8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: New York -2.5
Oh, how fortunes can rise and fade at the drop of dime in the NFL. One week you’re up, then the next you’re down. That may sound like preaching to the choir of you’re a fan of the Chicago Bears and New York Jets have experienced said highs and the lows over the previous two weeks. In the case of the Bears (1-1), a heartbreaking 23-20 overtime loss at home to the Bills in the Opener was quickly washed away by a resounding, come from behind, 28-20 victory at San Francisco, in which they erased a 17-point deficit. While Week One served as proof as to why this has been such a flawed team in recent years, last weekend’s triumph showcased the potential that makes them so maddening to predict. And as usual it all revolves around Quarterback Jay Cutler, the NFL’s posterboy for inconsistency.
The first two games of this campaign could serve as an accurate testament of the mercurial veteran gunslinger. Against Buffalo, he calmly completed 34-of-49 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed a pair of crucial interceptions; the latter occurred in the Fourth Quarter, killing a promising drive that could have prevented the contest from entering overtime. Granted, he lost a pair of Offensive Linemen and one of his top targets in the passing game in the process, but it was nonetheless more of the same Ol’ Jay: big plays countered by head-scratching mistakes. A week later, it looked like it would be more of the same against the 49ers, as the offense looked all but stagnant trailing 17-0 shortly before halftime. However, that was the point when something clicked; Cutler constructed an eleven-play 80-yard drive, in which he found Brandon Marshall in the end zone for a seventeen-yard touchdown. Later in the Fourth Quarter, he threw three more touchdowns, two of which went to Marshall, the last of which was a sensational, one-handed grab by the Wideout, which opened up a 28-20 lead that the hosts would not be able to withstand. On the night, Cutler completed 23-of-34 passes for 176 yards and four scores, but most notably no interceptions. He and Marshall continue to enjoy the sterling chemistry that originated from their days in Denver, hooking up five times for 48 yards and a trio of touchdowns. Look for Marshall along with Alshon Jeffery and Tight End Martellus Bennett to haunt the Jets’ beleaguered Secondary tonight.
Nearly as maddening has been their precipitous fall from grace on defense, where the once mighty Bears have been reduced to a stuffed animal. Marc Trestman was chosen to replace Lovie Smith primarily because of his offensive acumen, but the performance of the defense under his reign has been hard to watch; last season Chicago ranked thirtieth in both points allowed (29.9) and total defense (394.5), including dead-last in run defense (161.4) and yards per carry (5.3). It’s been largely the same story in 2014, despite an overhaul of the Defensive Line, which now consists of the likes of newcomers Jared Allen, Willie Young, and Lamarr Houston, as the Bears have allowed 160.6 yards (27th overall) on 5.3 yards per attempt (28th overall). That was a huge reason why Buffalo was able to accomplish the opening upset (193 yards), and why San Francisco was able to establish such a large lead last week (127 yards). With that said, the one thing that hasn’t changed since the regime change is their propensity for takeaways; Chicago forced 28 turnovers in 2013, and through two games thus far have registered five, including four in the victory over the Niners. It remains to be seen how they’ll hold up for the second consecutive week on the road, for Defensive Tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (concussion) and Safety Chris Conte (shoulder) are likely to miss action with an assortment of injuries, while veteran Cornerback Charles Tillman’s season ended last week with a torn triceps.
Meanwhile, it was the opposite for the Jets (1-1), who after dumping the Raiders in the Opener 19-14, squandered a 17-point lead at Green Bay in a disappointing 31-24 defeat. A comedy of mistakes led to the latter debacle, where for a time Rex Ryan’s club looked like a vastly improved team. And in many ways they are; at times Geno Smith looked like a bonafide star at Quarterback, particularly when coupled with a punishing running game, but a rash of penalties and one ill-begotten timeout by Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg changed the complexion of the entire game. With 5:06 left in the Forth Quarter and trailing 31-24, Smith threw a laser to Jeremy Curley in the end zone from 37 yards, only to have it negated by Mornhinweg’s frantic call for a time-out. After the ensuing chaos, the drive finally ended as the Jets turned it over on downs on the Packers’ 28-yard line, concluding what had been a ridiculous affair.
In order to pick themselves up off the mat, the Jets should focus on what they’ve done well so far, which is primarily pummel their opponents in the trenches on the strength of their ground game. Through two weeks, no team in the league has rushed for more yards, averaging a robust 179.0 yards per game on a healthy 5.0 yards per carry (5th overall). They’ve also rushed the ball the second-most times in the league (71), which one would deduce would only continue tonight against Chicago’s porous run defense. Chris Ivory has been stellar thus far, romping for 145 yards and a pair of scores on just 23 carries, with 102 of that total coming in the opening victory over Oakland. Chris Johnson was acquired in the offseason to further augment the attack, and through the early goings looks to have given Ryan a wonderful compliment to Ivory. the former 2,000-yard rusher has fit in well with 89 yards on 25 carries, along with six receptions for 23 yards and a touchdown. Of course, this is precisely the way Ryan would prefer his team to play, particularly given the continued development of Geno Smith. The sophomore has made strides this season, dramatically improving his completion percentage from 55.8% in 2013 to 65.0%. Against the Raiders he was solid, going 23-of-28 for 221 yards, and against the Packers he made plenty of plays. However, the turnovers are something that he must clean up; Smith threw an interception in each contest, and has lost a pair of fumbles to boot. Having a healthy Eric Decker tonight would be huge for the youngster, but the Wideout is likely to miss after sustaining a hamstring injury last week. Just how will Smith miss him, you ask? Consider this; Smith was 13-of-22 with an average yards per attempt of 6.9 before Decker hurt himself, and a mere 3-of-10 with an average of 2.5 yards per attempt afterwards.
Hopefully, the offense won’t have to carry the load, given the performance of their compatriots on defense thus far. Long regarded as a defensive mastermind, Ryan has built upon last year’s stout unit as the Jets have allowed the third-fewest yards in the league (274.0), including the fewest rushing yards (52.5). Simply put, Defensive Linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Quinton Coples have been downright dominant, pushing around opposing linemen and collapsing the pocket at will. They could be in for a rare day if the Bears will once again be without Center Roberto Garza and Guard Matt Slauson, making it difficult for Cutler to step up into the pocket. However, the outcome of tonight’s tilt could likely hinge on their effectiveness in the trenches for New York has had a litany of problems in the Secondary of late. Long a strength under Ryan, the defensive backfield has been riddled by injuries and inexperience, as former First Round Pick Dee Milliner has struggled while playing with a high ankle sprain, and fellow Defensive Backs Antonio Allen and Kyle Wilson have proved prone to penalties. Ryan has gone out of his way to mask these problems, but eventually they were exposed by the Packers, and could potentially be detrimental against the Bears’ towering Receiving Corps, consisting of the 6-4 Marshall, 6-4 Jeffery, and 6-7 Bennett.