Red-hot New England (10-2) visits surging Chicago (9-3) in a late-season, inter-conference battle by the banks of Lake Michigan. A possible preview of Super Bowl XLV? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. As for now, it's big enough to earn honors as our Game of the Week.
1. The Pats vs. Da Bears is a classic battle of offense vs. defense. Love those old "irresistible force meets immovable object" storylines? This game's for you.
New England fields the league's top scoring offense (31.6 PPG). Chicago, in true Monsters of the Midway tradition, counters with one of the league's best defenses (16.0 PPG, third).
The war of statistical heavyweights will be waged on two fronts: through the air and in the trenches.
When it comes to the air assault, the all-important efficiency numbers for both teams are impressive: Tom Brady leads the NFL in passer rating (109.5). In fact, it puts him on pace to become the only quarterback in history with two of the 10 most highly rated seasons in history (he compiled a 117.2 rating, the second highest ever, in 2007).
His incredible 27-4 TD-INT ratio is on pace for the best in history, even better than his legendary 2007 campaign (50-8).
The Bears counter that impressive efficiency with the league's second-best unit in Defensive Passer Rating (71.1), the most effective way to measure the quality of each pass defense. In other words, opposing quarterbacks have compiled a humble 71.1 passer rating against Chicago. Only the arch-rival Packers are better, and just barely (69.64).
And how about the chilly war of attrition up front?
New England is third on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Offensive Hog Index, our ranking of each team's offensive line. They run the ball fairly effectively (4.22 YPA), protect the passer extraordinarily well and are among the best in the league on third down (44.78%).
Patriots fans cite the return of Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins as one reason the offensive line has looked so impressive. But the unit actually ranked No. 1 on our Offensive Hog Index before he ended his holdout, with unheralded Dan Connolly filling the void. Here's guessing the plug-and-play performance of the OL without Mankins was one reason he returned earlier than expected.
Chicago, meanwhile, is No. 4 on the Defensive Hog Index, our measure of each team's defensive front. The Bears are stingy against the run (3.71 YPA) and they're the best in the league on third down: opponents convert a meager 31.68 percent of attempts. One problem, though: Chicago is merely mediocre -- 15th overall, actually -- when it comes to forcing those game-changing Negative Pass Plays. Just 8.6 percent of opponent attempts end in a sack or pick.
So Chicago's sack-leading defensive ends Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers (7.0 each) need to be in peak form to pressure Brady: he isn't sacked very often (18 times in 12 games) and hasn't thrown an interception in nearly two months (since Oct. 17).
2. Mike Martz has eased the pressure on Jay Cutler and it's yielded great results. Football, at the end of the day, is a very easy game to analyze: you generally win when your quarterback plays better than the other team's quarterback.
But overdependence upon your passer can backfire on even the best of them. Look at Peyton Manning. He tossed a career-high 11 picks in three games in which the Colts completely abandoned the running game. The Colts returned to a balanced attack Thursday night for the first time in weeks (35 passes, 32 rushes) and it ended with Manning's best performance and Indy's first win in a month.
Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz, meanwhile, has always had an itchy trigger finger as a play-caller, most notably as head coach of St. Louis. His high-powered Rams abandoned the running game (44 passes, 22 runs) in Super Bowl XXXVI and were upset by Brady's balanced and efficient Patriots.
Much more recently, Cutler attempted 39 and 40 passes, respectively, in consecutive losses this year to the Seahawks and Redskins -- two teams the Bears should have beaten up badly. With such a heavy workload, Cutler was ineffective against Seattle (17 of 39, 0 TD, 0 INT) and he was a disaster against the Redskins (4 INT).
Interceptions have been a problem for Cutler throughout his career, most notably the league-high 26 he threw in 2009 (pre-Martz). And the Patriots possess a formidable challenge. Despite New England's well-chronicled struggles on pass defense this year, the team is second in the NFL with 18 INTs.
The Bears, meanwhile, are 8-0 when Cutler attempts 35 passes of fewer (with the exception of the Giants game, in which Cutler was knocked out after 11 throws).
Cutler has been remarkably efficient with Chicago's balanced attack of the last three weeks, during which he's attempted no more than 26 passes. They've been three straight wins, including Cutler's -- and Chicago's -- best effort of the season, a 31-26 win over the high-flying Eagles.
Cutler was 14 of 21 that day for 247 yards, an awesome 11.8 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT and a 146.2 passer rating.
The volume numbers weren't great. But volume numbers are useless. His efficiency numbers, the stats that actually matter, were incredible. It was the highest-rated game of Cutler's career. And it resulted in a big win over a big-time opponent.
Cutler and Martz must resist the urge against the Patriots on Sunday to fling the football all over the field. Balanced attacks coupled with cold efficiency at quarterback are always the keys to success, especially with a passer who's prone to the big mistake.
3. Cutler is the man from Santa Claus (Ind.), but Brady is the king of cold weather. Seen the forecast for late Sunday afternoon in Chicago? Papa Bear Halas must be smiling from the great big owner's box in the sky: snow, lows in the single digits and brisk winds.
It's good news for the legacy of the old Black & Blue Division.
It's bad news for the Bears.
Last week we chronicled Tom Brady's unprecedented collection of record win streaks: from the longest playoff win streak in history (10 games) to the longest overall win streak in history (21 games) to the longest regular-season home win streak in history (still active at 26 games).
Here's another: Brady is the best cold-weather quarterback in history (since 1960), with a remarkable 18-2 (.900) career record in games played in snow, ice or below freezing temperatures.
Some other notable cold-weather champions? Green Bay Hall of Famer Bart Starr, hero of the Ice Bowl, was 15-4; Pittsburgh's legendary big-game gunslinger Terry Bradshaw was 14-4.
Brady's greatest cold-weather performance came in the 2004 AFC title game at Pittsburgh. It was the coldest game in Heinz Field history (-1 wind chill) and the Steelers possessed the league's stingiest scoring defense. Brady was near flawless (130.5 rating) as the Patriots won, 41-27.
There were steady winds last week at Foxboro and a wind chill of 15 degrees. Again, Brady (148.9 rating) and the New England offense were virtually flawless, dropping 45 large on a tough Jets defense.
Each team is obviously much stronger on one side of the ball than the other. As noted above, the Patriots dominate on offense and the Bears dominate on defense. But each team has a critical flaw, too.
New England, despite its dominant defensive effort against the Jets last week, still struggles to get off the field on the third down. Opponents convert 48.75 percent of third-down attempts, easily the worst rate in the NFL. Somehow the Patriots have overcome this weakness to post a league-best 10-2 record.
Chicago, meanwhile, might have a more fundamental flaw: the Bears field the worst offensive line in football, and have all year, at least according to our Offensive Hog Index. The Bears struggle to run the ball (3.85 YPA) and they suffer Negative Pass Plays more often than any team in football: 14.9 percent of Cutler's dropbacks end in a sack or INT. But the Bears, like the Patriots, have overcome this weakness to post an impressive 9-3 record.
The Bears are good. But it's hard to go against New England's history in big games or the fact that the Patriots have lit up a series of great defenses in recent weeks, including 39 points against Pittsburgh and 45 points against the Jets last week.
And New England just dominates NFC opponents.
Brady's Patriots are 32-6 (.842) in games against NFC opponents (including 3-1 in Super Bowls) and 9-1 (.900) against the NFC North. The lone loss to an NFC North team was delivered by the Packers in 2002.
New England 26, Chicago 21
(Week 13 prediction: New England 28, N.Y. Jets 26. Result: New England 45, N.Y. Jets 3.)