What's at Stake?
The Chicago Bears (7-6) are tied atop the NFC North with the Detroit Lions (7-6) yet are behind a game in the tiebreaker. The Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) are a half game back and still firmly in the hunt.
For the Bears to make the playoffs, they must gain one game over the Lions during the next three weeks. If Detroit wins out, they'll head to the postseason no matter what Chicago does going forward. The Lions host the Baltimore Ravens (7-6), who pose the biggest threat to Detroit, who will host the New York Giants (5-8) next week before finishing on the road against the Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1). On paper, the Lions have the third easiest remaining schedule in the league, meaning the Bears have to take care of business this week. A loss against the Cleveland Browns (4-9) – ahead of games against the Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) and the Packers, a game in which Aaron Rodgers is likely to play – would be catastrophic.
The Bears and Browns have combined to compete in 158 NFL seasons, yet this will be just the 15th meeting between the two franchises. The Browns hold a 9-5 edge in the all-time series, yet the Bears have won two of the last three contests. The home team is 11-3 in the series, including seven straight victories.
The last meeting came in 2009 at Soldier Field, a 30-6 Bears victory. The most memorable game in the series is arguably the 2001 overtime contest, which the Bears won on a pick-six by safety Mike Brown. It was the second week in a row Brown had a game-ending interception return for a touchdown in OT.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 2nd (28.3)
Total Offense: 7th (389.8)
Rushing Offense: 17th (112.8)
Passing Offense: 5th (276.9)
Cleveland's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 19th (24.9)
Total Defense: 7th (320.4)
Rushing Defense: 4th (98.0)
Passing Defense: 8th (222.4)
Turnover Ratio: 26th (-7)
Matchups to Watch
WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Joe Haden
Haden is one of the best cover corners in the league – and some might say No. 1 overall. The 24-year-old is fifth in the league this year in pass defended (17) and interceptions (4), despite teams throwing away from him most contests. This year alone, Haden has held Cincinnati's A.J. Green to 58 yards and 0 TDs in two games combined, Detroit's Calvin Johnson to 25 yards and 0 TDs, and Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe to 7 yards and 0 TDs. Marshall faces his toughest competition of the year and needs to rise to the occasion. If Haden shuts him down, the Bears lose one half of their dynamic receiving duo, which would allow the Browns to roll coverage in Alshon Jeffery's direction.
C Roberto Garza vs. NT Phil Taylor
The Browns' 4th-ranked run defense starts up front with three massive bodies, the biggest being 335-pound Taylor, who is a load to move in the trenches. Taylor occupies two blockers on nearly every play, which leaves room for the four linebackers to make plays. And if Taylor isn't corralled, he can create havoc in the backfield. Garza will need help from his guards, with all three of Chicago's interior linemen working in tandem to keep Taylor from negatively impacting the run game.
Keys on Offense
-At defensive end, the Browns boast two very good run stoppers in Ahtyba Rubin (330 pounds) and John Hughes (325 pounds). Like Taylor, both ends can occupy two gaps with ease. Cleveland's inside linebackers aren't outstanding against the run but they don't have to be when the three guys up front draw the attention of the entire offensive line. Continuity amongst Chicago's front five will be absolutely crucial against the Browns' 3-4 front. The double-teams and scrapes must be executed perfectly if Matt Forte is going to have any success against Cleveland's strong run defense.
-There's a very good chance the Browns will rotate Haden between Marshall and Jeffery, depending on who has the hot hand. Jeffery, who is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,193), has taken full advantage of opposing defenses paying too much attention to Marshall. So it shouldn't be surprising if we see Haden man up on Jeffery. Either way, the key for Jay Cutler is to locate Haden and throw it to the guy he's not covering. Buster Skrine and nickelback Chris Owens are below average in coverage. Throwing at them, and not Haden, is the easiest path to success for Chicago's passing attack.
-In pass protection, the three biggest threats come off the edge with outside linebacker Paul Kruger (4.5 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (4.5 sacks) and first-round rookie Barkevious Mingo (5.0). After a very poor outing against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12, LT Jermon Bushrod has put together two strong outings. Jordan Mills has been horrible on the right edge this year but he played very well against the Cowboys last week. If Bushrod and Mills can parlay that success to Sunday, they should be able to stymie Cleveland's pass rush.
-The Bears are third in the league in sacks allowed (29) but will have to be solid up front against the creative blitz packages of Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton. He'll very likely try to attack rookies Mills and Kyle Long, who have often looked lost against the blitz this year. If the kids struggle, Cutler will again be put at risk of injury.
-At the second level in the run game, the Bears have to located safety T.J. Ward, who is one of the best run stopping strong safeties in the league.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 28th (27.7)
Total Defense: 27th (381.5)
Rushing Defense: 32nd (157.0)
Passing Defense: 10th (224.5)
Turnover Ratio: 7th (+7)
Cleveland's Offensive Rankins
Points Scored: 27th (19.8)
Total Offense: 15th (344.7)
Rushing Offense: 28th (84.3)
Passing Offense: 10th (260.4)
Matchups to Watch
WR Josh Gordon vs. CBs Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman
Jennings is Chicago's more accomplished corner yet his size (5-8, 175) doesn't match up well with Gordon (6-3, 225). Physically, Bowman (6-1, 196) might be the better option. Likely, the Bears will use both corners in an attempt to limit Gordon, who set an NFL record the past month with 774 receiving yards. Right now, Gordon is nearly impossible to stop, so don't expect Jennings or Bowman to have much success. The goal is to limit Gordon and not let him absolutely torch the secondary. In all reality, holding him to 100 yards and touchdown should be the goal, as the Browns have no other viable options at wide receiver.
TE Jordan Cameron vs. LB James Anderson
Beyond Gordon, the Browns only other reliable pass catcher is Cameron, who broke out in a big way this season (72 caches, 825 yards, 7 TDs). Anderson has been horrible against the run recently but he's still solid in coverage. It will be up to him, as well as rookie LB Jon Bostic, to stop Cameron from beating the secondary between the seams. The safeties have to give due attention to Gordon out wide, so the linebackers have to be solid in the middle of the field and force Jason Campbell to throw to his third and fourth options.
Keys on Defense
-The Bears have allowed six straight 100-yard rushers. A seventh this week would be an NFL record. Luckily, the Browns haven't been able to run on anyone this year and are without starter Willis McGahee (concussion). Chris Ogbonnaya (224 rushing yards will be the primary ball carrier, with Fozzy Whitaker (79 rushing yards) also getting touches. If Chicago can't stop Cleveland's 28th-ranked rushing attack, then there's little hope they can stop anyone this season.
-No one is getting around LT Joe Thomas, who has been his usual best-in-the-league self this year. Julius Peppers has picked up his play in the second half of the season but he'll have little luck against Thomas. The same goes for Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin. Instead, the Bears must attack the right side of Cleveland's offensive line, where RT Mitchell Schwartz and RG Shawn Lauvao have been below average in protection this year. The Browns have given up 43 sacks this season, second most in the league, so if coordinator Mel Tucker is creative, Chicago should be able to have success getting to Campbell.
-Bears fans know how much Campbell loves the check-down pass. For that reason, Chicago's linebackers and secondary must be sound tacklers tomorrow to limit yards after the catch. Ogbonnaya is solid out of the backfield and must be accounted for, particularly on third down.
-The Bears have just one turnover the past three games, which is almost unheard of for an organization that prides itself on taking the ball away. The defense has played a huge part in Chicago losing two of the past three games to teams with losing records. A few turnovers against Cleveland could make everyone forget the recent run of putrid performances, while also keeping the club's playoff hopes alive.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.