What to Watch For This Weekend…
I’m not sure if there is a more relaxing weekend in the world for an NFL fan than Wild Card Weekend when your team has a first-round bye. Lovie Smith sent the players home for the weekend on Thursday; hopefully, those guys with minor injuries (Major Wright, Chris Harris, Nick Roch, Pisa Tinoisamoa) are healing up and will be ready to go on Monday when the team re-convenes.
This weekend is still important to the Bears, however. The results of the NFC Wild Card games over the next two games—New Orleans at Seattle on Saturday; and Green Bay at Philadelphia on Sunday—will determine the Bears’ opponent next Sunday afternoon. Its an interesting scenario for the Bears—the weakest team of the lot—the Seahawks, have already beaten us on our home turf this season; The Saints are scary because they have a great passing offense and they are the defending World Champs; and the Eagles have a dynamic offense that might be tough to beat twice in one year. With all this in mind, here is what I will be looking for this weekend:
1) How will the loss of their top 2 RB’s affect the Saints? This weekend, Julius Jones will be the starting running back for the Saints. Seriously. Their top 2 RBs, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, are both out for the playoffs. Last year, Pierre Thomas was maybe more important than Drew Brees to that offense, bringing balance to a team that has always been pass-happy. So look for the Saints to rely on the pass more than ever, and if they do run, expect a lot of 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations for the Saints. Even if they beat the Seahawks on Saturday, I am not sure they can move down the field on the Bears if there is no threat of a run game. Look how we stopped the Packers’ offense last Sunday. And to all Saints’ fans: with Malcolm Jenkins out as well, and playing in Seattle, I have a feeling this game might be closer for longer than most people are thinking. With that being said…
2) Can the Seahawks’ Pass Defense hold up with the Saints’ Pass Offense? The Seahawks were abysmal defending the pass this season, allowing over 7 yards per pass attempt, almost 14 yards per pass completion, giving up 31 passing touchdowns, and only getting 14 interceptions. Now, you look at the secondary with a past Pro Bowler in Marcus Trufant, dynamic rookie Earl Thomas, and savvy veteran Lawyer Milloy, and you automatically think that their pass rush was lacking; however, they were 6th in the nFC with 37 sacks, so thats not terrible. However, if you give up 31 TDs in a season where you get to play St Louis, San Francisco, and Arizona all TWICE, you have some issues in the back half. And you are facing Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Reggie Bush. I look for WR Lance Moore and TEs Jeremy Shockey and Jimmy Graham to have big days. While we are on the subject, let me say without sounding crazy that the Seahawks, in alot of ways, offer more of a matchup problem for the Bears’ defense than the Packers or the Saints. Seattle has something that is an all-time Cover-2 killer—a downhill, cutback runner—Marshawn Lynch.
3) Can the Packers stop LeSean McCoy? You have to think that last Sunday, if he was watching Matt Forte average 6 yards per carry and catch numerous passes out of the backfield against the Packers, that LeSean McCoy, who has a similar skill set to Forte, was already licking his chops? The Packers have no ability to stop an off-tackle run. The Packers have nobody who can cover a pass-catching RB or a pass-catching TE—and the Eagles have both in McCoy and TE Brent Celek. Andy Reid is no dummy—I expect him to run the ball down the Packers’ throats until they prove they can stop it.
4) How will the Eagles attack Aaron Rodgers? The normal school of thought when facing an elite QB, like Aaron Rodgers, is to get pressure by blitzing from alot of different angles. However, since the Packers cannot run the ball, you can rush four and flood the passing zones, which is what the Bears did last Sunday—and if not for a blown coverage by Danieal Manning, would have held the Packers out of the End Zone. Greg Jennings vs. Asante Samuel is a wash; if the Packers are going to move the ball, they will have to exploit Donald Driver versus Dimitri Patterson (who played pretty well in his first year as a starter), and James Jones versus the Eagles’ nickelback , Joselio Hanson. The Packers like to chuck the ball downfield—and the Eagles like to jump routes—so there are going to be big plays, one way or the other.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, you have the Jets visiting the Colts, and the Ravens visiting the Chiefs. Let me say that if I am a Jets’ fan, I am wondering WHY WOULD REX RYAN GIVE PEYTON MANNING ANY EXTRA MOTIVATION TO PLAY WELL? You know Manning is still upset about the way the Super Bowl ended last year. Remember, the Bears’ offense scored 38 on the Jets’ supposdely vaunted defense. And, if it comes down to QB play—who do you trust—Peyton Manning, or Mark Sanchez? I expect the Colts to win, and it not to be that close. As far as Ravens-Chiefs, the Chiefs can keep it close if Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles have big games, as they have had all year long. Matt Cassel is not spectacular, but he doesn’t lose games either. And I am not sold on Joe Flacco until he actually has to win a game that his defense lets him down in. The Ravens are the sexy pick here, but I think the Chiefs at least keep it close. These two teams are closer statistically than you initially would think. And Arrowhead Stadium is one of the great home-field advantages in the NFL.