Scouting the Eagles and Bears
Both the Eagles and the Bears fired successful head coaches after last season and replaced them with unconventional hires. The Eagles wooed Chip Kelly, who had never spent a day in the NFL. The Bears picked Marc Trestman, who had spent the previous five seasons coaching the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes and had been out of the NFL since 2004.
Yet both coaches have their teams atop their divisions with 8-6 records, and each could clinch a playoff bid on Sunday night. That was an unlikely possibility for this Week 16 matchup when the season started.
The Eagles will pay attention to the Cowboys-Redskins game. If the Cowboys lose, the Eagles will win the NFC East title by beating Chicago. The Bears will watch the results of the Lions-Giants and Packers-Steelers games. If the Lions and the Packers lose, a Bears win would seal the NFC North.
Depending on the result of those games, both teams might need a Week 17 win to make the playoffs regardless of Sunday night's result. Kelly said he would not rest his players in that situation, while Trestman was at least open to the idea.
It will make for an interesting afternoon leading up to the game. With the way both coaches have their teams playing, it will likely be an even more entertaining evening.
When the Eagles run
LeSean McCoy made it clear on Wednesday that he wants to "put the offense on my back," a claim that came after he carried the ball only eight times last week and watched the Bears' No. 32 rush defense on film. Expect McCoy to carry the ball often, and to be productive doing so. McCoy needs 170 rushing yards to break Wilbert Montgomery's single-season team record from 1979, and it's not out of the question that he gets there this week. That's a lofty goal, but the Bears allow 152.4 rushing yards per game and have allowed more than 170 total rushing yards in five games this season. Nick Foles is bound to get some yards, and Chicago has struggled at times with quarterbacks running. But McCoy will be the central figure in the offense. Tight end Brent Celek will be valuable as a run blocker.
The Bears were pleased with the progress last week when they held Cleveland to 93 rushing yards, and the return of linebacker Lance Briggs would be a big help. Briggs has been absent for two months and has been cleared to play against the Eagles. The Bears replaced retired Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker with rookie Jon Bostic. One player who can help the Bears is Jay Ratliff, who will play his fourth game for Chicago at defensive tackle.
When the Eagles pass
Foles threw for a career-high 428 yards last week, although Kelly admitted that Foles was "inconsistent." That's a testament to how well he's been playing. The key for Foles will be to avoid interceptions. His only two of the season have come in the last two weeks.
The Bears enter the game with the No. 11 pass defense in the NFL and have 17 interceptions this season, including two last week. They have allowed 300 passing yards just once this season.
Foles connected with DeSean Jackson 10 times last week, but that will be more difficult to do against Chicago's secondary. Chicago did a solid job covering Dallas' Dez Bryant and Cleveland's Josh Gordon the last two weeks. Riley Cooper remains a reliable target for Foles, and rookie tight end Zach Ertz continues to improve each week. The Bears allow the fourth most receptions to tight ends in the NFL, and opposing tight ends have 12 receptions of more than 20 yards against the Bears defense this season.
The Bears will continue to miss Charles Tillman, although Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman have played well. Defensive end Julius Peppers leads Chicago with 61/2 sacks, and Jason Peters will be tasked with blocking him on Foles' blind side.
When the Bears run
Bears running back Matt Forte trails only McCoy and Adrian Peterson, with 1,200 yards this season, including three consecutive weeks with more than 100 yards. The Eagles have the No. 16 rush defense in the NFL and have gone three consecutive weeks without facing the opponent's top rusher. Forte will be a major test for defensive coordinator Bill Davis' unit.
An improved offensive line has helped Forte. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson were veteran free-agent signees who have stabilized that side of the line. They average more than 5 yards per carry running behind both players. Their most rushing plays and yards are behind first-round pick Kyle Long, who played for Chip Kelly at Oregon. Chicago averages 6.16 yards per carry behind Long on 63 rushing plays. The Eagles allow only 3.67 yards per carry in that area. Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan will need to have a strong game on the line, with DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks roaming the middle.
The Bears' No. 2 running back is Michael Bush, who has only 54 carries this season. Quarterback Jay Cutler seldom tucks the ball to run.
When the Bears pass
This might be the Eagles' toughest test of the season, with their No. 31 pass defense trying to limit Chicago's No. 5 pass offense. Bears receivers Brandon Marshall (90 catches, 1,185 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Alshon Jeffery (80 catches, 1,265 yards, seven touchdowns) are two of the league's finest receivers. Jay Cutler has returned from injury and has a 63.4 percent completion percentage with 16 touchdowns in nine games.
Trestman is a sharp offensive mind who has helped Cutler and found ways to maximize his weapons. That's not just Marshall and Jeffery, but also Forte out of the backfield, Martellus Bennett at tight end, and Earl Bennett in the slot. Martellus Bennett is a big challenge for the Eagles, who have played well against tight ends.
Both Jeffery and Marshall are physical targets who thrive with the ball in the air. It's a matchup similar to the one the Eagles faced against the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles allowed touchdowns to both Arizona receivers, but they benefited from the officials' allowing for a physical game. If that can happen again, it will be a good sign for the Eagles. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were signed in part because of their size and physicality.
The Eagles will benefit from the return of safety Earl Wolff, who missed four games. Cornerback Brandon Boykin returns to the slot after a concussion.
The Eagles struggled on special teams in consecutive weeks. They allowed two return scores against Detroit, which was partly due to the field conditions. They refused to kick the ball to Minnesota returner Cordarrelle Patterson last week, allowing for favorable field position. Chicago features return specialist Devin Hester, and they're in the top half of the league in both kickoff returns and punt returns. Eagles punter Donnie Jones will face pressure to continue his strong play.
The Eagles will miss core special-teams players Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman, so there will be new faces on the unit. DeSean Jackson is always a threat on punt returns. Brad Smith had a 47-yard kickoff return last week, so he might play a bigger role.
Both teams are in playoff contention and will have eyes on earlier games. The Eagles have won three consecutive home games and will have an energized crowd on Sunday Night Football. Chicago is 3-4 on the road this season. The two teams have faced each other five of the last six seasons, with Chicago winning four of those games. But both teams have new coaching staffs and schemes, so those matchups might not be indicators.
ZACH BERMAN: EAGLES 31, BEARS 27
JEFF McLANE: EAGLES 40, BEARS 31