pay.

This is a classic, cold weather football team between two strong defensive teams. The key will be which team can force more turnovers. Will the Jets force Cutler back to his interception-happy ways by sending a lot of blitz looks at him? Or will the Bears feast on Sanchez's tendencies and pick off some passes of their own? When all is said and done, the Jets have more motivation to win this game and are more likely to stick with a ball-control offense to win the game. This is a toss-up, but with the Bears playing on short rest, look for the Jets to win another game that goes right down to the wire.
Jets 16, Bears 10


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