Breaking down Sunday's Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals game (4:15 p.m., Fox)...
1. Revenge of the Soldier Field rejects. Not one but two ex-Chicagoans who were unceremoniously dumped in the wake of off-field trouble will suit up against the Bears: running back Cedric Benson and defensive tackle Tank Johnson.
Benson, who got the heave-ho after two alcohol-related incidents, boasts the league's fourth-best per game average (88.5 yards) and comes with a chip on his shoulder. Earlier this week he claimed the Bears brass had bad-mouthed him after his 2008 exit. (Quoth Lovie Smith: "He was not blackballed by anyone in our organization.")
No doubt Benson's burning to show up his ex-employers, but he's not the only one with a grudge in this affair. His Chicago days were marred by serious underachievement and an alleged poor work ethic: He left a preseason game in which he wasn't playing and he benched himself in the second half of Super Bowl XLI.
Off the field he scuffled with Thomas Jones, the Bears' former locker room leader, and engaged in a war of words with the defense, which may have roughed him up a bit in camp after a rookie season holdout. Memories of that last incident, fueled by Benson's blackballing chatter, have the Bears' defense, which ranks sixth against the run, eager for a reunion. On Wednesday, linebacker Lance Briggs seemed to be baiting Benson when he quipped, "Now he can get revenge on everyone who he thought cheap-shotted him in our training camp."
That begs the question of what's more powerful: Benson's singular revenge game? Or the concerted revenge efforts of one singularly pissed off defense?
A reunion with former Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson, whose axing stemmed from a weapons possession charge, should prove less contentious, but perhaps of equal importance. Johnson, who never claimed to harbor any ill will against his former teammates, has been inactive for two of his last three games with a foot problem, but returned last week against Houston with four tackles and a sack of Matt Schaub for his best outing of the year. Considering the current state of the Bengals' defensive line, Tank will be counted on heavily, which gets us to...
2. Cincy's defensive line may have lost its teeth. There's finally good news for the Bears' offensive line, which has fluctuated between serviceable and seriously lost throughout five games. (Sad stat: Jay Cutler's 10 sacks are just one fewer than he took over 16 games in 2008.) Cincy will definitely be without Antwan Odom, victim of a torn Achilles'. His eight sacks ranked just behind Elvis Dumervil for the league lead. A big green-and-gold asterisk goes by that stat considering that more than half of his sacks came against the porous Packers offensive line (he's only logged one since), but at 28, Odom was a rising star and the first memorable Bengals pass rusher in some while. See ya in 2010, Antwan.
That injury alone might not have been as damaging had it not been paired with the grounding of run-stopping defensive tackle Domata Peko, who stretched a tendon in his knee early in last week's game against Houston. After Peko's and Odom's departures, Houston had the added pocket time to produce three more passing touchdowns. Compare that to the four total aerial touchdowns the Bengals had conceded in five previous efforts and you can begin to see the dilemma.
Peko didn't practice on Wednesday but hasn't been ruled out yet for Sunday. If he sits -- which might be the smart play considering Cincinnati has a bye coming up next -- it could be a problem for Marvin Lewis's secondary.
3. Are we still trusting Lovie Smith when he says, "I like my linebackers"? That's been Lovie's stance on a unit decimated by injuries -- first Brian Urlacher (wrist), then Hunter Hillenmeyer (ribs), and finally Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee). The Bears have filled in here and there with Nick Roach and Jamar Williams, and Hillenmeyer is expected to return this week, but the fact is that Chicago will have, at best, one linebacker on the field Sunday who was projected to start at the beginning of this season. And that ain't changing anytime soon. How bad can that be? Rewind the tape and check out Roach's coverage -- or lack thereof -- against Tony Gonzalez in a second quarter touchdown last Sunday for the answer. It's not pretty.
Smith has had every opportunity to find replacements -- there was talk of signing ex-Buccaneer Derrick Brooks, and the Bears were rumored to have investigated Detroit's Ernie Sims and Kansas City's Derrick Johnson before the trade deadline -- but hasn't acted. Makes you think back to Lovie's undying allegiance to Rex Grossman for all those years, doesn't it?
Perhaps even worse for the Bears long-term, they'll get a kind of free pass and perhaps some undeserved confidence this week against the Bengals, who don't have a tight end threat. The duo of Daniel Coats and J.P. Foschi have combined for 19 catches without a touchdown, making Cincinnati one of just four teams without a TD from that position. Don't be surprised if Lovie's subs come away with a clean sheet. Just know that it doesn't mean much. A truer test of the unit will be how they handle Benson in the open field. Advantage goes to Benson in this case.
4. Bears receivers vs. Leon Hall. Here's a question that should catch the attention of Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox: Who will draw cornerback Leon Hall in coverage? Hall has typically handled his opponent's top-billed receiver, and he's already done a number on Brandon Marshall (four catches, 24 yards) and Greg Jennings, Braylon Edwards and Derrick Mason (all went catchless).
Problem is, it's tough to label anyone in Chicago the top guy. In order, the Bears' game-by-game leading receivers have been Hester, Knox, Bennett, Bennett and Hester. Coordinator Ron Turner's has been a receiving-by-committee approach, similar to 2008 when the ball was distributed equally through Hester, Rashied Davis and Brandon Lloyd. For Cincy, whose secondary has struggled when quarterbacks have looked beyond their primary receiver, that diversity spells trouble.
5. The desperation factor. And here's the number one reason you're reading Bears-Bengals as the Game of the Week: Neither team can afford to suffer a third loss given the strength of their divisions -- the two divisions I consider the strongest in their respective conferences. If the Bears lose, they could fall a potentially insurmountable three-and-a-half games behind Minnesota and into the wild card picture with contenders like Green Bay and Atlanta, each of which already has a leg up on Chicago based on head-to-head play. If the Bengals lose, they could fall behind the Steelers and into a second place tie with the Ravens with both of those teams looming after a Week 8 bye.
It's too early to even begin discussing playoff implications, you say? Bologna. A three-and-a-half game hole like the Bears are facing might not mean much in the NFC West, but it's a deathblow in the North. And Cincinnati is doing itself no favors by hanging with the AFC North pack. Whoever walks out of The Jungle a loser on Sunday has a rough road ahead.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 7 matchup:
Johnny Knox -- The Bears have been limited lately to rinky-dink touch passes and wide receiver screens as a means of stifling some talented pass rushers. The Bengals are without their best rush man, Odom, so Cutler should get a few opportunities to look deep. Knox, the rookie, is the guy who'll be running under those rainbows.
Chad Ochocinco -- Look past all of his pregame Twitter talk. Chad gets matched up against Charles Tillman, who's been stellar while bouncing back from preseason surgery. If any Bengals receiver is in for a big day, it's Chris Henry against second-year corner Zack Bowman.
Matt Forte -- Painful as it sounds, I don't see Forte bouncing back from a silly-bad game at Atlanta, even against this banged up Cincy front. Not until Chicago's line shows some improvement -- or change. Now's the time to explore backup Adrian Peterson, who should return from injury in a week or two.
How lucky can Chicago get? In Week 2 it beat the Steelers without Troy Polamalu. Week 3 was Seattle without Matt Hasselbeck. And in Week 4 it watched Matthew Stafford go down for good on a play that reasonably could have drawn Detroit within a score early in the fourth quarter. Now the Bears get Cincy seven days after Odom's exit. That they won those first three games says more about their opportunism than their talent, and that scares me.
Now, what really scares me -- and what dictates this pick -- is the Bears' apparent hopelessness in the red zone. Chicago's offense ranks 28th in red zone efficiency (72.2 percent). To give you an idea of how bad that is, only Tennessee, Houston, Carolina and St. Louis have done worse, and their combined record is 5-18. Cincy's defense is third in the league in that category, allowing scores on just 68.8 percent of drives.
Combine that with the bizarre fact that Jay Cutler's passer rating drops significantly when he's not facing heavy pressure -- perhaps making Cincinnati's defensive line woes irrelevant -- and the Bengals are the pick, 24-17.
Overall record: 3-3
(Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15).(Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).(Week 4 prediction: Saints 31, Jets 24. Result: Saints 24, Jets 10). (Week 5 prediction: Ravens 38, Bengals 20. Result: Bengals 17, Ravens 14). (Week 6 prediction: Ravens 31, Vikings 17. Result: Vikings 33, Ravens 31.)