8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Patriots -7.5, Over/Under: 39.5
Week Seven comes to a close with one team falling short of (admittedly low) expectations, while the other exceeds them, as the struggling Chicago Bears travel to Foxborough to battle the resilient New England Patriots under the bright lights of Monday Night Football from Gillette Stadium. Buckle up ladies and gentlemen, we’re getting another primetime showing from the bears (2-4, 3rd in NFC North), who have stumbled out of the gates of a brand-new era of football in the Windy City. Indeed, despite posting a relatively modest 34-31 record including two trips to the playoffs and the franchise’s first division title since 2010, Chicago opted to clean house in the offseason replacing Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace with their namesakes, (Head Coach) Matt Eberflus and (General Manager) Ryan Poles (how’s that for irony?). After years of mismanaging the roster, particularly Quarterback, enough was enough for one of the oldest organizations in the NFL, who decided to start from scratch, which means resisting quick fixes via trade and digging in deep to evaluate and develop the talent on hand. Brace yourselves, Bears fans, this one has all the telltale signs of a lengthy rebuild, which many would agree has been a long time coming. So, with a quarter of the campaign in the books, how far along is Chicago under this new regime? Well, progress can oftentimes be glacial in sports, which is something that both Eberflus and Poles haven’t been shy about, but then again, what else were they supposed to do other than preach patience? Offensively, this has been arguably the least entertaining unit in the league, ranking next-to-last in points (15.5) and twenty-eighth in total yards (315.6), and though they’ve been able to rush the football with success, ranking second at a healthy 170.8 yards per game (2nd Overall), they reside at the other end of the spectrum in terms of passing; simply put, no team has been less successful throwing the football than the Bears, who have managed a dismal 144.8 yards (32nd Overall) on just 5.3 net yards per attempt (28th Overall), with more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4). Needless to say, this has been a passing league for quite some time now, and if you can’t move the ball through the air, then you’re going to have a hard time winning many games. The miseducation of (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Fields was the prime reason that Nagy and Pace were relieved of their duties and make no mistake that the pressure is on Eberflus and Pace to maximize the talent of the 2021 eleventh overall pick. However, this isn’t going to be an easy task, folks, for while he struggled mightily as a rookie, the 23-year-old has yet to find his footing within this new system; Fields (pictured below) has regressed in completion percentage (54.8%), while suffering a league-worst TWENTY-THREE sacks thus far, which equates to a percentage of 16.7%, up nearly five whole points from last year. With that said, he is starting to look downfield more, leading the league with a positive 13.6 yards per completion. He’s also being utilized more in the run game, averaging 47.0 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry, which has been a point of emphasis for (Offensive Coordinator) Luke Getzy, who arrived from (bitter rival) Green Bay as Eberflus’ choice to helm the Offense. Hey, if the brain trust wants their Quarterback to make a leap, then how about they get him some help? Stating that there is a dearth of talent in the passing game is the understatement of the century, with only ONE player hauling in more than ten receptions thus far, with only two others in double-figures and one of those is lead Tailback, David Montgomery (10). Again, Poles has been adamant about not mortgaging his future with quick trades, which means that it may be until the offseason before they address arguably their longest-standing weakness.
When we last saw the Bears, they lost their third consecutive game by one possession, this time coming up oh so short in the waning moments of a listless 12-7 defeat at home to the Commanders. This one wasn’t for the faint of heart, ladies and gentlemen, as (commentators) Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit once again proved to be the undisputed MVPs of Amazon’s broadcast of Thursday Night Football. However, that uninspiring final score aside, there were definitely some things to be happy about in Chicago; the hosts had little trouble moving the football, amassing a season-high 392 total yards, including a whopping 238 via the run on thirty-seven carries, converting 5-of-13 third downs, and putting themselves in a position to win the game late. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t finish; after the visitors missed a field goal, Eberflus’ troops took over from their own 38-yard line, with Fields leading them all the way to Washington’s four-yard line, where he failed to complete two consecutive passes, before connecting with (young Receiver) Darnell Mooney, who was tackled barely a yard short of the end zone on fourth down, ending the affair. It was very much a mixed bag for Fields, who totaled just 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception on a mediocre 14-of-27 passing, though did manage to keep it moving on the ground with a dozen rushes for eighty-eight yards. He was also sacked on five occasions for a loss of thirty-six yards and presided over a unit that managed to convert just one of their four attempts on fourth down. The backfield tandem of Khalil Herbert and Montgomery amassed 142 yards on twenty-two carries, while (young Wideout) Dante Pettis was responsible for their lone score, a 40-yard strike from Fields in midway through the third quarter. Yer another week, the NFL’s worst run defense was taken advantage of, yielding 128 yards on twenty-eight carries, including the go-ahead rushing score midway through the final period of play. Looking to tonight’s matchup, that doesn’t bode well the Bears as they travel to Foxborough, for few teams have been more successful moving the ball on the ground over the last few weeks than the Patriots. And speaking of their history against the Pats, it’s not the most flattering; Chicago hasn’t beaten New England since December 10th, 2000!!! Furthermore, they’re 3-6 against the spread in their last ten meetings regardless of the venue and are a miserable 1-5 against the spread in their last ten trips Northeast. On the injury front, the Offensive Line is currently being held together with packing tape, as (Lineman) Cody Whitehair, Dakota Dozier, and Doug Kramer are all on Injured Reserve, though Whitehair could return by the end of the month. Furthermore, given the state of this position group, (former first-round pick) Alex Leatherwood could be called up to return from a non-football illness. Oh, and the aforementioned Fields has been nursing a sore shoulder throughout the practice week, though should be ready to go given the extra four days of rest.
Meanwhile, where have we seen this before: the Patriots (3-3, T-4th in AFC East) manage to win despite being forced to start a young Quarterback with little to no NFL experience? Shame on any of us who may have doubted the mystical (Head Coach) Bill Belichick, who has crafted yet another successful game plan built around a young passer that few outside of Western Kentucky even knew about. After all, we’ve seen this before out of the surefire Hall of Fame skipper; Belichick went 11-5 with the undrafted Matt Cassell filling in for an injured Tom Brady back in 2008, while both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett managed to win their respective starts while Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 campaign (remember Deflategate?). Oh, and how could we forget Brady supplanting an injured Drew Bledsoe back in 2001 to lead the Pats to their first of SIX Lombardi trophies. Needless to say, there is a precedent for this kind of thing in Foxborough, with the latest instance playing out before our eyes. During a Week Three loss at home to the Ravens, (Sophomore Quarterback) Mac Jones suffered a high ankle sprain on the final play of the game, forcing Belichick to roll with (veteran backup) Brian Hoyer (who is enjoying his third tour of duty with the team) for the ensuing trip to Lambeau Field to face the Packers. However, the vet suffered a concussion midway through that affair, forcing (Rookie Quarterback) Bailey Zappe into action. Now, it would have been easy for the fourth-round pick to fall flat on his face, but instead of capitulating to (wo-time reigning MVP) Aaron Rodgers, the 23-year-old went toe-to-toe with the All-Pro, very nearly leading the visitors to victory in a 27-24 defeat that needed every bit of overtime to crown a winner. The next week, Zappe (pictured below) deftly completed an efficient 17-of-21 passes for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception, managing the game as Belichick designed as the Patriots hammered the Lions in a 29-0 shutout. And then came last weekend’s watershed 38-15 drubbing of the Browns (more on this one shortly); Zappe torched Cleveland for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24-of-34 passing, creating a discussion in New England that Jones, whom the club drafted fifteenth overall a year ago, could be fighting for his job. While we’re certainly impressed with what we’ve seen from this kid thus far, we think that it’s way too early to state this there is a legitimate competition going on at Gillette Stadium. After all, Jones has earned a lot of good will in those parts, leading his team to the playoffs as a rookie. In the meantime, let’s call this for what it is, folks: a great story. We’ll be interested to see how a healthy Jones performs behind a rushing attack that has been building steam over the last four weeks (146.5 yards per game), led by (Sophomore Tailback) Rhamondre Stevenson, who has averaged 94.0 yards on a healthy 5.37 yards per carry during that period, and will only see more touches with (veteran Tailback) Damien Harris limited with an ailing hamstring.
When we last saw the Patriots, thy climbed back to .500 with that aforementioned victory in Cleveland, which was significant for a number of reasons. Not only did it allow them to keep pace in the suddenly competitive AFC East, but it marked the 324th win in the career of Belichick, tying him for second place on the all-time list with none other than George Halas, who ironically led the Bears from 1920 to 1967!!! How’s that for longevity? Making it all the sweeter was the fact that it came at the expense of the Browns, whom Belichick earned his first head coaching gig with back in 1991, where he would lead them to their last playoff appearance for twenty-five years. While this particular matchup was relatively close in the first half with New England leading 10-6 at intermission, the visitors would own the final two quarters of action, outscoring the hosts 28-9 the rest of the way. In the end, the Pats churned out nearly 400 yards of total offense (399) on twenty first downs, converting 7-of-14 third downs and possessing the football for a commanding 35:05 of game time. As we stated earlier, Zappe balled out with over 309passing yards, while Stevenson amassed ninety-one yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns on twenty-four touches, with (Tight Ends) Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith combining for six receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown. Remember, Belichick acquired both of these guys in free agency two summers ago with expectations that they would play major roles in the passing game. As easy as it would be to keep gushing over Zappe and Stevenson, the Defense earned more than its share of plaudits in this one, relegating Cleveland to 328 total yards on sixteen first downs, including a just seventy yards against the most prolific rushing attack in the league. Hell, they limited (NFL leading rusher) Nick Chubb to a season-low fifty-six yards and no touchdowns on twelve carries. Belichick also put together a horror show for former Quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, who could muster 244 yards on just 21-of-44 passing for a touchdown, two interceptions, four sacks, and a pair of fumbles, including one that was lost. Looking to tonight’s matchup with the Bears, Belichick has won and covered each of his last five encounters with this particular opponent after losing outright back in 2000 towards the end of his first season in Foxborough. New England is 6-4 against the spread in their last ten games at Gillette Stadium and has put together a 7-2 record against the spread in their last ten games as a home favorite. On the injury front, this team is fairly banged up in a number of areas, the least of which being Quarterback. (Veteran Receivers) Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are both questionable with toe and hamstring maladies, while the aforementioned Harris is also questionable with that nagging hamstring that we touched upon earlier. On Defense, (promising Rookie Cornerback) Jonathan Jones is questionable with an ailing ankle, while (Sophomore Defensive Tackle) Christian Barmore carries that same designation with a sore knee suffered in last weekend’s trip to Northern Ohio.