Two of the NFL's marquee teams meet on Monday night when Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears take the trip down to North Texas to face off with Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys.
Each club is 2-1 and has sandwiched a tepid performance with two wins.
The Bears got back on right track in Week 3 thanks in large part to their defense, which held the St. Louis Rams without a touchdown and scored one of their own en route to a 23-6 victory at Soldier Field.
Major Wright came up with the 45-yard interception return for a touchdown, while Michael Bush added a 3-yard scoring run and Robbie Gould kicked three field goals for the Bears.
"This was a bounce back game for us," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "We needed to come out strong. The defense really came out ready to play. Our defensive line has played outstanding ball all year and they set the tone."
Cutler finished 17-of-31 passing for 183 yards with an interception for the Bears, who played without star running back Matt Forte. Bush rushed for 55 yards on 18 carries in place of Forte, while Brandon Marshall had five catches for 71 yards.
Forte, who sprained his right ankle during Chicago's Week 2 loss at Green Bay back on Sept. 13, was back on the practice field last week, a positive sign in regards to his availability for Monday's contest.
"It wasn't a very long practice, so I just wanted to see how I felt today," he said after returning Wednesday. "I went through all the routes and everything. I can sprint, so I think I'll be good to go."
Forte, who signed a four-year deal with Chicago during the offseason, rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown while adding 89 receiving yards on seven receptions prior to getting hurt. The 2011 Pro Bowl selection amassed 997 rushing yards, 52 catches and scored four touchdowns over 12 games last season.
If healthy Forte will meet a Cowboys team that rode kicker Dan Bailey, who made three field goals, to a 16-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 23.
Romo completed 25-of-39 passes for 283 yards and an interception against the Bucs as the Cowboys bounced back from an ugly 27-7 loss to Seattle.
DeMarco Murray carried the ball 18 times for 38 yards and a score vs. Tampa Bay while Miles Austin caught five passes for 107 yards in a game where the Dallas offense struggled mightily, committing three turnovers and allowing Romo to get sacked four times.
The defense, however, allowed the Buccaneers to gain just 166 yards.
"I can't give our defense enough credit," Romo said. "That was as good a performance as I've ever been around."
The Cowboys lead the all-time series between the two clubs 11-9 and have taken two of the past three matchups.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler's on-field pouting sessions are always front page news in the Windy City. The Vanderbilt product has proven to be your classic frontrunner, a tremendously gifted gunslinger who looks like the second-coming until things start to derail like they did in Green Bay a couple weeks ago. His bad body language and intemperate demeanor was erased at least for one week when the Monsters of the Midway showed up against the Rams.
In his only prior career start vs. Dallas (Sept. 19, 2010) Cutler completed 21-of-29 passes for 277 yards with three TDs and a gaudy 136.7 passer rating. The century mark is the magic number for Cutler-led teams, who are 24-0 when he hits it.
Having Forte back will help greatly since Bush, while competent, is a move- the-chains-type back and not a big play threat who can scare a defense.
Marshall is the best receiver Cutler has ever had but he's not the same player he once was when the two were lighting it up in Denver. Devin Hester remains inconsistent as a wideout but is perhaps the greatest returner of all-time with has 19 total return TDs (12 punt returns, six kickoff returns and one missed field goal), a mark which is tied with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most in NFL history.
The real weakness of the Chicago offense is the line where left tackle J'Marcus Webb is a weak link and the rest of his peers (LG Chilo Rachal, C Roberto Garza, RG Lance Louis and RT Gabe Carimi) are pedestrian at best.
"Right now we're just learning the offense. Everyone's getting comfortable," Cutler told the Bears' website. "We're finding our identity. (Offensive coordinator Mike Tice is) still finding his identity as a play-caller. All those things are coming together and at the end of the day we've just got to win games."
The Cowboys defense is led by the NFL's best pure pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, who has an amazing 29 1/2 sacks in his last 22 games. Overall Ware has 95 1/2 sacks since 2006, the most in the NFL over that period. Webb is likely having trouble sleeping this week thinking about Ware and his bookend on the other side, Anthony Spencer.
Dallas' corners, Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne, can hold up in man coverage but the safeties are mediocre and the team lacks depth as a whole in the defensive backfield.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Romo has excelled against the Bears and on Monday night recently. The veteran has 703 passing (351.5 per game) in two starts against Chicago and is perfect in his last four games on Monday night when he has gotten extended playing time.
Romo has plenty of weapons to utilize in receivers Austin, Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree as well as tight end Jason Whitten. Murray gets most of the running action but the Bears are extremely tough on the ground game.
Similar to Chicago the Cowboys offensive line is a weakness. Center Ryan Cook is a journeyman and the tackles, Tyron Smith and Doug Free, have given up far too much pressure.
Cutler or no Cutler, the Bears are still all about defense and the play of Julius Peppers, who has two three-sack games against the Cowboys, and friends will be the storyline going forward in the Second City. When the Chicago D is on, Cutler's finger-pointing is inconsequential.
The Bears allowed just 160 total yards against the Rams and had six of their league-best 14 sacks along with two interceptions in the fourth quarter, giving you an indication that they can really turn up the heat when things matter. The 160 yards allowed last week was the third-lowest total by an opponent in the Smith-era.
"They're consistently getting better," Cutler said of the defense. "To see them get out there and dominate like that - they're in complete control of their offense and exactly what was going on. It's a tough group to go against."
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is banged-up and both he and Lance Briggs are aging at linebacker but they're are still rangy playmakers who are very difficult to deal with.
These two teams are very similar. The quarterbacks are lightning rods and both offensive lines are big problems. Chicago looks to have the more well-rounded defense but the Cowboys have more playmakers around Romo offensively. Call home field the difference in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Bears 14