The NFC-leading Bears can clinch their second straight NFC North title when they face the Patriots on Sunday in a matchup of the league’s top defenses.
After back-to-back wins at the Meadowlands, Chicago (9-1) can secure a division crown with a win over New England (7-3) along with losses by Green Bay and Minnesota. If that happens, the Bears would become just the fourth team to clinch a division title after only 11 games since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule. One of the other teams to clinch this early was the 1985 Bears, who finished 15-1 and went on to defeat the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl 20.
The Bears (9-1) picked off two passes en route to their second shutout of the season, 10-0 against the New York Jets last Sunday. In its previous game, Chicago also had two interceptions in a 38-20 win over the Giants.
“We knew it would be a tough task,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We got two of the wins. Now, we’re down to one team.”
Chicago, which is allowing an NFL-best 12.0 points per game, will end its three-game swing on the East Coast with a matchup against a New England team that ranks second in scoring defense at 13.1. The Patriots shut out Green Bay 35-0 on Sunday to end their first two-game losing streak since the end of the 2002 season.
Chicago will be without defensive back Ricky Manning Jr., who was suspended one game by the NFL on Wednesday for his role in an restaurant altercation.
Manning, the Bears’ leader with four interceptions, pleaded no contest in September to a felony assault charge stemming from an altercation with a man in a Los Angeles restaurant.
“It stinks,” Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “I don’t know why they did it this week. That’s the NFL for you.”
The Bears have a five-game lead in the NFC North and a three-game cushion over the next best teams in the NFC—the Cowboys, Giants, Panthers, Saints and Seahawks. Smith, however, isn’t looking past Sunday’s game.
“We need to continue to play the same way we’ve been to get that 10th win, and that’s all we’re really talking about and thinking about is that—getting that 10th win,” Smith said. “Where that puts us in the division and the conference, we’ll take.”
Wide receiver Mark Bradley, who battled injuries early in the season, is proving to be a big-play threat for Chicago now that he’s healthy. He will test New England’s banged-up secondary.
Bradley turned a short completion into a 57-yard touchdown 10 seconds into the final quarter Sunday. He caught four passes for 79 yards against the Giants, including a momentum-changing 29-yard touchdown.
“He’s healthy now and we’re getting him the ball,” Smith said. He’s told us he’s 100 percent ready to go, but you need to see it on the football field and the last couple weeks have proven that to us. We feel comfortable with him being on the field and we’re playing him and putting him in position to make those types of plays.”
Smith isn’t concerned about the FieldTurf surface the Patriots will install for Sunday’s game. New England decided to replace its grass surface after heavy rain caused traction problems in a loss to the Jets on Nov. 12
“We wouldn’t play on the field unless it was perfectly safe and that’ll be the case,” Smith said. “The field won’t be a factor. A couple of weeks ago when we saw them against the Jets, there could have been some concern about that field. But now they have a new surface and we’re anxious to play on it just like they are.”
The Patriots are coming off their first shutout on the road in 20 years. The performance of the defense got rave reviews even though starting defensive backs Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel were sidelined.
But New England, trying to hold on to a two-game lead in the AFC East, faces a tough test against a strong Chicago offense. The Bears are second in the NFL in scoring with 28.2 points per game.
“It’s a whole new week and it doesn’t matter what you did the week before,” Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins said. “It’s all about what you’re going to do in the upcoming game. I think everyone here understands that. We have to refocus.”
New England’s offense is also coming off a solid game, starting with Tom Brady’s 2-yard scoring pass to Daniel Graham on the Patriots’ first series. Brady was sacked just twice and wasn’t intercepted. He had been sacked seven times and threw six interceptions in his previous three games.
“We try to give him as much (time) as we can,” New England right guard Stephen Neal said. “It’s actually a point of emphasis every week. We want his jersey to be just as clean as when he walks out there.”
Patriots rookie running back Laurence Maroney had 82 yards rushing and a touchdown catch against the Packers. His 577 yards rushing are 12th-most in the AFC, and he already has 14 receptions after totaling just 21 in three seasons in college at Minnesota.
The Bears are ranked 10th against the rush but have been vulnerable to it, allowing three different runners to gain at least 100 yards in consecutive games before breaking the streak against the Jets.
“Every game you’re supposed to go out there and you’ve got something to prove,” Maroney said. “You just show everybody what you can do. I don’t look at this game as too much different.”
The Patriots won their last matchup with the Bears 33-0 in Chicago on Nov. 10, 2002.