Monday Night Football features a possible NFC Championship preview this week as the 6-2-1 San Francisco 49ers host the 7-2 Chicago Bears. The Bears, though, will be operating with a severe handicap, not only because they’re on the road but because starting quarterback Jay Cutler is out of action following a concussion suffered last week against the Texans.
Chicago’s quarterbacking woes aren’t the only key factor to keep an eye on in the Week 11 finale, but they are the biggest:
1. Can Jason Campbell score any points at all?
Even with the rifle-armed Cutler running the offense for the vast majority of the season, Chicago still ranks 30th in the NFL in passing. Backup Jason Campbell is a competent game manager, but hardly the kind of quarterback who will win many ballgames against a defense as tough as San Francisco’s.
The Bears have hidden their lack of a passing game behind rushing yards and defensive touchdowns this season, but both of those will be in short supply against San Francisco. If Campbell doesn’t make some big plays, Chicago has no chance to win this game.
2. Can the Bears slow down Frank Gore?
The point man for the league’s top-ranked rushing attack, Frank Gore has gained 753 yards along with five touchdowns this season. He’s also the kind of tackle-breaking power runner who gives the Bears the most trouble.
Chicago’s tendency to play for the forced fumble makes them vulnerable to missed tackles against a bruising back such as Gore. If Chicago doesn’t play it safer than usual, expect Gore to break off a few 20-plus yard carries in this matchup.
3. How many chances will Alex Smith take?
Alex Smith’s growth as a quarterback has been a key factor in the 49er turnaround in recent seasons, as he's gone from being a quarterback who manages the game to one who can win games with his arm. Against the red-hot Chicago secondary, however, he may need to dial back the aggressiveness that's helped him throw for 13 touchdowns on the season.
The one thing that can beat the 49ers in this matchup is turnovers, as Chicago not only creates them in abundance but turns them into points better than any team in the league. Smith doesn't need to remove the deep ball from his arsenal entirely, but he will need to know when to throw the ball away rather than risk a disastrous mistake.
Prediction: San Francisco 9, Chicago 3
This game is going to be decided by the two magnificent defenses, but the 49ers' edge on offense will still make a difference for the home team. San Francisco is too good at holding onto the ball to give up points to the Bear defense, and without the scoring contributions of Tim Jennings et al., Chicago’s own offense won’t be able to get the job done.