Battle of Playoff Contenders Pits Bears, Bucs
When perusing the Week 12 schedule prior to the season, this Sunday's Bears/Buccaneers matchup hardly jumped off the page. Neither team was expected to be among the NFC elite, as both Chicago and Tampa Bay were coming off losing ledgers, and neither appeared to have rebuilt themselves into anything resembling contender status.
But as Week 12 begins, both the Bears and Bucs are very much a part of the playoff picture.
Chicago will enter Raymond James Stadium riding a six-game win streak, one that was extended with a 13-3 win over the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field last week. Lovie Smith and company own a two-game advantage over second-place Minnesota in the NFC North, and on Sunday can clinch the franchise's first non-losing ledger since 2001, when the Bears went 13-3.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is fresh off back-to-back impressive victories over the Redskins (36-35) and Falcons (30-27), wins that gave Jon Gruden's team a piece of first place in the NFC South along with Carolina. The Buccaneers need two more wins to post their first winning campaign since the 2002 team went 12-4 and won the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
The Bears hold a 33-17 lead in their series with the Buccaneers, but have dropped their last two head-to-head meetings with Tampa Bay. Last season, Tampa scored a 19-7 home victory over Chicago in Week 7. The Bears' last wins in the series came in 2001, when they swept a home-and-home against their then-NFC Central rival.
Gruden is 3-0 in his career against Chicago, including a win in 1999 while with the Oakland Raiders. The Bears' Smith is 0-1 against both Gruden and the Bucs all-time.
BEARS OFFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
Once again at the controls of the Chicago offense will be quarterback Kyle Orton (1389 passing yards, 8 TD, 11 INT), who has not been spectacular in his rookie season but has generally avoided the big mistake. Against Carolina last week, Orton completed 15-of-26 passes for 136 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, and managed to avoid the Panther pass rush all day. Orton's eighth touchdown pass of the year went to No. 1 wideout Muhsin Muhammad (44 receptions, 3 TD) from three yards out in the first quarter. Muhammad finished with six catches for 49 yards on the day. No. 2 receiver Justin Gage (16 receptions, 1 TD) was Chicago's leading receiver against Carolina, hauling in seven grabs for 81 yards in perhaps his best day as a pro. Tight end Desmond Clark (19 receptions, 2 TD), who is second on the team in catches behind Muhammad, was held without a reception against Carolina. The Bears line has allowed just 18 sacks through its first 10 games. Chicago ranks 30th in NFL passing offense (129.5 yards per game).
Tampa Bay struggled a bit against the Atlanta pass last week, allowing Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to post his first 300-yard passing game of the year. Buccaneer cornerbacks Ronde Barber (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Brian Kelly (21 tackles, 3 INT) figure to see less proficiency from Orton and the Chicago aerial attack on Sunday. Barber and safety Jermaine Phillips (43 tackles) had four tackles each against the Falcons. The Buccaneers managed three sacks against Atlanta last week, including one by linebacker Derrick Brooks that resulted in a fumble for Falcon quarterback Matt Schaub that was subsequently covered by Anthony McFarland in the end zone for a Buccaneer touchdown. End Simeon Rice (24 tackles, 8 sacks) notched his team-leading eighth sack of the year last week. The Buccaneers are now seventh in the NFL against the pass (178.5 yards per game).
Bears running back Thomas Jones (840 rushing yards, 6 TD, 17 receptions) returned to the lineup last Sunday following a one-week absence due to bruised ribs, carrying 25 times for 87 yards in a winning effort. Jones needs 160 more yards to post the first 1,000-yard season of his career. Adrian Peterson (242 rushing yards, 2 TD), who rushed for 120 yards against the 49ers in Week 10, spelled Jones against the Panthers and carried four times for 37 yards. Also getting in on the action versus Carolina was fullback Bryan Johnson (4 receptions), who caught two passes for six yards out of the backfield. The Bears enter Week 12 ranked fifth in the league in rushing offense (134 yards per game).
The Buccaneers have struggled in recent weeks against the run, allowing the Falcons to amass 150 ground yards last week one Sunday after surrendering 144 to Washington's Clinton Portis. Seeking to slow their former teammate Jones will be the Buccaneer linebacking corps of Brooks (64 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Shelton Quarles (75 tackles, 1 sack), and Ryan Nece (54 tackles, 2 sacks). Brooks and Quarles combined for 17 tackles against Atlanta. In the trenches, tackles McFarland (17 tackles, 2 sacks), Dewayne White (23 tackles, 2 sacks), and Chris Hovan (24 tackles) had three tackles each in the triumph. Despite their problems stopping opposing running games in recent weeks, the Bucs rank a solid eighth in the NFL versus the run (94.2 yards per game).
BUCCANEERS OFFENSE VS. BEARS DEFENSE
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Buccaneers' Week 11 win over the Falcons was the play of rookie running back Cadillac Williams (632 rushing yards, 3 TD), who posted his first 100-yard game since Week 3. Williams carried 19 times for 116 yards and a touchdown in the win, also catching three balls out of the backfield. Backup Michael Pittman (292 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 2 TD) spelled Williams with one carry for six yards against Atlanta. Fullback Mike Alstott (61 rushing yards, 5 TD, 15 receptions), who led Tampa Bay in rushing in its thrilling Week 10 win over the Redskins, carried four times for eight yards and his fifth touchdown of the year against Atlanta. The Bucs are 17th in the NFL in rushing offense (111.9 yards per game) heading into the Chicago game.
Williams will be going up against a Chicago defense that completely shut down the Carolina run last Sunday, limiting the Panthers to 55 ground yards on 16 carries for the day. Linebackers Brian Urlacher (73 tackles, 6 sacks), Lance Briggs (63 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), and Hunter Hillenmeyer (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) combined for 12 tackles in the win over the Panthers, with Briggs' seven ranking tops among that corps. At the point of attack, tackles Tommie Harris (20 tackles, 3 sacks) and Ian Scott (24 tackles, 1 INT) have provided a stable presence all season. Harris posted three tackles in last week's win. The Bears head into this week's game ranked seventh in the NFL against the run (91.2 yards per game).
Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms (989 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) had a relatively quiet game against Atlanta last week, completing 11-of-19 passes for 118 yards with an interception in a winning effort. Simms' passer rating on the year is now at 78.2. Also quiet in the game was No. 1 wideout Joey Galloway (51 receptions, 7 TD), who was held without a reception for the first time this year. No. 2 wideout Michael Clayton (28 receptions) led the Bucs with three catches for 48 yards in the game, and tight end Alex Smith (22 receptions, 2 TD) had three receptions of his own for 43 yards. The Tampa Bay line, which has surrendered 25 sacks thus far in 2005, did not allow one against the Falcons. Tampa is tied for 21st in NFL passing offense (196 yards per game)
The Chicago pass rush was all over Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme last week, sacking the signal-caller eight times to help key the Bears victory. End Adewale Ogunleye (32 tackles, 7 sacks) registered his finest day in a Chicago uniform, posting three sacks on the afternoon. Fellow end Alex Brown (28 tackles, 3 sacks) logged a pair of sacks of his own in the game, and backup Michael Haynes (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks) came off the bench to record one. In the secondary, cornerback Nathan Vasher (30 tackles, 6 INT) continued his stellar 2005 season by logging two interceptions, and enters Week 12 tied for the NFL lead in picks. Elsewhere in the secondary, cornerbacks Charles Tillman (58 tackles, 3 INT) and Jerry Azumah (25 tackles, 1 sack) had eight tackles each in the contest, and Mike Brown (59 tackles, 3 INT) had five stops from his safety position. The Bears rank No. 2 in the league against the pass (160.9 yards per game).
The scoreboard operator does not figure to be too busy in this one, as both teams favor a ball-control approach and rely heavily on defense and field position to win games. In that regard, the Bears would seem to have an edge, since their defense has been the best in the NFL this year, but Tampa Bay's zone defensive scheme could be more problematic for the young Orton than Chicago's more vanilla approach will be for Simms. Look for the Bears to make one more mistake than the Bears, and for Tampa Bay to win a nip-and-tuck battle at home.