Matchups to Watch  


Cutler faces old demons; Texans new 'D' gets stiff test


Every Thursday, Steve Wyche will examine a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.

Jay Cutler vs. Packers defense

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had to have this game against the Packers circled since the NFC Championship Game loss Jan. 23. That, of course, is when he went down with a knee injury, and the Bears lost to rival Green Bay with Caleb Hanie gamely but unsuccessfully attempting to mount a rally. Cutler's toughness was questioned, as was his passion at the moment of truth.

Cutler has put any doubts about his fortitude to rest by continuing to get up after spending two games as a human punching bag for opposing defenses. Forget the 11 times he's been sacked. Cutler has taken far more hits that are not recorded on the stat sheet, and they haven't been love taps. He gets to face a defense now that's not going to have any mercy against its oldest rival. Despite winning a Super Bowl, the Packers didn't like losing the division title to Chicago last season.

Cutler, who attempted 45 passes last week against the Saints, will be facing a defense surprisingly ranked last in the NFL against the pass. Even so, the Packers are among the league leaders in sacks with seven. With the Bears' banged-up offensive line and receivers who have trouble getting open, Green Bay will join the hit parade.

Texans defense vs. Saints offense

In the most overlooked early season turnaround in the NFL, the Houston Texans rank No. 1 in pass defense after ranking last in 2010. Houston also has the top scoring defense and No. 1 overall defense. Oh, it's also unbeaten. Granted, they've played the Colts with Kerry Collins and the Dolphins, but still, this Wade Phillips-led unit is no longer an opposing quarterback's dream. The Texans allowed 33 passing touchdowns and a league-worst 267.5 passing yards per game last season. This year, it's 162 yards per game.

Houston is going to see how far it's come this Sunday in the Superdome. The Saints have the fifth-ranked passing offense in the NFL and a multitude of personnel matchups that will be like nothing the Texans have seen thus far. Drew Brees has already faced a 3-4 front in Green Bay, so some of the looks Houston presents won't seem unfamiliar. The Texans generate pressure from the edges with Antonio Smith and Mario Williams. If Houston can match the Saints offensively or even play into the second half with a lead, it can be aggressive with its front seven to try and force good field position or even takeaways.

Matt Ryan vs. Josh Freeman

These two young quarterbacks are already among the most clutch in the NFL. Last week Atlanta's Ryan staged his ninth fourth-quarter comeback in less than four full seasons, while Tampa Bay's Freeman rallied his team for the eighth time in less than three full seasons. This week, they meet in Florida to try and get a leg up in the NFC South.

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The Falcons have had their way with the Bucs in the win column the past few years but the games have been incredibly close. Both teams have potent running games to help their quarterbacks in the play-action game. Tampa Bay's defensive front still hasn't quite hit its stride to help out the secondary, but Atlanta's defensive backfield also has been vulnerable. With the tight games between these teams and the holes on defense, the stage is set for both of these young quarterbacks to make something happen in the final period -- again.

Chiefs vs. Chargers

San Diego hosed the Chiefs 31-0 when these teams met late last season in San Diego. This season, it could be considered a victory for Kansas City if it limits the Chargers to 31 points. The injury-riddled Chiefs have allowed 89 points over two games and look like the NFL's worst team right now.

With the Chiefs playing so poorly and the Chargers coming off a tough loss at New England, it's got wipeout written all over it, right? Well, these are the Chargers, who often let games they should win get the best of them. If they're not on their game, the wounded Chiefs could prove dangerous.

If San Diego is ready to go, Kansas City coach Todd Haley could be in serious trouble.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.



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