John Fox faces his former team on Sunday, and revenge could be on his mind as his Chicago Bears host the ailing Denver Broncos. With Peyton Manning out, it falls to Brock Osweiler to get Denver back on track. The Broncos jumped out to a 7-0 start before losing to Andrew Luck and the Colts. Denver then dropped the ball against Kansas City to throw their division stranglehold in doubt. Manning managed to break Brett Favre’s passing yards record, but is still tied with Favre for most wins. Chicago have impressed at times in a transitional year after struggling at the start of the season. Jay Cutler is playing well and losing Matt Forte hasn’t been much of an issue with rookie Jeremy Langford. The defense has played well despite lacking pieces as it transitions from a 4-3 into a 3-4.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Brock Osweiler and Denver’s offense
Even with the struggling Peyton Manning benched, Denver’s offense still has major flaws that the inexperienced Brock Osweiler is unlikely to be able to fix right away. The Broncos are still without much of a running game, which won’t help alleviate pressure on Osweiler. The offensive line is also still adjusting and hasn’t helped Peyton much this season. What won’t make things easier for Osweiler is that he will be going up against the head coach and offensive coordinator who drafted him and trained him in John Fox and Adam Gase. They will know how Osweiler likes to prepare and play, and will likely have helped defensive coordinator Vic Fangio construct a plan to confuse and limit Osweiler. That said, being younger and healthier and considerably more mobile than Manning, Osweiler might prove to be a better fit for Gary Kubiak’s offense. He will certainly have more arm strength than Manning, and will probably help bring Denver’s talented receiving corps back into play.
2. Can Denver’s defense return to form?
The Broncos have allowed over 300 total yards of offense in both of their losses. DeMarcus Ware has been injured over the past couple of weeks and will not return against Chicago. But Aqib Talib will be back on Sunday after a one game suspension. Chicago’s offense plays a similar style to Kansas City. A slightly limited quarterback leaning on a good running game with a few playmakers on the outside. Jay Cutler has been playing well this season, arguably better than Smith, and has two legitimate targets in Alshon Jeffery and Zach Miller – who has made big plays in Chicago’s last two games – and plays behind an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack against St. Louis’ aggressive defensive front. The biggest thing for the Bears will be running the ball with Jeremy Langford. Langford gives Chicago a young all-purpose back similar to Matt Forte. Langford had 182 total yards against the Rams; 73 rushing and 109 receiving. Langford’s dual-threat capabilities give Cutler a safety net and help set up play-action passes.
3. Will Chicago find a way through Denver’s defense?
If Denver can return to dominant form on defense, the Bears will struggle to win. Cutler is prone to turnovers and the Broncos have been good at taking the ball this season. They have 32 sacks, nine interceptions and 12 forced fumbles so far. If Cutler can’t protect the football, the Bears won’t pull off an upset.
Matchup to watch: Aqib Talib vs Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery is Chicago’s main weapon in the passing game. Talib is Denver’s number one corner. Both are big, tall and physical players, making their matchup all the more interesting. Their battle will be particularly important in the redzone, where Jeffery is usually employed to win the contested balls and get the touchdown. Although with tight end Zach Miller playing well, it might not be too costly for Chicago if Talib locks down Jeffery. The Broncos don’t have another big physical corner to go with Miller, so it may fall to their linebackers to shut the veteran tight end down.
Prediction: Chicago Bears
While the Broncos are the superior team, quarterback play could still be their undoing. Osweiler is inexperienced, and John Fox will know exactly how to counter him. Fox will also know how to exploit Denver’s weaknesses across its roster, having coached them successfully for several years. An upset could be brewing in the Windy City.