Tom Brady is playing like the league MVP while directing the Patriots' top-ranked offense. Though the unit has undergone a schematic transformation since Randy Moss' departure, Brady has thrived under a small ball approach that features a slew of quick rhythm passes. Over the past seven games, Brady has thrown 17 touchdowns without an interception on the way to compiling the best passer rating in the league (109.5).
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead don't strike fear in the hearts of defenders, but the Patriots' clever use of the duo has made their running game very difficult to defend. Whether running draws out of the spread formation or pounding the ball between the tackles out of the power-I, the Patriots must have success on the ground to avoid getting behind the chains against a stingy Bears defense.
Deion Branch and Wes Welker are exceptional possession receivers with a knack for finding open holes in zone coverage. Although they rarely hurt opponents with vertical plays, their ability to repeatedly move the chains on short throws allows the Patriots to win with a ball-control attack. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are red-zone weapons that must be kept in check.
The return of Logan Mankins has solidified the Patriots' front line, and has contributed to the teams' recent improvement on the ground. However, the unit will be tested by the freakish athleticism of Julius Peppers off the edge in pass protection. He has wreaked havoc on the Bears' recent foes, and the Patriots must keep him in check to give Brady a chance to attack down the field.
Jerod Mayo is a tackling machine capable of making every stop between the tackles. With the Bears relying more on the running game, Belichick will need Mayo and Brandon Spikes to step up in the "A" gaps to stuff Forte and Taylor in the hole. Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham could be in line for big games against a Bears' offensive line that struggles to keep Cutler from taking a beating.
New England's young, but talented secondary has come on strong in recent weeks with nine interceptions in the past four games. Devin McCourty has flashed signs of brilliance as a rookie, and James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are instinctive roamers in the middle of the field. If the Patriots are able to muster a decent rush up front, the trio could snare an errant Cutler pass in a critical situation.
Brandon Tate is an electrifying returner with the speed to take it the distance. He has taken two kicks back for scores, and the Bears must stay disciplined in their pursuit lanes to keep him from squirting out the backside. Shayne Graham has been effective, but the Bears' stingy defense could make him the Patriots' top scoring option. His ability to deliver in the clutch might decide the game.
After their 45-3 blowout win over the New York Jets, the Patriots have been anointed as the league's top team. However, they must avoid complacency against a Bears team that will challenge them with their toughness and grit. Belichick does a superb job of getting his guys ready to play on a weekly basis, so don't expect a drop-off against the Bears.
Jay Cutler has found his rhythm within Mike Martz's scheme, and the Bears' offense has taken off as a result. Although his deep throws have been curtailed, Cutler has been able to deliver big plays by connecting with his top playmakers on a host of quick strikes and play-action passes. However, he must continue to avoid the costly mistake against a Bill Belichick defense that will challenge his football acumen with exotic coverages.
The Bears have surged since Matt Forte and Chester Taylor have taken on more prominent roles in the offense. Both have received more touches on the ground, and the better balance has kept the Bears' offense on schedule. Previous opponents have had success on the ground against the Patriots, and Forte and Taylor could be major factors in this match up.
The Bears' unheralded receiving corps has started to make a bigger impact since the team went to a quick rhythm passing game in recent weeks. Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have taken turns delivering big plays on crossing routes. Bennett, in particular, has become a bigger factor, as Cutler loves to target him against the blitz. Look for Greg Olsen to have a big game against the Patriots' young secondary.
The Bears' constantly reshuffled offensive line had been a major source of concern for most of the year, but Martz's overhauled offensive approach has limited its exposure. Although the Patriots' front line lacks a dominant pass rusher, Belichick will test its awareness and chemistry with a few complex stunts.
Julius Peppers is having one of the best seasons of his career despite his deceptive stat line. He is wreaking havoc on opponents, and the Bears are maximizing his talents by moving him all over the line. Though Peppers will command most of the Patriots' attention, they must be careful not to ignore Israel Idonije on the backside. He has tallied 7 sacks, and is very capable of dominating the game.
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are difference-makers with the potential to alter the game with a big hit or turnover. With Welker, Branch and Hernandez poised to do the majority of the damage over the middle, the duo must pound on the Patriots' pass-catchers to disrupt the rhythm and timing of the league's top scoring offense.
The Bears 'secondary doesn't get a lot of credit for its playmaking ability due to the team's propensity for playing zone coverage. However, it's hard to find a better group of players that ideally fit a Tampa-2 scheme. With Brady looking to put the ball up early and often to a dynamic crew of receivers, Charles Tillman, D.J. Moore and Chris Harris must find a way to get their hands on the ball to produce a pivotal turnover.
Devin Hester is the most dangerous return man in the game, and the Patriots would be wise to kick away from him given his explosiveness. However, Hester repeatedly finds a way to get his hands on the ball, and the Bears will make every attempt to spring him on a game-changing return. Robbie Gould has been solid from inside 40 yards, but his struggles beyond that distance are concerning for a team that has a tough time putting up points.
Lovie Smith hasn't gotten a lot of credit for his superb coaching job in guiding the Bears to the top of the NFC North. Although Smith's handling of the teams' defense and special teams units has been critical to Chicago's success, it has been his nudging of Mike Martz to a more conservative game plan that has sparked the team's recent hot streak.
The Bears have flown under the radar despite their impressive record, so a statement win against the Patriots would send shockwaves throughout the league. With a stingy defense and dynamic special teams unit that is capable of producing game-changing plays at any moment, the Bears have the potential to turn this matchup into a hard-hitting, low-scoring affair. If Jay Cutler and the offense can avoid the big turnover, Chicago can take down another title contender in the confines of Soldier Field.