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NFL Preview - San Diego (4-5) at Chicago (6-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears are clicking on all cylinders right now. Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers are still stranded on the shoulder waiting for 24-hour road service.
The two teams will continue their journey through the season Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, where the Bears shoot for their fifth straight win and hope to remain in second place in the NFC North. Chicago has won five of six games since a 1-2 start, in large part to the resurgence of Cutler. It's previous five-game win streak occurred last Nov. 7-Dec. 5.
One of the more controversial players in the league today, Cutler is coming off a 37-13 pounding of Detroit in which he barely used his right throwing shoulder. Cutler passed for just 123 yards -- his second-lowest output of the season behind a 102-yard effort in a win over Carolina in Week 4 -- and completed 9-of-19 passes. He still owns six touchdown passes compared to two interceptions in his last five games, and was sacked twice.
Chicago's defense gave the offense, which mustered a season-low 216 total yards, a major break by forcing six turnovers and returning a pair of interceptions for scores. Cornerbacks Major Wright and Charles Tillman both returned picks for scores and all-purpose threat Devin Hester posted an 82- yard punt return for a touchdown. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was intercepted four times and Bears head coach Lovie Smith had a front row seat for the occasion.
"It was about the defense this afternoon," said Smith. "We preach and we practice taking the ball away a lot, and it was good for it to show up. I think we had four different guys that intercepted the ball. When you have three non-offensive scores, you're going to be pretty hard to beat."
Smith's squad is now tied with Detroit for second place in the division behind Green Bay and improved to 4-1 in the Windy City this season. The Bears have won three in a row at Soldier Field and will play the first of four straight games against AFC West inhabitants. They are averaging 33 points a game during their current winning streak.
The Chargers are headed in the opposite direction of the Bears and had more than enough time to prepare for this week's contest after losing, 24-17, to Oakland last Thursday. San Diego has dropped four straight games since a 4-1 start to the season and is now in third place in the AFC West, one game behind the Raiders and a half-game back of surging Denver. The last time San Diego lost five in a row was when it began 2003 with an 0-5 mark.
Rivers has been struggling this season, having thrown an interception in all but one game. He has been picked off nine times with eight touchdown passes over his previous five games for San Diego, which gave up 17 unanswered points to the Raiders. Chargers safety Eric Weddle put his spin on the team's downward spiral.
"Guys need to get away and figure out what we want out of this team individually and collectively," said Weddle. "We're not going to shy away from this and hide behind anything. We're going to stick together, keep believing and keep working hard. Our play has just got to be better collectively."
There are plenty of areas of concern for Chargers head coach Norv Turner and said Rivers shouldn't be blamed for the recent loss to the Raiders. Rivers, who threw for 274 yards with two TD passes and an interception, was sacked a season-high six times on Thursday and 25 times this season. Raiders linebackers had four of those sacks and harassed tackle Brandyn Dombrowski all night. Dombrowski was in for injured tackle Marcus McNeill. Chargers guard Louis Vasquez was also injured in the game. Guard Kris Dielman missed his third straight game with a concussion.
San Diego's ground game struggled with a patched-up offensive line and amassed 75 yards rushing. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Matthews ran for 36 and 34 yards, respectively, and will be expected to take the load off of Rivers Sunday. The Chargers may not have a choice but to run the football with how poorly Rivers has performed the past few weeks.
The Chargers and Bears have split 10 all-time meetings, with San Diego pulling even in the series by virtue of a 14-3 home victory in 2007. The Bears had won four straight times against the Chargers prior to that defeat, which included decisions at Soldier Field in 1996 (27-14) and 2003 (20-7). San Diego has lost in three consecutive visits to Chicago since a 20-7 triumph on Oct. 18, 1970, its only win in the Windy City in franchise history.
Turner is 4-0 in his career against the Bears as a head coach, with the first three of those wins dating back to his seven-year tenure with Washington from 1994-2000. Smith lost his lone previous encounter with both the Chargers and Turner with that 2007 result.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
In the previous meeting between these teams on Sept. 9, 2007, Rivers passed for 190 yards with an interceptions and then running back LaDainian Tomlinson had a rushing TD and a touchdown pass. The Chargers used a stout defense as well in that season-opening 14-3 victory. Rivers (2,743 yards, 13 TD, 15 INT) threw a pair of touchdown passes and was picked off in Thursday's loss versus Oakland and has recorded a rating of 100 or better just once this season (Week 4 vs. Miami). He has been under plenty of scrutiny this season for not protecting the football and the offensive line hasn't been doing much protecting either, giving up 25 sacks. The Chargers have the fourth-best pass attack in the league, averaging 288.7 yards per game, and hope to dissect Chicago's less-than-stellar secondary. Mathews (543 yards, 3 TD) returned from a one-game absence last week and posted 34 yards on six carries. He hasn't scored since Sept. 25 against Kansas City. San Diego is 18th in rushing (108.0 ypg). Tolbert (282 yards, 4 TD) leads the team with 37 catches to go along with 327 receiving yards and two scores. Vincent Jackson (635 yards) has six TD catches this season.
The Bears' defense fueled the team to victory over the Lions and shut down their tandem of Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford threw for 329 yards, but was intercepted four times -- two of which were returned for scores. Chicago faces another potent offense in San Diego and despite the Chargers' recent struggles, they can not be taken lightly in this one. Hester's 82-yard punt return for a score ignited the special teams, while Wright (27 tackles, 2 INT) and Tillman (59 tackles, INT) sparked the defense with INT returns for scores. Tim Jennings (53 tackles) and Corey Graham (7 tackles) had the other interceptions for the Bears, who are 29th against the pass (269.7 ypg). The Bears have given up 376.3 yards per game -- good enough for 25th in the NFL -- and have two talented linebackers in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Briggs (69 tackles, INT) leads the team in stops. Urlacher (61 tackles, 3 INT) and Briggs will have to keep an eye out for Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who can beat almost every linebacker in a foot race. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (22 tackles) hopes to add to his team-leading total of six sacks.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
If Cutler stays on the trail he's currently blazing, the Bears will be in good shape for a postseason. Already in discussion as the second-best team in the NFC behind undefeated Green Bay, the Bears owe much of the success to Cutler. Cutler (2,033 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) has thrown two interceptions in his last five games and didn't have to air it out in the blowout win over Detroit because the defense did most of the work. He passed for 123 yards and ran for a season-high 18 yards on four scrambles. Cutler won't have left guard Chris Williams for his protection as he was placed on injured reserve after undergoing surgery Sunday night to repair a wrist injury he suffered in the second quarter against the Lions. Edwin Williams, who started three games at right guard for the Bears last year, replaced Chris Williams at the outset of the second half Sunday. Tackles Frank Omiyale and Lance Louis could also see time at the guard spot, while rookie tackle Gabe Carimi is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Carimi's return date is unknown. Running back Matt Forte (869 yards, 3 TD) is on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard season and is a tough threat out of the backfield with 42 catches for 439 yards and a score.
San Diego is allowing 30 points per game during its losing streak and is facing a Bears squad rated sixth in points scored (26.3 ppg). If the Chargers thought it was tough to stop Raiders second-string running back Michael Bush, who posted 157 yards and a score on 30 carries, then it will be a long day against Forte. The Chargers are only 24th in rushing, allowing 127.9 yards per game, and must solve their tackling issues to have any chance on Sunday. Linebacker Donald Butler (61 tackles, sack, INT) leads the team in stops and Takeo Spikes (59 tackles, sack) is second in that category. The two will be busy trying to contain Forte, while added pressure up front on Cutler is a must. Linebacker Antwan Barnes (20 tackles) leads the team with six sacks and posted the only one for his defense against the Raiders. Barnes has been working in place of Shaun Phillips. The Chargers are seventh in pass defense and Weddle (53 tackles) is tops on the team with five interceptions. If nose tackler Antonio Garay (37 tackles, 2 sacks) and Company can get pressure up front, Weddle may collect a few more picks Sunday. The Chargers have had trouble keeping opponents off the board, allowing 25.3 ppg.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can the Bears give Cutler and the offense another week off with two stout defensive efforts in a row? It's highly unlikely, but Rivers hasn't shown any measure of consistency this season and Chicago will try to keep that going.
San Diego may want to avoid kicking/punting to Hester and should learn from Detroit's mistakes last Sunday. Hester is the X-factor for this game and is heating up at the most opportune time.
The Chargers still have a potent offense regardless of their current losing streak and it wouldn't be a surprise if they come out firing early. Jackson, Gates and Malcolm Floyd can stretch the turf, but Soldier Field is known to slow down even the fastest of players.
Peppers was moved along the line against the Lions and created mismatches across the board. Defensive lineman Israel Idonije, Henry Melton and Anthony Adams also benefited from the different looks and it paid in dividends with a big win. San Diego's offensive line has absorbed some of the blame for the team's struggles and will feel the heat even more when protection for Rivers breaks down on Sunday. Never mind the recent play of Cutler since it will be the defense again that takes charge in Chicago's fifth consecutive victory. The playoffs are months away, but now is the time for the Bears to start booking reservations.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 30, Chargers 24
11/18 08:44:55 ET