If the NFC game will turn on which quarterback handles first-time conference-championship pressure better, the AFC game won’t have that issue. What it will have, though, are thoroughly intriguing matchups with the NFL’s No. 1 defense for yards allowed/No. 4 scoring (Denver) against Tom Brady, and any Bill Belichick defense against Peyton Manning.
[RELATED - Predicting the winner of the 2016 NFC Championship game]
Simple solutions are difficult to lay out, because teams at the level of Denver and New England defy “simple.” Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was the only quarterback in 2015 to reach 300 passing yards against Denver, and he did it twice. The Broncos lost twice to teams (Oakland 27, Pittsburgh 23) rushing for less than 30 yards but were 5-2 against teams that run for more than 100 yards on them.
But Manning is 6-13 in his career vs. New England, one of only five teams to have winning records against Manning (the Bears, 2-1, are one of those).
And only one team defeated Belichick and the Patriots while rushing for 100 yards. Manning at this physical point of his career does not have the personal firepower to break down a defense that schemes to take away his run and short-pass game and has two of its best linebackers (Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower) available.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
All this is at a time when Brady will have Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski all in his offense, which wasn’t the case when the Patriots lost – in OT – back in November.
Pick: New England 30, Broncos 23
Beating the, arguably, best coach and quarterback pairing in NFL history is a difficult enough task. Trying to do it while allowing two touchdowns on special teams? Good luck.
The Bears will leave Soldier Field frustrated with their 38-31 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday for a number of reasons, but top of the list will be Cordarrelle Patterson’s 95-yard kickoff return score and a blocked Pat O’Donnell punt that was raced into the end zone by Kyle Van Noy. A special teams unit that had been solid all year — and forced a fumble on a Patterson kickoff return in the first quarter Sunday — suddenly became a disaster, allowing an uncharacteristically undisciplined Patriots side back into the game, and then ahead in it.
Add in an inaccurate game from Mitch Trubisky — who completed 26 of 50 passes for 333 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions — and an uneventful afternoon for Khalil Mack and the pass rush, and the Bears had to scratch and claw to hang with New England.
Interestingly, after all week hearing from Bears coaches and players about how they couldn’t let the Patriots take them out of their own game, it felt like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady did exactly that. Mack frequently dropped into coverage — but so did Leonard Floyd, so maybe it wasn’t all about Mack’s injured ankle. While Brady frequently got the ball out quick, when he didn’t he was rarely pressured.
And on offense, Taylor Gabriel had the same number of targets (one) as offensive lineman Bradley Sowell until midway through the fourth quarter. Trubisky dazzled with his legs, covering over 70 yards on an eight-yard touchdown run and dancing his way to a 39-yard scramble that set up a touchdown in the third quarter.
But Trubisky’s struggles were clear, with the second-year quarterback throwing two ill-advised passes that should’ve been picked off in the end zone and then underthrowing Anthony Miller in the fourth quarter, allowing Patriots safety Jonathan Jones to make a tremendous interception. New England drove 96 yards after that pick into the end zone, with Brady taking apart a defense that missed two tackles on a 55-yarder to Josh Gordon, extinguishing any hope the Bears had of a comeback.
While Trubisky did lead a scoring drive after Adrian Amos assisted Kyle Fuller for an interception, cutting the deficit to seven. And Trubisky nearly pulled off a miracle with a Hail Mary to Kevin White, which was completed just shy of the end zone.
The loss dropped the Bears to 3-3 and heaps plenty of pressure on Matt Nagy’s side to win seemingly-winnable games in the next three weeks: At home against the New York Jets, on the road against the Buffalo Bills and at home against the Detroit Lions. But then again: When the Jets come to town next weekend, it’ll have been nearly a month since the Bears’ last win. How the Bears fare over these next three games will be a clear window into if this team is a legitimate contender or one that faded after a strong start.
The New England Patriots defense wasn’t giving Mitchell Trubisky many options through the air, so he decided to take matters into his own hands at Soldier Field.
The young quarterback’s legs were the Bears’ most-effective weapon in the first quarter, as Trubisky led the team with 35 rushing yards on four carries in the opening period of play.
He capped it off with an eight-yard touchdown scramble that had him looking like Michael Vick on the field.
The Bears will need to have a more well-rounded offensive attack to keep up with teams like the Patriots, but Trubisky found what was working in the first quarter.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s been smart and safe with his running, opting to slide and go to the ground on his big plays to avoid any big hits.
His legs continue to make this offense more dynamic, to keep up with top-notch opponents like New England.