The Dream Team appears to have awaken from its early-season slumber.
Fresh off by far their most impressive performance of what's been an up-and- down season, the Philadelphia Eagles attempt to maintain the momentum when they host the Chicago Bears in a Monday night showdown between 2010 NFC division winners that are both riding two-game winning streaks.
Touted as a serious Super Bowl contender following an onslaught of high-profile free-agent signings during an active preseason, the Eagles resembled anything but after losing four of their first five games of this 2011 campaign. The defending NFC East champions have begun to live up to their advance billing as of late, however, by stringing together convincing victories over division members Washington and Dallas sandwiched around a Week 7 bye.
The Eagles were simply dominating in last Sunday's clash with the rival Cowboys, with the NFL's top-ranked offense piling up 495 total yards and a previously-maligned defense putting forth a shutdown effort in a 34-7 rout.
Philadelphia accumulated 239 rushing yards on Dallas, which entered the contest having allowed a league-low 69.7 yards per game on the ground, with emerging star running back LeSean McCoy gaining a career-best 185 on 30 carries and scoring two touchdowns. The third-year pro now tops all individuals in rushing yards per game (107.7 ypg), while the Eagles are first overall as a team in that category.
The Eagles had major problems stopping the run during their poor start, but have yielded a mere 127 rushing yards combined over the course of their two- game surge.
Philadelphia's recent burst has kept the team from falling out of the conference playoff picture, though it still remains 2 1/2 games behind the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East heading into Monday's tilt
"We still have a lot of work to do," quarterback Michael Vick stated after last week's triumph. "We acknowledge the fact that we work hard each and every week and so we deserve to take a moment to reflect and enjoy this [win], but at the same time understand our position. We've got game two [this] week. The start of our new season."
Chicago, which captured the 2010 NFC North title and advanced to last year's conference championship, has also undergone a reversal of fortune after a rough stretch out of the gate. The Bears were just 2-3 after five weeks before besting Minnesota and Tampa Bay to enter its Week 8 bye with a head of steam.
Better defense has also sparked Chicago's turnaround. After giving up an average of 419.6 yards per game over their first five outings, the Bears held both the Vikings and Buccaneers under 300 yards. In its 24-18 decision over Tampa Bay in London on Oct. 23, Chicago limited the Bucs to a scant 30 rushing yards and intercepted quarterback Josh Freeman four times.
The Bears have lost each of their two true road tests this season, sustaining double-digit defeats to New Orleans and Detroit, but head coach Lovie Smith believes his improved team is better equipped to handle the hostile atmosphere it will face at Lincoln Financial Field on Monday.
"We're not the same football team we were back then," said Smith in reference to those previous losses. "We've learned a lot about ourselves. That's always a tough environment to play in, but I think we're ready for the challenge."
Philadelphia had not been faring well in its home venue prior to this past week's outburst. Including a setback to Green Bay in last January's NFC Wild Card Playoffs, the Eagles had dropped five straight games at Lincoln Financial Field.
Vick also hasn't had much success when facing the Bears over his career. The All-Pro quarterback has lost all of his three lifetime starts against Chicago, which includes a 31-26 ousting at Soldier Field last November.
Chicago has a 27-9-1 lead in an all-time regular-season series with Philadelphia that dates back to 1933, and has won three of the last four matchups between the teams. In addition to this past season's aforementioned victory, the Bears posted a 24-20 home decision in 2008 and prevailed by a 19-16 count in their last visit to Lincoln Financial Field, which occurred in 2007. The Eagles' lone positive result over that four-game span was a 24-20 verdict in Chicago in 2009.
The Eagles have won two of their three prior postseason bouts with Chicago, recording a 27-17 home victory in a 1979 NFC First-Round Playoff and topping the Bears by a 33-19 score in the Windy City in the 2001 Divisional Round. The Bears earned a 20-12 win over Philadelphia at Soldier Field in a 1988 NFC Divisional Playoff, a game famously known as the "Fog Bowl".
Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid has a 6-3 lifetime record against Chicago, while Smith is 3-2 against both the Eagles and Reid during his tenure with the Bears.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
A change in philosophy has resulted in an uptick in performance for the Chicago offense over the past month. After showing little regard for running the football in their first three games, the Bears have since leaned heavily on running back Matt Forte (672 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 3 total TD) and been rewarded for the decision. The impending free agent has averaged over 22 carries and 138.3 rushing yards in the team's last four tilts, and Chicago has gone 3-1 over that period. The revised approach has also aided both quarterback Jay Cutler (1702 passing yards, 9 TD, 6 INT) and a front line that's had issues in protection, with the group having allowed a respectable seven sacks during that four-game span after Cutler was taken down 14 times the first three weeks. The strong-armed signal-caller has been generally solid during his third season with the organization, while Forte has been marvelous in his dual-threat role. The 25-year-old leads the NFL with 1,091 yards from scrimmage and served as the offense's most consistent receiver, having compiled a team-best 38 catches and 419 receiving yards. The wide receivers have been more hit-or-miss, though maligned veteran Roy Williams (13 receptions, 1 TD) had a season-best 59 yards and a touchdown on four catches in the London game and Johnny Knox (19 receptions) is averaging over 18 yards per grab as the best deep threat of the bunch.
Expect the Bears to test a Philadelphia run defense that's been a sore spot for much of this season. The Eagles are giving up an average of 5.0 yards per carry and have permitted 135 rushing yards or more in four of their seven games, though the results have been better as of late. The unit's strength is pressuring the quarterback, with the outstanding trio of ends Trent Cole (15 tackles, 4 sacks) and Jason Babin (22 tackles, 9 sacks) and tackle Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 5 sacks) accounting for 18 of the club's strong total of 22 sacks, four of which came in last week's crushing of the Cowboys. The crew was relentless in its harassment of Dallas' Tony Romo in that game, forcing the accomplished quarterback into an off-target 18-of-35, 203-yard night. The secondary features three cornerbacks that have previously been to Pro Bowls in offseason pickups Nnamdi Asomugha (19 tackles, 2 INT) and Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (15 tackles) and holdover Asante Samuel (22 tackles, 1 INT), all of whom have helped Philadelphia to a No. 9 overall ranking against the pass (212.3 ypg). The Eagles have surrendered 12 touchdowns through the air and have been vulnerable to the big play at times, partly due to instability at the safety spots.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia is averaging a league-best 449.3 yards per game and is capable of moving the ball in a variety of ways, with McCoy (754 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 10 TD) having generated four 100-yard rushing efforts from his role as the lead back and the ever-dangerous Vick (1852 rushing yards, 11 TD, 8 INT) adept at beating defenses with both his arm and his tremendous scrambling ability. The athletic left-hander had his best game of the season against the Cowboys, hitting on a crisp 21-of-28 throws for 279 yards and two touchdowns, and leads all quarterbacks with 422 rushing yards on the year. He's also reduced his turnovers, a recurring problem for the Eagles during their four- game losing skid earlier in the season. Vick has a multitude of quality pass- catchers at his disposal as well, with former first-round pick Jeremy Maclin (40 receptions, 543 yards, 4 TD) in the midst of a fine season as the No. 1 target and burner DeSean Jackson (27 receptions, 487 yards, 2 TD) one of the league's premier field-stretchers. Slot receiver Jason Avant (31 receptions), who had 83 yards on eight catches in last year's meeting with the Bears, must be accounted for as well, while tight end Brent Celek (20 receptions, 2 TD) had season bests of seven grabs and 93 yards against the Cowboys and is becoming more involved in the game plan.
Chicago is known for its bend-but-don't-break style of defense, and that approach is reflected in the group's overall numbers. The Bears are tied for 23rd in total yards allowed (380.6 ypg), but are permitting a manageable 21.4 points per game and have yielded just 28 points during their current winning streak. The Bears have stepped up their play lately, especially against the run, with a front seven headlined by perennial Pro Bowl linebackers Lance Briggs (55 tackles, 1 INT) and Brian Urlacher (41 tackles, 3 INT) holding Minnesota standout back Adrian Peterson to a modest 39 yards on 12 attempts three weeks back and then rendering Tampa Bay's ground attack non-existent. Both players had one of Chicago's four interceptions of Freeman as well. Disruptive end Julius Peppers (17 tackles, 4 sacks) and tackle Amobi Okoye (12 tackles, 3 sack) spearhead a pass rush that sacked Vick four times in last year's bout, while veteran Charles Tillman (52 tackles, 5 PD) is one of the game's more underrated cornerbacks and the most reliable member of a secondary that's given up the fourth-most passing yards (271.9 ypg) in the league.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle. The Eagles were killed by mistakes throughout their earlier string of losses, giving the ball away a whopping 14 times in those four games. They've committed just two turnovers in their last two tests, and it's no coincidence that both were wins. The Bears are a team that thrives on being opportunistic and are usually successful when doing so, as they've had eight takeaways in their four victories and just four in three defeats this season.
Philadelphia's wins over Washington and Dallas were fueled by incredibly fast starts, with the Eagles jumping out to 20-0 lead on the Redskins and scoring touchdown on their first three possessions against the Cowboys. The Bears can't afford to fall behind by more than a touchdown here, as that scenario would play into their opponent's hands and allow Philadelphia to unleash its furious pass rush on a Chicago team that struggles in protection.
One way for the Bears to combat the Eagles' pressure is to stick to the recent game plan and feed Forte the football. Chicago is 3-1 when rushing for at least 119 yards this season and has a weakness it may be able to exploit in Philadelphia's submissive run defense, and controlling the clock would serve a dual purpose of keeping Vick and his playmakers off the field.
This game won't be close if the Eagles play to the level they've reached in their last two games and the Bears perform like they did in road losses to New Orleans and Detroit earlier in the season. However, the last four meetings between these teams have all been decided by five points or less, and Chicago's veteran defense has been able to handle Vick in the past. Look for the Bears to create a few frustrating moments for Philadelphia's potent offense and concentrate at taking away its quick-strike capability, and for an Eagles defense that's been on an upswing to rise to the occasion. The Bears won't embarrass themselves here, but simply don't have weapons to outscore the Eagles on the road.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 20, Bears 14