The Chicago Bears played a pretty impressive all-around game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, winning 30-24 after their bye.
Jeremy Maclin catches a fourth down pass, but trips before reaching first down yardage, cementing the Bears' victory.
It's really hard for me to give MVP credit to any single player or unit on the Bears. The defense did a fantastic job of containing Mike Vick, limiting him to just a few dozen rushing yards, picking him off once, and never letting him throw it into the endzone. But the defense alone doesn't deserve all the credit, as Vick made some bad throws and his receivers dropped some wide open passes, D.J. Moore dropped two gimme interceptions, and DeSean Jackson tripped and fell short of converting a last-minute fourth down to keep the Eagles in the game. And the only reason that LeSean McCoy didn't torch the Bears for triple-digit rushing yards was because the Eagles were playing from behind for most of the game and were passing the ball more often than they probably should have. McCoy looked insanely fast, and made a habit of embarassing Bears' tacklers in this game. Overall, it was a solid defensive performance, but I have to say that it's also a mild-to-moderate disappointment for the defense.
Special teams also looked uncharacteristically less-than-impressive. Hester didn't have any opportunities for big returns, as the Eagles coverage unit looked phenomenal. And the poor kick and punt returns frequently forced the Bears' offense to start drives inside the 15 yard line. The special teams unit even almost gave up a clutch fourth-quarter fake punt conversion, but Eagles punter Chaz Henry just didn't have the arm power to get the ball to his wide open receiver for the first down. The only bright spots for the special teams units came from Robbie Gould converting a new career-long 51-yard field goal, and forcing a DeSean Jackson fumble on a punt return to set up the Bears with an easy score going into halftime.
The real surprise is that the Bears' offense was finally able to overcome a less-than-stellar performance by the defense and special teams and looked really good - while still showing room for improvement.
Matt Forte committed his first two fumbles of the season, one of which was returned for a TD.
Matt Forte had a stellar opening to the game, rushing for almost half the field on the first drive as the Bears converted for a touchdown on a pass to tight end Matt Spaeth. But even Forte - who has been the workhorse and shining star of the offense for the past two years - had a disappointing game, as he fumbled twice, including one that was returned for a touchdown with less than 2 minutes to go in the first half. The Bears (and Forte) are very lucky that this play didn't end up being the turning point and lead to an Eagles victory. Forte was even benched for quite a while after his second fumble, giving Marion Barber a chance to pound the ball. Barber looked decent. Nothing special.
The Bears were able to more than compensate for some bad fortune through the stellar play and improvisation of Jay Cutler (who had arguably his best game as a Bear). Cutler slung the ball around the field with pinpoint accuracy and was only held back from statistical greatness by Roy Williams and Johny Knox letting passes go right through their hands on what should have been easy third down conversions. One of the most exciting plays of the game was one in which Cutler fell down in the pocket while scrambling, got back up (as he was untouched), and pitched the ball out to Devin Hester for a big gain up the sideline.
Earl Bennett had a breakout game, catching all five passes thrown to him, converting several key third downs, and hauling in a lead-giving fourth quarter TD.
Fortunately for Cutler, Williams and Knox weren't his only receiving options in this game, as Earl Bennett had a breakout performance in his return to duty following an early-season chest injury. Bennett was key to the Bears' victory, as he caught more than a few key third down conversions as well as the fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Bears the lead again. I cannot understate how phenomenal Bennett looked in this game, and I cannot wait to see him get more opportunities to play in the upcoming weeks, as he is sure to see some more rotations into the lineup.
Despite my glowing praise for Bennett, I still can't quite give him my vote for MVP. That honor (surprisingly) goes to the Bears' offensive line. Particularly the tackles. The line has been very shaky the past two years, but everything seemed to work for the Bears this week, as the line managed to give Jay Cutler his (I believe) first game ever as a Chicago Bear without a sack! The tackles also exploited some wide stances to kick out the Eagles defensive ends and leave gaping holes for Forte and Barber to run through. Although Forte definitely deserves credit for breaking a few backfield tackles and turning them into monster gains, the offensive line really came together in this game, and were the reason that the Bears' offense was able to perform like a well-oiled machine Monday night.
This season definitely has some similarities to last year. The Bears stumbled into the week eight bye last year with the same 4-3 record after having lost several games due to poor blocking. But unlike last year, this year's Bears were riding a two game win streak into the bye, and were already showing signs of improvement on the O-line. The Bears didn't wait until halfway through the season to start giving Forte the ball more, and they have benefited from it greatly.
The biggest difference between this year and last year, though, is the circumstances of the division as a whole. Last year, the Bears went into their bye on top of the division, with tie-breakers against Detroit, Minnesota, and Green Bay. This year, however, the 5-3 Bears are a solid third place behind the 6-2 Detroit Lions and the (hopefully not-for-long) undefeated Green Bay Packers. Both teams already have a tie-breaker win against the Bears, and the Bears' only in-division victory came to the Minnesota Vikings.
Will Ndamakong Suh and the Lions' D-Line be able to embarrass the Bears' offensive line and put Cutler on the ground?
If the Bears can come out of the bye with further improvements to their offensive line, and better stability at the wide receiver position, then things are definitely looking up for the rest of the season. But the Bears play the Detroit Lions this coming Sunday in what might turn out to be the most important game of the season. If the Bears can win, that will put them in a tie with Detroit for second place in the division at 6-3 each with neither team having a head-to-head tie breaker. This will put the Bears in a decent-but-not-great position to make a wild card run, as they have a relatively easy second half of the schedule with games against the under-performing Chargers, the middle-of-the-road Raiders, the shaky (but on a roll) Chiefs, the hopeless Broncos, and the two-win Seahawks before ending the season with division road games at Green Bay and Minnesota.
If the Bears lose to the Lions, they will be two games behind Detroit, and in an uncompetitive third place in the division with the Lions having the head-to-head tie breaker. And the Lions aren't going to be a pushover either, as they will have had two weeks to prepare for the Bears and get healthy (their bye was this week). The Bears' weakest link remains their offensive line, and the Lions have one of the most devastating pass rushes in the league, so they will be in prime position to exploit the Bears' weaknesses.
Sunday is going to be a very big week for the Bears.