The New Orleans Saints (12-4) will play the 22nd postseason game in their franchise history when they host the Chicago Bears (8-8) this afternoon at the Superdome. New Orleans enters the playoffs as the NFC’s Number 2 seed after winning their fourth consecutive NFC South championship. The Bears come in as the conference’s 7th seed, finishing second in the NFC North division.
This is the 33rd all-time meeting between the Saints and Bears. New Orleans holds a 17-15 edge in the series and a 7-5 advantage when they play Chicago at home. Saints coach Sean Payton, a replacement quarterback for the Bears in the strike-shortened 1987 season, is 6-3 overall and 2-0 at home against his former team since becoming head coach of New Orleans in 2006.
This is the 3rd time these teams have met in the postseason, with both of the previous meetings in Chicago. The Bears won both playoff clashes. The first of those was a 16-6 Wild Card playoff win on January 6, 1991. New Orleans again fell short in Chicago during Payton’s first year with the team, losing the NFC Championship to the Bears, 39-14, on January 21, 2007.
These teams met earlier this season, with the Saints taking a 26-23 overtime victory over the Bears in Chicago in Week 8. Here are some of the matchups to watch closest in their rematch.
DEMARIO DAVIS vs. JIMMY GRAHAM/COLE KMET
Davis is the Saints leading tackler and one of the league’s best all-around defensive players. He’ll be a factor in the pass rush, containing Bears RB David Montgomery, and play a key role in tracking down mobile Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the open field. Where Davis and fellow linebacker Alex Anzalone are going to be most important is in their ability to cover the Chicago tight ends.
Former Saint Jimmy Graham and rookie 2nd round pick Cole Kmet have been the most important weapons in the Chicago passing attack outside of 1,000-Yd wideout Allen Robinson. New Orleans cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins are tasked with controlling Robinson and the Chicago wideouts, but this secondary has contained some of the NFL’s deepest receiving units. Davis is the team’s best cover linebacker and must take Graham and Kmet out of the game to keep Trubisky from getting into a rhythm.
SAINTS PASS RUSH vs. MITCHELL TRUBISKY
New Orleans has 45 sacks and 112 QB hits this season, among the most in the league. Even without injured DE Trey Hendrickson, I expect them to pressure Trubisky against a Chicago offensive line that has allowed 36 sacks this year. Trubisky has a penchant for making huge mistakes under pressure, so the Saints will be aggressive in coverage to prevent giving him easy throws.
Not only must the Saints pressure the inconsistent Trubisky to create disruption and turnovers, but they also need to be disciplined in their pass rush. Trubisky has excellent mobility, something that has given the New Orleans defense problems all season. The Saints need to win their matchups upfront to create pressure and shut down a rolling Chicago running game to make them one-dimensional, but has to prevent Trubisky from making plays with his legs if he breaks containment.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: MARCUS WILLIAMS, SAFETY
The New Orleans defense, and specifically its secondary, has had epic letdowns in key moments of playoff losses each of the last three seasons. At the epicenter of letdowns has been free safety, Marcus Williams. The 24-Yr old Williams has had his best year in four NFL seasons. He leads the Saints with 3 interceptions and has shown outstanding instinctive play on the back end after early-season struggles.
Williams has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, so will also need to show that his normally terrific range is intact. Lattimore, Jenkins, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson look to have an advantage against Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, and the Bears wide receivers, but Marcus Williams will play a vital role in deep support. Precisely the area where the New Orleans defense stumbled in the last three postseasons.
ALVIN KAMARA vs. DANNY TREVATHAN
Kamara is the Saints leading rusher with a career-high 932 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also their leading receiver, with 756 yards and 5 touchdowns on a career-high 83 receptions. Kamara is the league’s most dynamic back in the open field and is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Chicago has a pair of athletic playmakers at linebacker in Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Unfortunately for the Bears, Smith, whose 2 interceptions lead the team, will be out with an elbow injury. Questions also surround the health of Kamara, who missed last week’s season finale because of a positive COVID test.
Look for the Saints to use Kamara heavily as both a runner and receiver, hoping to get his explosive skills in the open field. In two career games against Chicago, Kamara has 95 yards rushing and a touchdown on 20 attempts and 12 receptions for 144 yards. He accounted for 163 yards from scrimmage when these teams met earlier this season.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. BEARS PASS RUSH
The Saints have allowed 29 sacks this season, but only 13 on Drew Brees in the 12 games he played. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have a lengthy track record of shutting down the league’s top edge rushers. Second-year C Erik McCoy has developed into an outstanding interior lineman but guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz have both had issues with interior pass protection.
Chicago has 35 sacks and 88 quarterback hits this season, well below their typical production. The Bears have multiple sacks in just two of their last 10 games but have the defensive personnel to take over a game. All-Pro LB Khalil Mack, who leads the team with 9 sacks and 30 pressures, can single-handedly wreck an opponent’s blocking scheme. He is flanked on the other edge by dangerous pass rushers Robert Quinn and Barkevious Mingo, while former Saint DE/DT Akiem Hicks is a powerful interior rusher.
New Orleans must be able to establish a consistent running game to maintain balance, but keeping the 41-Yr old Brees upright is vital for any offensive success. Ramczyk has dominated Mack in the last two meetings between these teams, and Armstead has typically done well against Quinn throughout their respective careers. The Saints need to give Brees a clean interior pocket against Hicks and the Chicago stunts, an enormous challenge for any offense. The Bears have several playmakers in their secondary, so Brees must be given the time to go through his reads and find a weapon from a New Orleans offense finally back near full strength.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
Michael Thomas has missed the last three contests and been limited to just seven games this season after leading the NFL with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019. Thomas has 40 receptions for 438 yards and two 100-Yd outings in those seven games, despite being hobbled by a lingering ankle injury suffered in the season opener. He is the league’s most unstoppable weapon through the intermediate zones when healthy and will draw the attention of Chicago's top cover corner, Kyle Fuller. Thomas missed the game against Chicago earlier this year but has 16 catches for 208 yards in two career games against the Bears.
Brees, Kamara, and Thomas have been on the field together for only ten quarters this season. If the Saints win the battle along the line of scrimmage on both sides, they have a distinct advantage at the skill positions in both talent and depth. I also look for the leaders of this team to keep both units sharp and focused after suffering an upset at home in last year’s playoffs. Expect a New Orleans team at its healthiest since Week 1 to come out aggressively as they look to take one more step to their goal of a Super Bowl berth.