NFL Preview - Carolina (1-5) at Chicago (5-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Cam Newton have taken their share of criticism this season.
But while Cutler has found forgiveness more times than not due to the fact that the Chicago Bears currently lead the NFC North, a 1-5 start by the Carolina Panthers has only magnified the scrutiny of Newton.
The two personalities clash this weekend as the 5-1 Bears look to notch their fifth straight victory and deal the Panthers a fifth loss in a row in the process.
Chicago came out of a bye to extend its longest winning streak since a five- game run from Oct. 16-Nov. 20 of last season with a 13-7 victory over the Detroit Lions on Monday night.
Cutler opened the game with a seven-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Marshall on Chicago's opening drive and Robbie Gould added a pair of field goals to account for the offense.
The Bears' defense, meanwhile, caused three red-zone turnovers and held firm until yielding a late touchdown pass with 30 seconds to play.
"Whenever you can end up with a plus-4 on the turnover ratio and can rush the ball as well as you can, it speaks well for your game," said Chicago head coach Lovie Smith. "But they're a great team over there and they fought to the end. We were just able to do enough to hold them off."
Cutler threw for only 150 yards, but played most of the game despite taking a hard hit from Detroit's Ndamukong Suh that accounted for bruised ribs for the quarterback. He had to come out for one play and went into the locker room right before halftime, but finished up the game.
Cutler said this week that he is sore, but should be ready to go by Sunday.
"Most people thought Jay would get up," Smith said. "Unless it's a broken leg or something like that, he's going to get up. He is a tough guy. ... That was a gutsy effort by him. He was in some pain, but he fought through it."
Chicago is off to its best start since opening the 2006 season with seven wins in a row.
Carolina, meanwhile, has duplicated its slow start from a season ago, when it began the year 1-5 and with losses in eight of its first 10 games before winning four of six to close the campaign.
The Panthers dropped a 19-14 decision on Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys. their fourth defeat of 2012 by six points or less. That is mainly due to an offense that has logged more than 14 points just twice in a game this year.
Things only got worse for the Panthers afterwards.
First, Newton seemed to take some shots at his offense, saying, "The last couple of games feels like it's been the same script by the same director and it's kind of getting boring."
Then, general manager Marty Hurney was fired on Monday, the first casualty of unmet expectations.
Newton would love to duplicate last year's offensive performance versus the Bears, but with a different result.
Carolina amassed a club-record 543 yards of offense, but struggled in the second half and dropped a 34-29 decision despite a passing touchdown and two scores on the ground from its QB.
Chicago got a great performance out of running back Matt Forte, as well as a pick-six from the defense and a punt return for a score by Devin Hester. That gave the Bears a 4-3 advantage in the all-time series, which includes one playoff encounter.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Of course, it will be interesting to see how Cutler responds after being driven hard into the turf by Suh. He completed only 16 of his 31 pass attempts and was sacked five times in the game.
It was probably good to see some of Cutler's teammates come to his defense given the questions about his leadership abilities on the team. One player who did so was Marshall, who called Suh out for the hit on Twitter, though Cutler did say this week it did not think it was a dirty play.
Forte could be in line for a bunch of work in this game. He ran for 96 yards on 22 carries versus the Lions and totaled 205 yards on the ground with a score in last year's meeting with the Panthers.
Cutler will look to puncture a Panthers defense that has yielded an average of 311 yards in its last two games, separated by a bye week. That has come with cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) and linebacker Jon Beason (knee) missing both games and the duo landed on injured reserve this week.
A pair of rookies will need to step up for the rest of the season in cornerback Josh Norman and linebacker Luke Kuechly. The ninth overall pick of the draft, Kuechly has logged 26 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in two starts at the middle linebacker spot in place of Beason after opening the season as a starter on the outside.
Kuechly will now stay in the middle between James Anderson and Thomas Davis, and head coach Ron Rivera thinks his rookie will be just fine in the position.
"He's better suited as a middle linebacker, is what I've truly learned," noted Rivera. "He's got the skill to play outside, but he's got a natural feel and leadership instinct as far as being in the middle and that's probably the best spot for him."
Carolina has risen to 21st in the NFL in total defense at 366.2 yards per game, while Chicago is sixth overall (299.3 YPG) and ranks second against the run.
A ball-hawking style has paced the Bears, who lead the NFL with 21 takeaways and a plus-13 turnover differential.
Cornerback Charles Tillman has been a shining example of the defense. He has returned both of his interceptions this season for touchdowns, forced three fumbles and last week held Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson to just three catches for 34 yards despite 11 targets.
"Charles Tillman, that's a tough duty playing against one of the best players in the league (Calvin Johnson), matching up with him all night. He did an outstanding job of really holding him to very little," said Smith.
Carolina will also get another look at its former defensive star, end Julius Peppers. He logged 81 sacks in eight seasons with the Panthers before joining the Bears and had three tackles with a blocked field goal in last year's meeting.
Newton has a former Bears weapon of his own to look to in tight end Greg Olsen. He is second on the club with 26 receptions -- two back of wide receiver Steve Smith -- and has notched 324 yards with a score.
Carolina has a number of different looks to throw at Chicago's run defense. Newton leads the team with 273 rushing yards and three scores on the ground, while the big-bodied Mike Tolbert has a pair of scores.
DeAngelo Williams leads Carolina with 50 rush attempts, posting 177 yards and two scores, while Jonathan Stewart has 142 yards on 35 attempts without a touchdown.
Eyes will continue to be on Newton, who said this week he isn't worried with how he is portrayed by the what he says to the media, calling the field his sanctuary.
"That's just a matter of time," Rivera said of Newton's leadership abilities. "He's a young guy who's been thrust into a big role and I think as far as those things are concerned some of the other guys have to step up as well."
Cutler and Newton have gotten plenty of headlines this season and each will be looking to make victory the main focus of discussion next week.
For Cutler, he just needs to go out and win. He knows that will be a tough task against a desperate Panthers team, but he also knows that he has help in the form of a solid run attack and excellent defense.
"It's hard week in and week out and then you get some teams with their backs against the wall," the Bears quarterback said. "You just never know, They're going to play their hardest football they've probably played all year, so we've got to be ready for that."
Newton, meanwhile, has spent the week not backing down from his words from last Sunday, but also taking responsibilities for his own play on the field.
"There's been a lack there of me getting the job done. Even though it's not one man's team, there are still some things I go back and look at," he said.
Newton figures to have another long week ahead of him answering questions about yet another loss.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 23, Panthers 10
10/25 12:44:08 ET