Has it really been eight years already?
The last time the Chicago Bears visited the New England Patriots, on Nov. 26, 2006, quarterback Tom Brady was juking linebacker Brian Urlacher on an unforgettable 11-yard run en route to a hard-fought, 17-13 win.
The Patriots had ripped up their natural-grass field the week before and installed FieldTurf on a permanent basis.
"It goes fast," Brady said of the eight years. "Before that game, we played the Jets in a rainstorm, and the field really started off crappy that year. The start of the year, it was like a sandpit."
The Bears' return to New England for the first time since that game, and ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Michael C. Wright (Bears) break down the matchup:
Reiss: Give us a feel for the state of the Bears team from a locker room solidarity standpoint. Any sense of how receiver Brandon Marshall's remarks were received?
Wright: Well, you're talking about a locker room with 53 players, meaning 53 individuals who all view things differently. On one hand, you've got players who saw Marshall's remarks as something that needed to be said. On the other, you've got guys who believe he needed to keep those sharp criticisms in house. Ultimately, all of these guys have to continue to play together and unite to reach the goal, which obviously is to defeat the Patriots. Bears general manager Phil Emery recently took part in a chat on the team's official website and likened the situation to a family. There will be disagreements and different points of view, but ultimately, it's all love. So I think the Bears will quickly forget about Sunday's drama once they get into the thick of preparation for the Patriots.
The Patriots looked like a tired team during their 27-25 win over the New York Jets, especially on defense. How much of a change can we expect from this team with plenty of rest and 10 days to prepare for the Bears?
Reiss: If it doesn't change, Mike, then I think they are in trouble. I probably gave them a little more leeway on that performance than others because it was their fourth game in 18 days (three in prime time), and they had no full-speed practices to adjust to the season-ending loss of signal-caller Jerod Mayo five days earlier. I thought they looked tired, and some players said as much after the game. The tackling was sloppy, and there was just no snap in their performance. Looking ahead, the concerns are in the front seven, where they are thin and still banged up. They are pretty deep in the secondary, especially at cornerback. I'd expect a better performance Sunday than we saw Oct. 16.
Patriots followers had been hoping the team might make a run at defensive end Jared Allen in the offseason. How would you characterize his impact on the Bears defense?
Wright: Very minimal at this point, Mike, and I don't quite understand exactly why. I think a combination of factors have limited Allen's ability to make a real impact on the defense. During the preseason, Allen missed time to attend the birth of his daughter. Then, the team held him out of the third preseason game due to a bruised shoulder. Two days after the team's Sept. 22 win over the Jets, Allen was diagnosed with pneumonia, which caused him to lose 15 pounds and forced him to break a streak of 113 consecutive starts.
Meanwhile, Allen's backup, Willie Young, is putting together a career year (seven sacks). The Bears originally brought in Young to be a starter at defensive end, but when Allen became available in free agency, the club pounced and made Young the backup. But while Allen was missing time dealing with injuries and illness, Young stepped up and earned significant snaps. Now, it appears Allen has been relegated to a lesser role. Allen contributed half a sack in last week's win over the Miami Dolphins but didn't receive much playing time. Reporters asked Allen about that after the game, and all he could say was we'd have to ask the coach.
What I find a little odd is the Patriots rank fairly high in terms of points allowed, and they're also doing pretty well in terms of takeaways (tied for most in the NFL), yet there's the perception that New England's defense isn't very good. I know they've struggled against the run, but why is that the case, and where -- in terms of the defense's strengths -- do you think New England matches up best against Chicago's struggling offensive attack?
Reiss: They've had three really bad games against the run, giving up 191 to the Dolphins in the season opener, 207 to the Kansas City Chiefs and then 218 to the Jets. Like most things in football, it's never really one thing. I thought the game plan against Miami was a bit flawed because they played Chandler Jones as a 5-technique defensive end in the 3-4 and, overall, they were hurt by the inside zone runs. Against Kansas City, Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis are no slouches, and that was just a beatdown in a frenzied environment in which the Patriots didn't enter the boxing ring with the emotion needed to win. Then, the Jets game had those dynamics in play where they were without Mayo for the first time, had others banged up and were fatigued quickly. As for where the Patriots match up best with the Bears, I'd relay what Darrelle Revis said Wednesday -- the unit is at its best producing turnovers. What Revis didn't say, but you can probably confirm best, is that Chicago has been generous in that area.
With Matt Forte, Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Jay Cutler, that's a pretty high-powered offensive package of five key players. What are some of the reasons they haven't been more explosive?
Wright: The No. 1 reason is turnovers, and Cutler has committed more of them than anyone else (10) on the team, with opponents scoring 37 points off the quarterback's generosity. In each of the four losses, Cutler turned the ball over multiple times, yet in each of the victories, the quarterback didn't commit a single turnover. Headed into the game against the Dolphins, Bears coach Marc Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and even Cutler himself pointed to turnovers being the common denominator in each of the losses. Yet for whatever reason, the Bears haven't been able to fix the problem. I think Trestman, as a play-caller, shares in some of the responsibility because he probably needs to lean more on the rushing attack. Forte is averaging 4 yards per carry this season, yet in the first half last week, the Bears handed off to him just twice. Yes, the Bears ran just 18 plays in the first half. But the team needs to make Forte a more focal part of the game plan, which would enable Cutler to utilize play-action more effectively. Also, I believe there might be a problem brewing at right tackle with Jordan Mills. In each of the past two games, the Bears have had to give Mills help in protection, which obviously reduces the number of targets you can send out on routes.
Let's look at the other side of the ball. It's sort of rare to hold possession for 19:06, be outgained by 100 yards and have 12 fewer first downs than the Jets, yet still come out victorious. I know the offensive line has struggled, but can you give me an overview of some of the issues on offense?
Reiss: It starts on the offensive line. Our good friends at ESPN's Stats & Information passed along these numbers that reflect some of the instability: The Patriots have had nine different offensive linemen play at least 100 snaps, tied for the most in the league. Furthermore, New England is the only team to play six different players for at least 100 snaps at the three interior offensive line positions. Part of that has been injury-based, while part of it has been performance-based. They opened the season with tackle Marcus Cannon at left guard despite never playing him there in the preseason. He lost the job after three weeks, as did first-year right guard Jordan Devey. Things have stabilized a bit in recent weeks, and, not surprisingly, the offense has looked better in the process. It has helped that tight end Rob Gronkowski is just about back to 100 percent after being eased back into the mix coming off his torn right ACL. What a difference-maker.