With two weeks left in the 2013 campaign, the Chicago Bears (8-6) lead the NFC North by a half game over the Green Bay Packers (7-6-1) and a full game over the Detroit Lions (7-7). The Bears are in total control of their own destiny. If they win tonight and next week against the Packers, it won't matter what the other two teams do.
If Green Bay loses today to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit loses to the New York Giants, then the Bears will clinch the division with a victory over the Eagles. If all three teams win or lose today, the Lions will be eliminated from the playoffs and the NFC North title will go to next week's winner between the Bears and Packers.
To say that tonight's game is important might be the understatement of the season.
Dating back to 1933, this will be the 43rd contest between the two franchises, including three playoff matchups. Chicago has a 30-11-1 edge in the series, winning four of the last five games dating back to 2007.
Tonight's game will mark the fourth time in the last five meetings the two teams will be playing on prime-time national television.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's Offensive Rankings
Points Scored: 2nd (29.0)
Total Offense: 7th (393.4)
Rushing Offense: 13th (117.6)
Passing Offense: 5th (275.8)
Philadelphia's Defensive Rankings
Total Defense: 30th (402.4)
Rushing Defense: 16th (110.8)
Passing Defense: 31st (291.6)
Turnover Ratio: 7th (+9)
Matchups to Watch
LT Jermon Bushrod vs. Trent Cole
As a unit, the Eagles have struggled defensively this season. Yet that doesn't apply to Cole who, at 31 years old, is having one the best seasons of his career. He leads the team in sacks (5.0), forced fumbles (3) and QB hits (13), and is second in tackles for loss (5) and QB hurries (26). Coming off the edge, Cole will give Bushrod all he can handle. If Cole is disruptive from the blindside, it not only puts Jay Cutler at risk, but it also forces Matt Forte to stay in the backfield, limiting his impact in the passing attack. Bushrod has had three consecutive strong outings and will need to have a fourth tonight to limit Philly's most-disruptive defender.
TE Martellus Bennett vs. LB Mychal Kendricks
The Eagles corners have struggled all year, so there's no doubt the safeties will be rolling over the top of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. That is going to leave a lot of open space between the seams for Bennett. Kendricks is an aggressive linebacker against the run but he's a borderline liability in coverage. If Bennett ends up 1-on-1 with Kendricks, it's a matchup Cutler should be able to exploit all game. With so much attention being paid to Chicago's two big wideouts, Bennett has the opportunity to be a game changer down the middle of the field.
Keys to the Game
-The Eagles are ranked 31st in the league against the pass due to injuries and very poor play in the secondary. Starting cornerback Cary Williams, a high-priced free agent signing this past offseason, has really struggled. Bradley Fletcher has been decent on the other side but he was torched last week by the Vikings receivers – none of whom are at the level of Marshall or Jeffery. As a result, expect the Eagles to use a three-tiered coverage platform, with the outside linebackers shucking the receivers at the line of scrimmage and safeties rolling deep over the top, with linebackers roaming the intermediate zones. Philadelphia is going to do everything they can to stop Chicago's big two but Marshall and Jeffery need to fight through and rise to the occasion. If they do, Chicago will have a great shot at outscoring the Eagles' high-octane offense.
-If Cole has been Philly's best player this year, second-year DE Fletcher Cox is a close second. Cox has been rock solid against the run, eating up defenders in coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 system, and leads the team in QB hurries (37). Cox typically lines up on the offense's left side, meaning LG Matt Slauson needs have one of his best games if Forte is going to have any room to run off the left side. If Cox dominates inside, it's going to be a long day for both Cutler and the rushing attack.
-RT Jordan Mills has had a rough rookie season but he has shown incremental improvement the past two weeks, to the point where we might be able to remove the "liability" tag. But only if he puts together a strong outing against Eagles OLB Connor Barwin, who is tied with Cole for the team lead in sacks (5.0). Davis runs multiple stunts and blitzes to pressure the quarterback, an area in which Mills has struggled. But if he can slow down, with good balance and active feet, Mills will play a big part in allowing Cutler time to throw.
-Philadelphia DE Cedric Thornton is an absolute beast against the run. He occupies blockers with ease and is nearly impossible to move. If the Bears are going to have success running to the right side the best bet would be to use pitch and toss plays, because if they try to run right at Thornton, it won't end well.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's Defensive Rankings
Points Allowed: 28th (27.9) Total Defense: 27th (380.4)
Rushing Defense: 32nd (152.4)
Passing Defense: 11th (228.0)
Turnover Ratio: 10th (+6)
Philadelphia's Offensive Rankins
Points Scored: 7th (26.0)
Total Offense: 2nd (414.0)
Rushing Offense: 1st (152.9)
Passing Offense: 10th (261.1)
Matchups to Watch
RB LeSean McCoy vs. LB Jon Bostic
The Bears are likely to get a huge boost with the return of LB Lance Briggs this week. Yet, after sitting for more than two months, conditioning will likely be an issue for him against Philly's no-huddle offense. As such, the onus will again fall on Bostic to limit McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher. Bostic's main problem this year has been misreading plays and running himself out of his gaps. At the same time, he's far too easily blocked at the point of attack. Briggs' return should provide some stability, of which Bostic must take advantage. If he can have his best game of the season, Chicago could hold McCoy to less than 100 yards. If that happens, the Bears will win.
CB Tim Jennings vs. WR DeSean Jackson
Jennings has shut down two of the league's premier pass catchers (Dez Bryant and Josh Gordon) the past two weeks and now gets a shot at Jackson, who is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards. Jackson has elite speed and is extremely hard to get down in open space. He can blow by defenders off the line or turn a five-yard slant into a 60-yard touchdown. All Jackson needs is a little room and he's gone, as evidenced by his 195-yard performance last week. If Jennings struggles in this game, the Bears will have little to no chance of keeping the Eagles from posting a 40 burger.
Keys to the Game
-James Anderson: now is your time to step up. After Briggs went down in Week 7, Anderson apparently forgot how to play football. According to Pro Football Focus, no 4-3 outside linebacker in the league has been worse against the run than Anderson. Yet he's coming off one of his strongest games of the season and he gets his Pro Bowl teammate back. Like Bostic, if Anderson can fill his correct gaps, and play like the defender he was during the first three weeks of the season, the Bears will have a great chance of pulling out the road victory.
-The Eagles run the ball well due in large part to the play of LG Evan Mathis, who is arguably the best run-blocking guard in the league. Mathis can flat-out road grade. This is bad news for Chicago, whose only pure nose tackle, Stephen Paea, has been hampered by a turf toe injury. Paea was limited to 17 snaps last week and it's unclear if that number will increase tonight. If he's healthy and can play at a high level, that would be big for the Bears. Otherwise, Jeremiah Ratliff will once again be asked to hold the point of attack. It's not an enviable task for any player, meaning the Bears must be cognizant of the Eagles' left A gap.
-Corey Wootton could be the biggest factor in this game. If he lines up at defensive tackle, which is probable considering Paea's toe problems, he'll square off against RG Todd Herremans, who is one of the worst pass blocking guards in the league. Like Mathis, Herremans can maul as a run blocker but he has lead feet in protection. QB Nick Foles has been outstanding as a starter and if he's given time, he'll eat up Chicago's secondary. The Eagles are strong on the edges with tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, meaning pressure has to come from the inside. If Wootton can take advantage of Herremans and collapse the pocket in Foles' face, the Bears will have a strong chance of limiting Chip Kelly's high-powered attack.
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.