by Mike Hayes - 01/09/2006
If you are reading this article, chances are you have at least a passing interest in wagering on the NFL. With that in mind, what do you think the odds would have been after four weeks of regular season action that the only thing standing between the Bears and the NFC title game would be a home date with the Carolina Panthers?
No doubt those odds would have been long, very long and would have attracted little or no action, yet the Bears and Panthers will in fact square off Sunday with the winner moving on to the NFC Championship game.
Kickoff is 4:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised by FOX.
The Bears have been made a tepid 3-point favorite with the over-under set at a miniscule 31. On the money line the Bears are currently -145 and the Panthers +125.
If the No. 2 seeded Bears win they would either travel to Seattle for the title game or play host to the Redskins. The Panthers would travel to top-seeded Seattle or host the Redskins.
This game, a rematch of a November game won by Chicago 13-3, will feature defense and plenty of it. The Bears, who boast the second-best defense in the conference in terms of yards allowed, allowed a league-best 12.6 point-per-game, three points fewer than the second ranked Colts. The Panthers are not far behind, yielding just 16.2 points on average.
The Carolina defense, which posted the NFL's first road playoff shut out since 1980 when they pasted the Giants 23-0 at the Meadowlands Sunday, is ranked right behind Chicago at 282 points-per contest.
Carolina, showed why it has the NFCs best defense against the run in holding Tiki Barber to just 41 yards on 13 carries. The Panthers also shut down Eli Manning and the Giant pass attack, holding Manning to a miserable 10-of-18 for 113 yards and three picks.
While this game is all about defense it appears that the Panthers hold a considerable edge on the offensive side of the football thanks to QB Jake Delhomme and receiver Steve Smith, who led NFC receivers in total yards, receptions and touchdowns.
Conversely, the Bears offense is ranked ahead of only woeful San Francisco in total yards and in passing offense, with an inept 52 percent completion percentage and just 11 TD passes and 15 INTs.
The Chicago ground game, led by Thomas Jones and his 1,335 regular-season yards is decent, but will again face a stiff test against Carolina, who hope to shut down Jones and force the Bears to go the air.
The Bears boast a 7-1 home mark but road games don't seem to deter the Panthers, who posted a better road record than they did at home. Including the win against the Giants, Carolina improved to 7-2 on the road with a 5-3 record in home games. One of the road losses was however, the 13-3 game at Soldier Field in November. Including the Giants game, the Panthers have a 9-4 mark against conference opponents while Chicago boasts a 10-2 record. Against playoff teams the Bears are 2-3 and the Panthers 3-2. Against common opponents the Bears were 6-1 and the Panthers 4-2.
In their Nov. 20 meeting, in which the Bears ended a Panther six-game win streak, the Bears defense proved to be their best offense thanks to two Nathan Vasher interceptions.
The Bears did manage two offensive touchdowns, an occurrence which did not happen with great frequency this season, but they consisted of a total of 7 plays and 11 yards.
Vasher's first pick set up a three-play, 8-yard drive and his second, a four-play, 3-yard score. The Bears best effort was an eight-play, 46-yard drive that culminated in a 39-yard Robbie Gould field goal.
Delhomme did manage to throw for 235 yards on 22-of-38 attempts, but was sacked eight times by the Bears. Back DeShaun Foster, who ran all over the Giants for 151 yards, managed just 41 on nine attempts against Chicago.
Kyle Orton had one of his better games against the Panthers, connecting on 15-of-26 for 136 yards with a touchdown and one interception. Jones carried 25 times for 87 yards.
Bear faithful hope the switch to Rex Grossman at QB, who was 11-of-23 for 166 yards in his only start, will spark the passing game and help to stretch the Panther defense.
Any sort of passing game, combined with another stellar defensive effort and a positive turnover ration are the keys to getting the Bears to the title game.
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