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NFL Preview - N.Y. Jets (10-4) at Chicago (10-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Welcome to Soldier Field, where the home team is guaranteed a playoff spot and looking to better its prospects, while this week's visitor is trying to get its foot in the door of the postseason tournament.
The Chicago Bears and New York Jets will meet on what's sure to be a chilly Northern Illinois Sunday afternoon, looking at least on the outside as mirror images of one another across dueling conferences.
Head coach Lovie Smith and his Bears cemented their spot in the upcoming NFC tournament with an impressive 40-14 Monday night beatdown of the Vikings in Minnesota, KO'ing Brett Favre's chances at a storybook comeback and clinching the North Division for the first time since the team's 2006 Super Bowl season.
"There's no such thing as letup around here," Smith said. "You have different steps that you take toward a goal and all we've done is taken one step, no more than that. We have a lot to play for. Yes, we want to be playing our best ball as much as anything at the end of the season.
"We are playing for the first-round bye. All of those things keep them motivated. Being able to match up against another 10-4 team that�s playing good football too, that's enough motivation."
The Jets ended an ill-timed two-game losing skid with a road win at Pittsburgh last Sunday, reaching the 10-win plateau after 14 games and maintaining a two- game bulge on its nearest pursuers, San Diego and either Indianapolis or Jacksonville, for the last of the AFC's two Wild Card spots.
New York clinches a berth with a victory over the Bears.
Still, injuries and other distractions have been the big stories surrounding the Jets this week, with quarterback Mark Sanchez undergoing an MRI on his throwing shoulder, wide receiver Santonio Holmes limited in workouts with turf toe and head coach Rex Ryan answering questions about his wife's role in videos surfacing this week on the internet.
"We're going to be ready to play Chicago," Ryan said. "I am ready. This is my job and I'm focused on the job at hand."
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw for a pedestrian 194 yards against the Vikings, but has eight touchdown passes in his last four games. Running back Matt Forte ran for 92 yards on 17 carries on Monday and wide receiver Devin Hester established an NFL record for kick and punt return touchdowns with the 14th of his career, breaking the combined mark previously held by Brian Mitchell.
Ryan said the Jets' kicker and punter have already been instructed to steer clear of Hester.
"It's hard to stop that type of team when everybody is scoring," Hester said of the Bears.
The Bears lead the all-time series with the Jets, 6-3, including a wind-aided 10-0 win when the teams last met, in 2006 at the Meadowlands. Chicago also won the most recent meeting between the teams at Soldier Field, a 20-13 decision in 2002. The Jets last defeated the Bears in 2000, and last defeated them in the Windy City in 1997.
Smith is 1-0 in his career against the Jets, while Ryan will be meeting both Smith and Chicago for the first time as a head coach. Ryan's father, Buddy, served as the defensive coordinator on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl Championship team.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
The Jets haven't terrified anyone on offense, settling for the middle of the pack statistically in the categories of points per game (21.1, 18th in the league), total yardage per game (345.4, 13th) and passing yardage per game (204.4, 20th). They've made the most impact on the ground with a run game that's accounted for 141 yards per contest, sixth-best in the league. Meanwhile, the Bears have maintained their signature stinginess, placing third in the league in scoring defense (17.3 ppg), eighth in total defense (310.9 ypg) and third in rush defense (89.8 ypg). Teams have had moderate success throwing the ball on Chicago, gaining an average of 221.1 yards per game, which makes the Bears the 14th-best defense against the pass.
The Jets are 12-2 when Sanchez posts a passer rating of 80.0 or better. He has three rushing touchdowns in 2010, including one against the Steelers last week, tying his career best. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson (17,685 yards) passed Marcus Allen (17,654) for the sixth-most yards from scrimmage in NFL history last Sunday. He aims for a third straight game with a rushing touchdown against the Bears. Wide receiver Holmes had five receptions for 83 yards in his only career game against the Bears, which came while with the Steelers in September of 2009. Fellow wideout Braylon Edwards posted his first 100-yard receiving game of the season last week and had a season-best eight catches. Four of his six touchdown receptions in 2010 have come on the road. Tight end Dustin Keller (48 receptions) needs one catch to surpass his career high from 2008. Lastly, return man Brad Smith posted his second kick runback for a touchdown this season and the third of his career last week. He is second in the NFL with a 29.1 kick return average in 2010, while the Jets have a league-best 14 scores on kick returns since 2001.
Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has six sacks in his past five games and added an interception last week. He has two sacks and two forced fumbles in two career games against the Jets, while linebacker Brian Urlacher had an interception and 11 tackles in his last meeting with New York. End Israel Idonije had a sack last week and has registered a career-high eight for the season. Cornerback Charles Tillman had a 56-yard interception return in Week 15.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago's best offense has been its great defense, largely because the actual offense hasn't produced much. The Bears are 19th in the league in scoring (20.9 ppg) and no better than 25th in the league in any other category, where they account for 99 rushing yards per game. The total yardage clip of 291.6 per game is third from the bottom among 32 teams, while the passing average of 192.6 yards per week is just 26th. The Jets have managed top-10 proficiency in all ball-stopping categories, limiting foes to 18.5 points (fifth overall), 298.6 total yards (fifth), 205.9 passing yards (ninth) and 92.7 rushing yards (fourth) per game through 15 weeks.
Cutler passed for 357 yards and two touchdowns in his only game against the Jets, while with Denver in 2008. He threw for three scores last week and had a 106.6 passer rating. When Cutler has a 100-plus rating, his teams are 20-0. Running back Forte has 1,296 scrimmage yards this season, becoming one of two Bears with 1,000-plus in each of his first three seasons. Wideout Johnny Knox had a 67-yard touchdown grab against the Vikings and averages 18.5 yards per catch, third in the NFC with a minimum of 40 receptions. Tight end Greg Olsen needs 130 yards to reach 500 for the third consecutive season. He would be the first Chicago tight end since Mike Ditka with three 500-yard seasons in row. Lastly, wideout Earl Bennett needs a catch to reach 100 for his career.
In his last game against the Bears, which took place with Miami, New York end Jason Taylor had a sack, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown. Cornerback Drew Coleman had a career-high two sacks last week.
The Jets have nothing but risky plays on offense against a stout Bears defense, so starting the New York defense might be the premier green-clad option. The same script holds true with Chicago against Ryan's unit, so going with the Bears' D might be the best play there as well.
Two stout defenses and two offensive units with brand-name weapons that haven't always delivered brand-name performances. Given the similarities between the teams, the lean in this case goes toward the one with more momentum -- which is conveniently also playing at home. Cutler hits a few more big plays and avoids a few more mistakes for Chicago.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Jets 14
12/23 11:17:07 ET