The last time the nation saw the Houston Texans under the bright lights they were wiping themselves off the mat. In the other corner we have the surging Chicago Bears fresh off a convincing blowout. In some circles, people might see this as a fair fight, but a closer look reveals that the road team hold the advantage. Let's dig into this prime-time match-up a little further.
There isn't a big mystery to this spread. The look ahead line was -1 and neither team did anything in Week 9 to sway anyone's opinion much. If you shop around you can grab an extra half a point as some places opened at -1.5, but I would pick this at +1 as well.
This number states that the Texans are the better overall team, but not by a lot. Personally, I have them rated a bit higher than that and I see some clear advantages in Houston's favor. I expect an outright win, but it never hurts to have an extra point or two in your back pocket (odds from SBRforum).
Who's Ready for Prime-Time?
All week we're going to hear about how these teams are both 7-1. Yet, the more interesting aspect is that they both lost to the Green Bay Packers. Naturally the Bears have been chasing the Pack over recent years for NFC supremacy, but Houston's loss to Green Bay was more disheartening. At the time, most people (myself included) had already crowned them the best in the NFL.
I think we learned two things about these teams in those losses. First is neither one of them are very well suited to play from a multi-score deficit. These teams rely heavily on controlling the game with their defense and playing opportunistically on offense.
In terms of "pressure" or which team "needs" this win more, I don't lean one way or another. No one is doubting the legitimacy of either team at this point in the season. The fact that this game is in Chicago puts some more onus on them to walk away from the victory, but no one is going to fault them if they come up short given the opponent.
Bears Put the "Special" in Special Teams
In year's past I would consistently undermine Chicago Bears teams for relying so much on special teams to contribute to wins, but they've been doing it for so long now that it has become entrenched in their identity. There's no question that this team puts a ton of pressure on opposing teams with good field position, a strong kicking game, and a lethal return unit. This is bad news for the Texans because they rank incredibly low on special teams. In a tight game, this very well could be the difference.
Offensive Advantage: Texans
Having said that, the bulk of the mismatches in the other areas favor the Texans. The most glaring one is under center. Matt Schaub doesn't garner a lot of headlines, but he is such an efficient quarterback that it's easy to overlook him. He knows this system inside and out and runs it to perfection. The challenge will be a top flight Chicago defense that certainly isn't going to lie down in this spot. This is going to be an excellent match-up of play-calling, especially since all of the major players are still healthy and playing at a high level.
The big mismatch in this game is going to come when the Chicago offense is on the field. Jay Cutler might have all-world skills, but he sure doesn't play like that on a consistent basis. He is one of the lowest rated quarterbacks on Football Outsiders efficiency rankings and subsequently, the passing game has in turn suffered as well.
They might not be as bad as previous years, but they are average with their drive success and third down ratings, and even worse in red zone conversions. The obvious link is their pathetic offensive line. You can bet that the Bears coaching staff is going to rely heavily on the interior run game to take advantage of the only weakness in this Houston defense. Without Cushing, the entire middle of the D has become suspect and the Bears are equipped to exploit it with Matt Forte.
The big question is whether that's enough to secure a win? My answer would be no. The Texans front is going to put a lot of pressure on this offense and force Cutler to come up with a great game. Based on recent history, there's no reason to believe that the Bears are suddenly going to come up with new blocking schemes or max-protection formations to solve the problems on the line. If Houston grab a lead, the Bears passing game simply isn't reliable enough to expect a comeback. Even in their blowout win over the Titans, the offense looked like garbage until the defense and special teams had already put the game out of reach, but that's not going to show up on the stat-sheet.
The Texans offense might not be flashy or explosive, but Arian Foster leads the league with 11 TD's. The team as a whole leads the NFL in time of possession. This is exactly the kind of game where those stats make all the difference.
Also, I don't think the Bears are going to be able to handle J.J. Watt and his 10.5 sacks. If they do manage to contain him, Wade Philips will find another way to get to Cutler. The Texans ate some nice humble pie the last time they were in prime-time, but I think they'll relish the role as underdogs and come away with the win this time around.
NFL Pick: HOU +1.5.