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NFL Preview - Chicago (4-4) at San Francisco (3-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The team that wins Thursday's primetime battle between the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears at Candlestick Park will have the opportunity to kick off its weekend in a positive fashion. The loser, on the other hand, will have an extra few days to wallow in its misery before taking the field again in Week 11.
Both the 49ers and Bears are badly in need of a victory on Thursday in order to wash away the residue of poor stretches of football.
San Francisco has dropped four straight games since getting off to a promising 3-1 start, and last Sunday suffered the indignity of a 34-27 home setback to the one-win Tennessee Titans.
Four turnovers helped sink the 49ers, including an Alex Smith interception that was returned for a game-sealing touchdown by Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan late in the fourth quarter. Three of Tennessee's five scoring drives went for fewer than 40 yards.
With the loss, Smith dropped to 0-2 since taking over the starting reins from the demoted Shaun Hill. Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick out of Utah, is completing a solid 63.6 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns versus five interceptions for a credible 83.3 passer rating, but has not translated his modest personal success into a team win.
Smith last won a game in which he was the starter on Sept. 16, 2007, a 17-16 victory at the St. Louis Rams.
If he ends that streak on Thursday, Smith will also have provided a special victory for his head coach, Mike Singletary, who was a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Bears from 1981 to 1992 and will be facing his former employer for the first time as a head man.
The Tennessee loss dropped San Francisco (3-5) dropped two full games back of the Cardinals (5-3) in the NFC West as Week 10 begins.
Things are nearly as dire in Chicago, where the Bears' listless 41-21 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday was the team's third in its last four games following a 3-1 start, and dropped the team to 4-4.
Arizona scored on its first six possessions of the game, including touchdowns on its first four, and had already amassed 21 first-downs and 320 total yards by the time the first 30 minutes had ended with the Cardinals ahead, 31-7.
The Chicago defense had major trouble against Kurt Warner, who was a sizzling 17-of-22 for 189 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, as well as wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who burned them for seven catches, 88 yards, and two touchdowns over the first two quarters.
Meanwhile, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler couldn't keep up, with his erratic play serving as a continuation of the way he'd looked leading the offense in previous games against the Bengals (a 45-10 loss) and Browns (a 30-6 win). After leading a touchdown drive on the Bears' first possession, Chicago came up empty on its next six marches of the day.
By the time Cutler gave Chicago fans something to cheer about when he threw back-to-back fourth-quarter touchdowns to tight end Greg Olsen, the Bears were in too big a hole to recover.
The Bears enter Week 10 tied for second-place in the NFC North along with similarly-struggling Green Bay, and are three full games behind second-place Minnesota (7-1).
Chicago leads the all-time regular season series with the 49ers, 29-27-1, and has won three straight over San Francisco including a 41-10 rout when the teams last met, at Soldier Field in 2006. The Niners' last victory in the series also marks the last game played between the two in the Bay Area, a 49-7 result in 2003.
The 49ers have won all three postseason matchups between the clubs, defeating the Bears for the NFC Championship in both 1984 and 1988, and prevailing in a 1994 NFC Divisional Playoff. Of those contests, the 1988 matchup was the only one played in Chicago.
Including playoffs, the Bears are 0-6 in San Francisco since last winning there in the 1985 regular season. The home team has won 10 consecutive regular season installments of the series since Chicago's '85 win, though as mentioned, the Niners won a playoff game at Soldier Field in 1988.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 3-0 all-time against San Francisco. The 49ers' Mike Singletary, who as mentioned was a Hall of Fame linebacker for Chicago from 1981 to 1992, will be meeting his former employer for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Though his numbers in his first year in Chicago have been passable, Cutler (2046 passing yards, 14 TD, 12 INT) has had an up-and-down 2009 season to date. The signal-caller leads an attack that is a disappointing 18th in NFL total offense (332.4), and has gone through occasional bouts of inaccuracy and poor decision-making. That said, Cutler's chemistry with a once-suspect receiving corps, including wideouts Devin Hester (41 receptions, 3 TD), Earl Bennett (32 receptions), and Johnny Knox (28 receptions, 3 TD) along with tight end Greg Olsen (27 receptions, 6 TD), seems to be developing. Hester has recorded 80-plus receiving yards in each of his last four games, Bennett posted a season-high 93 receiving yards last week, and Olsen caught all three Cutler touchdown passes in last week's loss to the Cardinals. The Chicago running game, meanwhile, has been miserable, with Matt Forte' (441 rushing yards, 3 TD, 30 receptions) getting little going behind a shaky offensive line. Forte' had a career-low five carries last week totaling 33 yards, as Chicago played from behind for most of the day. The Bears are just 28th in NFL rushing offense (90.5 yards per game), and have allowed 19 sacks on the year to date.
One week after playing bend-but-don't-break defense in a narrow loss at the Indianapolis Colts, the 49ers broke once too often in their loss to Tennessee. The root of the team's problem was an inability to stop running back Chris Johnson, who rambled for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the contest. A run-stopping group that dropped to fourth in the NFL (93.2 yards per game) but is No. 1 in yards allowed per carry (3.4), will count heavily on sure-tackling inside linebacker Patrick Willis (77 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT) and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (21 tackles, 2 sacks), to help stop Forte'. Willis led the Niners with 10 tackles against Tennessee, while Franklin posted five stops to pace the team's linemen. San Francisco ranks just 24th in the league against the pass (241 yards per game) as Week 10 begins, and is still without top cornerback Nate Clements, who will likely miss another month with a broken arm. Corners Shawntae Spencer (27 tackles, 1 INT) and Tarell Brown (9 tackles) will likely have primarily responsibility against Hester and Bennett. An inconsistent 49ers pass rush has just 17 sacks on the year, including but one of Tennessee's Vince Young last Sunday. That sack went to outside linebacker Manny Lawson (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who will have to be active in pursuing Cutler this week.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
The 49ers come off a week in which they amassed a season-high 250 passing yards, also putting up their most total yards (358) since Week 2, but the club's season-high four turnovers helped cancel out that progress. Smith (690 passing yards), who will get his third straight crack at a win, showed his best chemistry with tight end Vernon Davis (42 receptions, 7 TD) and wide receiver Jason Hill (4 receptions, 2 TD). Davis, who continued an eye-opening third season as a pro, hauled in 10 balls for 102 yards in a losing effort, while Hill caught both touchdown passes from Smith. Rookie first-rounder Michael Crabtree (14 receptions) had his quietest day in three outings as a pro, managing just three catches for 30 yards in his home debut. Running back Frank Gore (447 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 6 TD) added value with 158 yards on 22 total touches, but failed to post his first 100-yard rushing effort since Week 2. Entering Thursday's game, the Niners are 22nd in the league in passing offense (184.2 yards per game), 21st in rushing (101.4 yards per game), and have allowed 26 sacks, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
Following their horrendous performance in last week's loss, the Bears are seeking a number of answers on the defensive side of the ball. One figures to be answered in the person of defensive tackle Tommie Harris (9 tackles, 1 INT), who was ejected a little more than a minute into last week's game for throwing a punch at Cardinals offensive lineman Deuce Lutui. Harris is the lynch pin of a stop unit that ranks just 21st in the league against the run (119.5 yards per game), and without him in the lineup the Bears surrendered a bloated 182 ground yards to Arizona last week. Linebackers Hunter Hillenmeyer (30 tackles) and Lance Briggs (59 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) combined for 19 tackles in the game, but have generally struggled to replace the presence of injured Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher. Chicago is 12th in the league against the pass (206.5), but had notable trouble against Warner and the Arizona passing game last week. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman (37 tackles, 2 INT) and Zackary Bowman (33 tackles, 2 INT) will have to bounce back against San Francisco's fleet of wideouts, with safeties Danieal Manning (61 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack) and Kevin Payne (26 tackles) offering more support. Chicago has been an inconsistent pass rushing team, with Alex Brown (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) notching the only sack of Warner last week. Brown and fellow DE Adewale Ogunleye (20 tackles, 4.5 sacks) are tied for the league lead in sacks, but Ogunleye has failed to record a sack in six of his last seven games.
Cutler has thrown for 225 or more yards in seven of his eight appearances this season, including a season-best 369 last Sunday, but he's a risky fantasy play because he throws as many interceptions as touchdown passes about half the time. If you're on the fence, start him in the knowledge that the 49ers are relatively weak against the pass. Hester and Olsen have also been strong plays of late, but Forte' has not, and you'd be well-advised to bench the running back against a good San Francisco run defense. The Bears defense belongs on waiver wires at this stage.
The Niners don't have many slam-dunk fantasy options apart from the tight end Davis, who is having a monster year, and Gore, who hasn't been putting up a ton of yards but has scored in each of his last two. Smith is not a fantasy starter, and though Crabtree and Jason Hill have had their moments of late, both carry too mush risk at this stage.
Neither of these teams is so far out of the playoff race that they should abandon their ambitions, but one seems better-equipped than the other to make a run. No, it's not the Bears, who are one very high-profile quarterback and not much else at this stage. It's the 49ers, who despite their four-game losing streak have been showing signs of progress in recent weeks and will be desperate to post a primetime win in front of the home fans. Look for San Francisco to move the football on a Bears group that has been very spotty defensively, and for Cutler to make a couple of his customary mistakes on the other side of the ball to help sink the visitors.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Bears 17
11/10 22:24:52 ET