With seven of 16 NFC teams sitting at 2-2, this could be one of those games that propels the winner in the right direction to the playoffs.
The Panthers were 1-3 heading into Week 5 a year ago and rolled off eight straight wins and 11 of 12 to win the NFC South. The Bears were 3-1 a year ago, and then finished 5-7 to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
What's in store on Sunday? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright are here to break it down.
Newton: Michael, why have the Bears seemingly played so much better on the road (2-0) than at home?
Wright: I don't think the sample size is large enough to definitively say whether Chicago is playing better on the road than at home, and I think you also have to take into account the talent of the opponents. The Bears opened at home against Buffalo and its bruising ground attack, then on Sunday faced Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense. In both losses, the Bears made easily correctable mistakes. In the opener, the Bears got out of their gaps too much against the run. Against the Packers, the Bears opted to play vanilla football on defense -- pressure only with the front four, with seven in coverage on the back end -- and Rodgers took advantage of the lack of pressure and coverage busts.
David, DeAngelo Williams was the latest running back to go down with an injury, and it appears the Panthers have just two running backs available to face the Bears. What will Carolina do at the position this week, and how much does the situation change the way the Panthers will try to attack Chicago?
Newton: Starting running back Darrin Reaves was signed off the practice squad two Saturdays ago as insurance. The backup would be Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed off the street on Monday. Ogbonnaya has the most experience after rushing 49 times for 240 yards last season at Cleveland. But there’s a reason he was available, and it's probably not good.
The good news for Carolina is Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason, is set to return after missing the past two games with a quad injury. But the issue isn't running back as much as it is the offensive line, which has been dreadful in run blocking as well as pass protection. I'm not sure Emmitt Smith could have been effective behind this group. That quarterback Cam Newton has contributed only one percent to the run game after accounting for 31.3 percent the past three seasons is an issue, as well. This could be the week he's turned loose after undergoing offseason ankle surgery and fracturing his ribs in August. Then again, it might not be.
I see the Bears rushed for 235 yards on 41 attempts in their loss to Green Bay this past week. Is this an area they can exploit against a Carolina team that has allowed just under 400 yards rushing over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore?
Wright: I think that's exactly what the Bears will try to do, which is interesting because this matchup reminds me a little of the last time these teams played at Carolina back in 2010. In that game, Matt Forte -- after rushing for a combined 81 yards in the previous three outings -- broke out with a season-high 166 yards on 22 attempts for two touchdowns. Getting Forte going also takes pressure off receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who have both been hobbled in recent weeks with nagging injuries.
The Bears rolled up 496 yards on offense against the Packers and came out of that game confident about what the group can do, provided it eliminates the turnovers. Seeing Carolina’s struggles the past two weeks, the Bears will definitely try to establish Forte and the rushing attack so Jay Cutler can operate effectively off play-action.
Newton seems to be getting healthier, to the point where Ron Rivera said the team can "start to expand" the offense. What exactly does that mean, especially given the situation in the backfield?
Newton: It means offensive coordinator Mike Shula could call some plays for Newton to run out of the read-option. Newton hasn't hinted at being a threat in the read-option the past three weeks. It has allowed teams to gang up on the backs, another reason the run game hasn't been effective. Newton has rushed only eight times for 33 yards. This from a quarterback who averaged 7.5 carries and 42.3 yards a game in his first three seasons. Because the staff is being cautious as Newton continues to recover from injuries -- the ankle is less of a worry -- they've taken away one of his greatest assets. I understand being cautious, but if they're going to make him a dropback passer they might as well go with Derek Anderson, who is more accurate.
While we're on the quarterback, how has Cutler performed thus far?
Wright: It has definitely been a mixed bag for Cutler, which for the Chicago fan base is unacceptable, given the seven-year commitment and big bucks invested by the franchise. After throwing two picks that led to points in the opener, Cutler performed well in the next two games (passer ratings of 119.2 and 94.7 to go with six touchdowns and no interceptions) before tossing another two interceptions Sunday in the loss to Green Bay.
What I've noticed lately is Cutler is taking more accountability for the role he played in the two losses, and seems to be working harder than before to make the corrections. Cutler seems to care more deeply about his position as leader of the offense than in years past. That has manifested itself into more consistency, despite his maddening penchant to make one or two bad decisions in a game that can result in turnovers. Working under Marc Trestman, Cutler hasn't produced back-to-back stinkers, and I don't anticipate that happening Sunday at Carolina.
Coming into the season, I expected Carolina's defense to be one of the best in the league, but the group has struggled recently against both the run and the pass. What problems have this defense experienced over the past two games, and what chances do you give the Panthers of finally rebounding this game on that side of the ball?
Newton: The staff will tell you it's a lack of discipline, that players are trying too much and losing gap control. What they won't admit is they miss defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. Hardy could do it all. He led the team in sacks last season with 15. He was big in stopping the run. He could play end and tackle. He could drop back into coverage. He drew double-teams that made it easier for right end Charles Johnson, who is sackless through four games.
Carolina has tried to replace Hardy with three players, none of whom is as good at Hardy at any of his specialties. That's why players are trying to do too much, because they feel they have to in order to replace Hardy. The return of Frank Alexander from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy could have helped, but he was suspended Wednesday for 10 more games for a second violation.
Do I think the Panthers can turn this around? Yes. They played well without Hardy in the second game against Detroit. They overcame undisciplined play after four games last season to win eight straight. But they had Hardy. Stay tuned.