Monday Night Football features a key game on the NFC playoff bubble tonight as Chicago visits Philadelphia (8:30 ET, ESPN). The Eagles did not get expected help from the Patriots yesterday, as the NFC East-leading Giants pulled an upset in Foxboro, so Philly needs this win just to stay within two games of the division lead. Chicago isn’t going to catch Green Bay in the NFC North, but at 4-3 they need a win to keep on the heels of Detroit, along with the NFC South, and for that matter, to get tiebreaker position on Philadelphia in what promises to be a wide-open race for the two wild-card berths.
The key issues in this game will be Chicago’s defensive containment and their ability to stop the conventional rushing game. Philadelphia leads the league in rush yardage, but that’s misleading regarding their ability in a straight-up running attack. Michael Vick piles up the numbers with his improvisational skill and that’s going to present a big problem for the Bears, who rely on edge pressure from Julius Peppers and Israel Idonjie. The two defensive ends have to be disciplined in their pass rush and not let Vick escape the pocket. Anything that slows Peppers and Idonjie down at all puts an extra burden on a vulnerable Chicago secondary and creates opportunities for Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to get open down the field.
I probably gave away that I really don’t like the Bears matchup against Vick—without a good secondary it’s pick your poison—he beats you with his leg and with his arm. But that only means I expect the Birds to move the ball well between the 20s. If Chicago can stop LeSean McCoy in the running game they can force Philly into field goal tries, the formula San Francisco used to get a win at Lincoln Financial earlier in the year. Here I do like Chicago’s chances and they will keep the scoreboard under enough control to give Jay Cutler’s offense a chance to win.
Chicago’s offense is going to be the reverse of Philadelphia’s. If the Bears get in the red zone I think the presence of Matt Forte makes it likely they will cash in, but unless the offensive line can give Cutler some real time, they won’t get enough opportunities. And with the line being a sieve, I expect Jason Babin, already with nine sacks, to be in the Chicago backfield most of the night. That’s enough for the Eagles to get a win a stay in the NFC East race. Let’s call it for a 19-14 final.
College basketball officially starts tonight, as St. John’s, Arizona and Mississippi State play non-descript opponents in the first part of the Coach’s vs. Cancer Classic. The season starts for real on Friday night when North Carolina meets Michigan State, and then next week, several early tournaments, including the Coaches vs. Cancer, will have their better games. The Notebook will start easing into its college hoops previews later this week.