New England Patriots: Chicago Bears

NFLN says: 3-0 Super Bowl contenders?

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
6:55
PM ET
Smith, Cutler & BreesGetty ImagesAlex Smith, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees have led their teams to a 3-0 start.
The danger in getting excited about a 3-0 start is that pesky little thing known as "The Other Thirteen Games." Victories in the first three weeks can lead to a 15-1 season, as they did for the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Or they could mean a 2-11 finish and a fired coaching staff, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year.

So let's keep our wits as we analyze the seven teams that have started this season 3-0. It has been four years since that many teams were still perfect after three weeks. The 2009 season offers another lesson in early conclusions: One of the seven (the New Orleans Saints) won the Super Bowl but two finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs altogether (the New York Giants and Denver Broncos).

So who is this year's version of the 2009 Saints? Are there any candidates to emulate the 2012 Cardinals? NFL Nation has some thoughts.

If there is anything to glean from the first three weeks of this season, it's the emergence of two early powerhouses. The Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos have outscored opponents by a combined 213-98, and their individual point differentials of 59 and 56, respectively, are by far the best in the NFL. (The next best is the Kansas City Chiefs at 37).

The Seahawks' path to Super Bowl XLVIII seems clear: Clinch home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where they have won 10 consecutive games, and book their ticket to New York. The Broncos, meanwhile, have scored the second-most points through three games in NFL history and only figure to improve as defensive stalwarts Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury) return to the lineup.

What about the rest?

Has Andy Reid built an instant Super Bowl contender in Kansas City, or will his Chiefs level off? Has Ryan Tannehill really developed into a championship-caliber quarterback for the Miami Dolphins?

Are the Chicago Bears for real after two fourth-quarterback comebacks followed by two defensive touchdowns in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers? The New England Patriots are fortunate to be 3-0, right? And has Sean Payton restored the Saints' magic? Let's take the pulse of NFL Nation.

Which 3-0 teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

The Saints should definitely be considered as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, based on their offensive track record under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2009, but their offense was even better in 2011, when they finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards gained in a season (7,474). I don't expect an exact repeat this year, but I think that's closer to the norm than last year's 7-9 season.

Especially with tight end Jimmy Graham healthy again and back to being one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Clearly, however, the Saints need to improve a run game that has been practically non-existent to keep defenses honest and keep Brees upright.

Meanwhile, the Saints' young defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. I still expect a few growing pains before the season is over. But they don't need to be dominant for the Saints to succeed. And I think they can continue to come up big in some big moments. Players are clearly responding to Ryan's energetic approach and versatile schemes. And they have some bona fide talent to work with in every unit -- including emerging young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season. If the defense can keep playing anywhere near this level, the Saints could run away with the NFC South title.

The undefeated Miami Dolphins are arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins be serious Super Bowl contenders? Let's temper those expectations. The Dolphins absolutely have playoff potential. This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2008. Ending that streak and having a winning season should be Miami's primary goals.

A 3-0 start is terrific, especially after beating the talented Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. But the Dolphins certainly have holes.

Depth is an issue in several areas and will be tested. Miami could be without several defensive starters -- defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) -- against the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The Dolphins also face issues such as pass protection (14 sacks allowed) and having the 28th-ranked rushing attack.

In addition to the undefeated Saints, Miami has tough games against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1), New England Patriots (3-0) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) before the end of October. The Dolphins cannot rest on their early success. They must continue to improve.

The health and production of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the biggest key. However, the Dolphins have a lot to prove over the course of 16 games.

Miami has a perfect record, but it's far from perfect.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the Kansas City Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are No. 1 in the AFC in scoring defense, No. 2 in the conference in scoring differential and, most importantly, tied for first place with a 3-0 record.

But it's another number, one that will be impossible to sustain, that's feeding the Chiefs' success and threatens to reveal them as pretenders once it begins its inevitable correction.

The Chiefs are leading the league in turnover differential at plus-9. They are one of two NFL teams yet to commit a turnover. That's a statistic capable of making a good team look great as long as it lasts. The trouble is, it never does last, at least not at this rate. Once their turnover differential starts to balance out, here is the advantage the Chiefs will lose:

The Chiefs have started 10 possessions on their opponents' end of the field. Their opponents have started one in Kansas City's territory, and even that drive began at the Chiefs' 49.

Such consistently favorable field position can make life easy for a team, and credit to the Chiefs for enjoying the ride while it lasts.

It won't forever. When it ends, the Chiefs will have to make their own way.

Their defense looks capable of doing that, but their offense needs a boost. When it doesn't get one, the Chiefs will suddenly look mortal.

This 3-0 team is better than the Bears squad from 2012, which started 7-1, and is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for a variety of reasons. The Bears have already scored three defensive touchdowns, but the major difference is the club is getting contributions from both sides of the ball and special teams.

Chicago provided evidence of that with quarterback Jay Cutler engineering back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota to start the season, before coming through in the clutch on the road Sunday, bailing out a struggling defense to clinch a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears racked up nine defensive touchdowns last season, which tied for the second most in NFL history. But at this juncture last year, the unit had only one score, yet basically carried the entire team through its impressive first half.

Through the 7-1 start in 2012, skepticism existed because the Bears simply hadn't played good teams. This year, the combined record of the teams first three opponents is 2-7. But don't be fooled, this is a better Bears team.

Cutler is one of the main reasons for that. He's matured. He's accepted the coaching. He's putting in more time to sharpen his craft, while shedding the enigmatic gunslinger persona for a more controlled approach. His protection is better. The front office has surrounded him with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman, who is the architect of a system Cutler believes in.

If there has been one constant of Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams since 2000, it's that they usually get better as the season progresses. Surely, there have been exceptions (2009 comes to mind), but there are no indications this year's team is headed down that path at this point.

The defense has exceeded expectations through three games, although a lingering question is how much of the unit's success is a result of playing weaker competition. Sunday night's game on the road, against the fast-starting Atlanta Falcons, should tell us more about the unit. And while the offense has struggled to find its groove, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski should provide a boost and with Danny Amendola saying he envisions being 100 percent shortly, big-time reinforcements are on the way.

So if you're judging on the present picture, it's understandable that one would say this team isn't a Super Bowl contender. In a game against the Denver Broncos, right now, you would have to pick the Broncos. But this is about projecting what the Patriots could be, and at this point, there's no reason to think they won't evolve as past Belichick teams have. Many of those clubs have been Super Bowl contenders. 

Bruschi dissects Patriots' victory

December, 13, 2010
12/13/10
3:42
PM ET
Each week on ESPNBoston.com, Tedy Bruschi dissects each Patriots game in his "Bruschi on Tap" piece. This week's piece is posted and includes the following topics:

1. Rob Gronkowski's growth easy to see

2. Can't have the M.O.B.Ps (missed opportunities for big plays) against Patriots.

3. Devin McCourty putting together a Pro-Bowl caliber season. His rib injury is one to watch.

4. Momentum, a bye week, and the Packers.

5. Weather affects Bears' defense.

6. Why the Patriots are so good in the snow.

Picked-up pieces from 1st quarter review

December, 13, 2010
12/13/10
11:35
AM ET
Student assistant Mike Rodak takes a look at the television copy of Sunday’s Patriots game against the Bears and offers some of his first-quarter observations:

1. The Patriots’ first outside run of the day was stopped for a loss after blockers had a hard time getting position on their defenders. In particular, LG Logan Mankins could not get into the second level before MLB Brian Urlacher was already in the backfield. RT Sebastian Vollmer could not execute a backside cut block on DT Tommie Harris, and WR Deion Branch was overpowered by SLB Nick Roach.

2. Bears WR Devin Hester's 17-yard punt return that gave the Bears the ball at their own 46-yard line to start their first drive should have been negated by a penalty. As Patriots S Patrick Chung was squaring up to tackle Hester after he received the punt, Bears RB Garrett Wolfe came from behind and pushed Chung to the ground. It should have been a block-in-the-back penalty, but the only effect was field position as the Bears later punted.

3. The Patriots used Ron Brace at nose tackle in their base defense, shifting Vince Wilfork out to defensive end. The move, which has been made at times this season, was likely based on matchups. If Brace could handle the undersized C Olin Kreutz inside, then Wilfork would be freed up for a one-on-one with RT J'Marcus Webb outside.

4. Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 12-yard run on the Patriots’ second drive of the game came on a “trap” play, which has been successful when used this season. The play relies on NT Anthony Adams over-pursuing into the backfield after being released by C Dan Koppen. With Koppen and Mankins sealing the two closest linebackers to the outside, Green-Ellis’ hole opens once TE Rob Gronkowski is motioned inside and blocks Adams out. It is a classic, well-designed play that has been well executed on many occasions by the Patriots.

5. The Patriots defense opted against a blitz-heavy scheme to start the game and instead used OLBs Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham, as well as Chung, in outside zone coverages. This helped CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty on shorter routes, allowing them to focus on the vertical routes seen in Mike Martz’s offense. In addition, ILBs Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton were frequently used in some of the deeper zones they’ve played this season, protecting against crossing patterns in the intermediate level.

6. Patriots DE Gerard Warren’s late first-quarter sack of Bears QB Jay Cutler was forced in large part by Cunningham, who beat Webb around the corner and pressured Cutler. It was Cunningham who wrapped his arms around Cutler before Warren came in to finish the deed.

Stats analysis: Factoring in the weather

December, 12, 2010
12/12/10
12:02
AM ET
Accuweather forecasts a game-time temperature of 20 degrees, with snow and 30 mile-per-hour winds at Soldier Field for Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and the Bears (click here for an updated forecast). With inclement weather looming, let’s take a Next-Level look at what role the elements will play in the game:

Quick hitters


* Over the past three seasons, both teams have played four regular-season games when the game-time temperature is 30 degrees or below

* The Bears have played all four at home, and won all four (the last two ended in overtime).

* The Patriots are 3-1 overall, but 2-1 with Tom Brady as quarterback. Matt Cassel played in the 47-7 win over the Cardinals (Week 16, 2008).

* The Patriots average 32.3 rushes per game in these cold-weather contests, compared to 26.5 rushes PG in other games.

* The Bears’ defense faced 56.1 percent pass plays (including sacks) in these games, compared to 59.2 percent in others.

Cold weather, poor results don’t deter Brady from going deep


NEXT-LEVEL: Since 2008, Tom Brady’s pass attempts of 15+ yards in games of 30-degrees-or-colder weather account for 18.9 percent of his total, compared to 18.6 percent of his total in other games. The game plan looks the same, but the stat line is un-Bradylike.


The Bears’ defense has been very successful in the same situations: opposing quarterbacks have a 28.6 comp pct (12-42), 0 TD, Int, 46.4 passer rating.

Short-passing game favors New England


NEXT-LEVEL: Chicago’s defense has been a sieve on passes of 10 yards or fewer in cold weather over the past three seasons, as they’ve allowed a 67.2 completion percentage, 6 TD, 2 Int and a first down every 3.3 attempts. Tom Brady is actually BETTER on passes of 10 yards or fewer in cold-weather games (129.2 passer rating and averaging a TD every 9.8 attempts) than he is when the temperature exceeds 30 degrees (106.0 passer rating, a TD every 23.3 attempts).

Play-action a key component of Sunday’s game


NEXT-LEVEL: Play-action fakes appear to be the equalizer, at least on paper. With the elevated threat of a run (New England averages almost six more carries PG than in warmer weather), Tom Brady has been able to use ball-fakes to beat defenses. Chicago is at the opposite end of the spectrum, well-disciplined and able to stop both the run and the play-action pass.

-- Statistics compiled by Trevor Ebaugh.

Video: Hammerin' Hank's pick

December, 11, 2010
12/11/10
6:50
PM ET


In the video above, Hammerin’ Hank Goldberg makes his pick for Sunday’s Patriots-Bears game:

“I think Chicago has a little bit of an edge here for a couple of reasons. That Jets game was a division win for New England and they played basically a perfect game. I don’t like teams coming off a perfect game going in against a non-division opponent, for that matter a non-conference opponent, the next week, and particularly with little time to prepare. Chicago has a good defense, they’re quick, and they might surprise New England, who could have a little bit of a letdown coming off the game they played last week. ...

“This game figures to go down to the wire. New England is a three-point favorite. Against NFC competition since 2005, New England is 12-10 against the spread. This will be a nail-biter down the wire. I’m going to take Chicago, at home, with the points.

Reiss' key matchup for Pats-Bears

December, 10, 2010
12/10/10
9:50
AM ET


In the video clip above, ESPNBoston.com gives his key matchup for the Patriots against the Bears:

“It’s the defense against quarterback Jay Cutler. He has 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the season and as of late he’s been playing mistake-free football. This Patriots defense is one that thrives on turnovers. New England is 9-0 this season when on the plus-side of the turnover differential.

“So it at the end of the day it comes down to this: Can the Patriots defense turn Cutler into the Cutler of old, the one who would make a lot of mistakes?”

Video: Brady vs. Bears' Cover-2

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
5:15
PM ET


In the NFL Live video above, Trey Wingo, Herm Edwards, Mark Schlereth and Kordell Stewart discuss and demonstrate what Tom Brady will see when the Patriots battle the Bears on Sunday.

Tom Brady tore up the Jets’ man-to-man coverage on Monday night, but how will he handle Cover-2 zone the Bears will throw at him? Watch the video to find out.

Throwing around some numbers

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
4:30
PM ET
A few facts and figures on the Patriots heading into Sunday’s game against the Bears in Chicago:

* NEXT-LEVEL: Since the departure of Randy Moss, the Patriots’ passing game has been retooled, but not necessarily reinvented. Tom Brady and company still lead the league in passer rating and touchdowns on throws within 14 yards of the line of scrimmage and have yet to throw an interception on such a pass this season. The unit will be tested on Sunday as the Bears rank second in the NFL in passer rating allowed on throws 14 yards or fewer downfield through Week 13 (74.0).


* NEXT LEVEL: Brady has thrown 19 TD passes this season on throws of 10 yards or shorter, 4 more than the next highest total (Peyton Manning, 15). Brady is going up against a Bears defense that has allowed just 4 TD passes on throws of 10 yards or shorter, fewest in the league.

* NEXT-LEVEL: In 2009, 18 of Jay Cutler’s league-high 26 interceptions and 45.4 percent of his dropbacks came out of shotgun formations. This season, Jay Cutler has taken more snaps from under center and his rate of interception has been drastically reduced. Entering Week 14, Cutler leads the NFL in touchdowns (16) and first downs (112) from under center. Expect the Bears to continue the trend on Sunday as the Patriots allow 69.3 percent of passes to be completed when the opposing quarterback starts under center (third-highest in NFL).


* NEXT-LEVEL: After the Patriots traded Randy Moss, Tom Brady had some new weapons to get used to. Brady completed 55 percent of his passes to Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead in the first four games without Moss. Since then, Brady has completed 81.8 percent of his passes to those two with nearly half of those completions coming in the middle of the field. The trend will be tested on Sunday as the Bears lead the league in passer rating against throws down the middle this season (71.2) including seven interceptions in their last six games.


* Since Tom Brady's first season as a starter, the Patriots are 34-5 in December, best in the NFL. That includes a 19-1 record at home. That lone loss? Dec. 22, 2002 when the Jets scored 13 unanswered to win 30-17 as Brady managed only 133 passing yards. Since then, the Patriots have won 16 straight December home games.

* The Patriots have scored at least 30 points without committing a turnover in each of their last four games, making them the first NFL team ever to fashion a streak of that type. (Elias Sports Bureau)

* Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes without throwing an interception in each of his last five games, tying the second-longest streak of that kind in NFL history. Don Meredith had a six-game streak of that kind spanning the 1965 and 1966 seasons and Joe Theismann had a five-game streak in 1983. (Elias Sports Bureau)

Video: Reiss' 3 keys for Patriots vs. Bears

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
2:39
PM ET


In the video clip above, ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss gives his three keys for a Patriots victory against the Bears on Sunday:

1. Blocking pass-rusher Julius Peppers. The Bears move him around on each side of the line, so offensive tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer will have to be ready.

2. Directional punting and kicking. The Bears are dangerous in the return game, look for the Pats to keep the ball away from Devin Hester.

3. Stopping Bears RB Matt Forte, who is a threat both running the ball and catching it.

Practice report: Koppen was present

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
4:41
PM ET
Though he wasn’t spotted at the media portion of Thursday’s practice, center Dan Koppen did indeed participate, the team noted.

Koppen was not included in the Patriots’ practice participation report. Cornerback Jonahan Wilhite (hip) and defensive lineman Mike Wright (concussion) did not participate in practice, while quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder/foot) and nose tackle Myron Pryor (back) were listed as having limited participation.

Urlacher: 'We're the best team, period'

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
2:18
PM ET
Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher spoke about Tom Brady and the Patriots this week, complimenting the quarterback but saying he thought the Bears were the better team.

"Remember, we have [the Patriots] at home … the same like Philly,'' Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune, referring to a 31-26 win over the Eagles. "When we played Philly, everybody was saying they were the best, right? It's the same situation, and hopefully the same result.

"New England is the best team in the NFL, record-wise. But I feel like we're the best team, period. That's why I say record-wise. They have the best quarterback, numbers-wise. And everybody likes to go by numbers, right?''

Here’s more from Urlacher on Brady:

"Right now, he's playing better than anybody,'' Urlacher said. "There's no doubt about that. Comparing with Peyton Manning, they're just different. Well, maybe they're not different because both run their offenses. Whatever they want to do, they do it. But Brady's doing it better right now.

"He doesn't make any mistakes with the football. You're not going to trick him. You just better stick to your roles.'"

Koppen among those missing at practice

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
1:33
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots held a walkthrough practice on Wednesday afternoon inside the Dana Farber Fieldhouse. Players were not in pads for the slower-paced session.

Not present at the walkthrough was center Dan Koppen, who completed Monday night’s game and talked to reporters in the locker room after the game. Fox Sports reported on Wednesday that the Patriots worked out veteran center Jake Grove this week, who was released in September by the Dolphins.

Wednesday’s injury report, which will be released at 4 p.m., will shed more light on any possible injury to Koppen.

Also not present were defensive lineman Mike Wright and cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, who did not play in Monday night’s game. Meanwhile, defensive lineman Myron Pryor returned to practice after missing all of last week’s practices and Monday night’s game.

Belichick: Cutler dangerous with arm, legs

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
1:19
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The platitudes were flowing as New England coach Bill Belichick talked Wednesday about the Patriots’ next opponent, the Chicago Bears.

Chicago’s offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff all were praised by Belichick, whose Pats (10-2) will visit the Bears (9-3) at Soldier Field on Sunday.

Belichick extolled the virtues of defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears’ big free-agent signee who was coveted by Patriots fans, and he ticked off other names on the defense, notably linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, as superlative players. On offense, running back Matt Forte, receivers Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and tight end Greg Olson were singled out, with Belichick also paying respect to coach Lovie Smith as well as new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the guru of the wide-open offense.

“They’re an impressive team to watch,” said Belichick. “They do a lot of things well. That’s reflected in their record and the five wins in a row. They’re a good team in any statistic there is.”

There was one other player Belichick was effusive in praising, quarterback Jay Cutler, a player whose reputation took a severe beating last year when he floundered badly after arriving in Chicago in a preseason trade with Denver.

This season, Belichick noted, Cutler has been impressive. Cutler is completing 63.2 percent of his passes (201 of 318) and is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. He also has rushed for 201 yards on 41 carries (4.9 average), making him the team’s third-leading rusher.

“Cutler does a good job of spreading the ball around," Belichick said. "He’s playing as well as any quarterback in the league. We’ve played a lot of good quarterbacks lately. Taking nothing away from the [Ben] Roethlisbergers and the [Peyton] Mannings. Those guys are good, too. But Jay Cutler has done a real good job, particularly the last five games. There are not many decisions you can question that he has made.”

Cutler has 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last five games.

“He has done a good job with Mike [Martz’s] schemes,” Belichick said. “And if a play breaks down [Cutler] can run. He’s able to keep the plays alive. He does a good job of extending the plays and making positive yards. He’s fast. He can outrun defensive backs.”

It is a short week of preparation because the Patriots played the Monday night game (a 45-3 thrashing of the Jets). Belichick, his staff and players are condensing the work week by necessity, hoping to be close to normal in terms of preparation timing by Thursday, Belichick said.

Making it a little more difficult is the fact that New England hasn’t played the Bears since Nov. 26, 2006, when the Patriots beat Chicago, 17-13 at Gillette Stadium, so they aren’t nearly as familiar with the team as they would be with an AFC East team, for example.

And there’s one more variable: the Soldier Field sod. The Bears have installed a new surface for Sunday’s game.

“It is what it is. We know what it is. We know how hard it is to install turf in December,” said Belichick, with the Patriots having done a similar turf job in recent years.

So, said Belichick with a shrug, it will be up to the Pats to make sure they have the right cleats.

“You have to play with good body balance when you make a cut,” said Belichick. “If you don’t the chances are the field won’t support those cuts.”

Patriots quick to turn the page to Bears

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
1:10
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- How much did Patriots head coach Bill Belichick want players to turn the page after their big win over the Jets on Monday night? So much that he did not even show the team film from the game, opting instead to begin preparations for the Bears.

“I haven’t even looked at the film. We’re moving right on to the Bears,” cornerback Darius Butler said. “Obviously they’re a good team, and so we have a lot to do to prepare for those guys.”

“We’re with the Bears now, that’s the most important thing,” running back Danny Woodhead said. “You’re a little behind when you have a Monday night game, so we have to use every single day that we have and make sure that we’re ready.”

Woodhead, who on Monday night became the first Patriots running back to gain more than 100 yards receiving since Kevin Faulk did so in 2003, wasn’t even willing to discuss the 45-3 win.

“That’s not even anything we’re talking about,” Woodhead said. “That’s the past. There’s a big game this weekend and we have to start getting ready.”

The Bears come into the game at 9-3, locked in a tight NFC North race with the Packers.

“We have to hit the ground running right now,” Woodhead said. “Preparation is key."

A Bears scouting report for Pats fans

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
1:05
PM ET
(Editor’s note: ESPN Chicago provides the following quick primer on the Bears, this week’s Patriots opponent.)

BearsComing off three consecutive years without a playoff appearance, the Chicago Bears made significant changes to the roster, coaching staff and front office heading into the 2010 season.

Julius Peppers and running back Chester Taylor in free agency, while high-profile coaches Mike Martz and Mike Tice were brought in to kick start an offense that struggled under former coordinator Ron Turner.

After a 3-0 start, the Bears hit rock bottom, losing three of their next four, none of the defeats more bitter than a 17-14 home loss to the Washington Redskins, when quarterback Jay Cutler threw four interceptions.

But since their bye week, Lovie Smith's Bears (9-3) have reeled off five consecutive victories and currently own a one-game lead over Green Bay in the NFC North. For Patriots fans looking for a scouting report on Sunday's opponent, here are some key points behind the Bears' turnaround:

1. Jay Cutler playing like a franchise quarterback: Finally, Cutler is looking like a guy worthy of two first-round picks and a hefty contract. Bears fans were starting to worry they were sold a bill of goods after Cutler endured a miserable 2009 season (26 interceptions), plus an awful stretch in October, where the quarterback's poor decisions essentially cost the Bears a victory against Washington in Week 7. But since the bye, Cutler is taking care of the football, keeping plays alive with his feet, and scrambling when necessary to pick up important yards. Cutler may still revert back to his old ways, but if he continues to play at this current level, the Bears have a serious chance to make some noise in the postseason.

2. Meet the new Mike Martz: Besides Cutler's suspect play, Martz's insistence on his standard, pass heavy, seven-step drop offense hurt the Bears in the early going. Martz completely ignored the run game, and for some reason kept calling deep drops for Cutler even though the offensive line proved incapable of providing the necessary protection. But the light also went on for Martz during the Bears' bye week, and the offense became a balanced attack moving forward. Because Martz changed his long-standing philosophy, the Bears have cut down on the turnovers, while dramatically increasing their time of possession and third-down conversion ratio. Throw the rankings out the window (No. 29 total offense, No. 21 points scored, No. 26 passing offense), the offense is doing its part in the Bears' playoff push, because simply, Martz is no longer trying to do too much.

3. A healthy defense: Only one defensive starter, strongside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, may be forced to miss Sunday's game due to injury. That's a major accomplishment for a team that was plagued by injuries the last few seasons to core veterans Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Tommie Harris. There are several additional reasons why the Bears rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 3 in points allowed, but having essentially all the front-line players on the field has been a luxury for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. After being lost for the year in Week 1 last season, Urlacher is back to his old self, and recorded 19 tackles in the Bears' 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions. Urlacher may be on the wrong side of 30, but when healthy, he remains one of the top middle linebackers in the league.

4. The Peppers effect: The prized free agent defensive end has lived up to the hype, even though his sack numbers (7) may not be off the charts. Peppers' mere presence on the field has opened things up for fellow end Israel Idonije to have a career year (7 sacks), because with Peppers facing constant double-teams, Idonije is taking advantage of one-on-one matchups on nearly every down. The constant pressure provided by Peppers allows the Bears to sit back in their preferred defense -- the Cover 2 -- which only works if the front four is able to harass the opposing quarterback. It was that lack of a pass rush which led to the Bears defensive downfall from 2007-09.

5. The return of Devin Hester: After a two-year hiatus, Hester is back to being one of the most feared return men in the NFL, scoring on two punt returns earlier in the season. The dynamic two-time Pro Bowler is also being used on kickoff return, where the Bears have a surplus of talent in Hester, Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox. Many teams elect not to kick to Hester, which by default, usually helps the Bears win the field position battle. The Bears are also blessed with talented kickers Robbie Gould and Brad Maynard, plus the most consistent long-snapper in the league, Patrick Mannelly. Year after year, the Bears boast one of the top special teams units in the league, and 2010 is no different.

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