January 27, 2021


Hub Arkush: Key matchups, players to watch and more for Bears vs. Saints

The last time the Bears and Saints met, the Saints prevailed, 26-23, on a 37-yard field goal with 1:40 remaining in overtime.

For 56 minutes, the two clubs battled to a near draw.

New Orleans came in on a three-game winning streak but had beaten the Lions, Chargers and Panthers by only six, three and three points, respectively, with the Chargers also taking them to overtime, and they were without their top two receivers – Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

The Bears were coming off their worst performance of the season in a Monday night loss in L.A. against the Rams. But at 5-2, the Bears were near their high point of the season.

The Saints enter Sunday’s wild-card playoff game in New Orleans having won their final two games of the regular season after losses to Kansas City and Philadelphia and have won 11 of their past 13. The Bears had won three straight before last week’s loss to the Packers but are only 3-7 in their past 10, including the loss to the Saints.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Saints’ Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk vs. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn

No matchups will be as important as how the Saints’ two Pro Bowl tackles handle the Bears’ two Pro Bowl edge rushers and whether they can handle Mack and Quinn without help.

If Mack and Quinn spend the afternoon in the Saints’ backfield, it will go a long way toward neutralizing both the Saints’ pass and run games, and if they can force the Saints to give Armstead and Ramczyk help, it will free up Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Danny Trevathan to make a lot more plays.

COACHING DECISION TO WATCH

Will Matt Nagy and Bill Lazor trust Mitch Trubisky to open up the playbook a bit?

It is imperative that the Bears stay with their newish run-first, play-action offense and focus on controlling the clock as they did against the Packers to keep Brees and company on the sideline and their defense rested and fresh.

But the Saints are as explosive as they come, and it is unlikely this will be a low-scoring game. To win, the Bears are going to have to come up with a few explosive, big-chunk plays of their own.

That is unlikely to happen if the game plan sticks strictly to running the football and making everything quick, short throws for Trubisky to keep him out of trouble.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Taysom Hill, Jared Cook and Allen Robinson

Obviously, you watch the All-Pros all the time, but with Kamara most likely coming off the COVID-19 list Sunday morning – or not – and Thomas coming off injured reserve this week, how effective will they be if they go?

Hill is Sean Payton’s Swiss Army knife. The Bears must identify every time he comes on the field. He can beat you throwing, running or receiving. His 13 TDs are third on the team to only Brees and Kamara.

At 33, Cook hasn’t been as dangerous between the 20-yard lines this year, but his seven TD catches make him the Saints’ top red zone threat.

Did the Packers just do a great job on Robinson last week, or is his hamstring a problem? Potentially without Darnell Mooney, the Bears probably are toast if Robinson is limited.

THE X-FACTOR

Bears Injuries

No excuses, everybody has them, but if the Bears are without Mooney, Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson and Buster Skrine – with all but Johnson almost certainly out – how the Bears’ other receivers, Josh Woods and Duke Shelley, who had an awfully rough ride last week, respond will determine the Bears’ chances.

WILD-CARD PLAYERS WHO COULD SURPRISE

Saints WR/KR Deonte Harris, DT David Onyemata and Bears WR Anthony Miller

Harris is likely to return after missing five weeks with a neck injury. He is a huge upgrade to the Saints’ return game, kickoffs and punts, which has been nonexistent since he went down.

Like Akiem Hicks, who started with the Saints, Onyemata is a lesser-known defensive tackle who played his college ball in Canada. He’s really come on in this his fifth season with 6 ½ sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

Miller is capable of doing everything Mooney has done so far this year and more, but he hasn’t done it on a consistent basis to date. He will have to Sunday.

THE FINAL WORD

Saints 34, Bears 27

The Bears deserve to be 10-point underdogs. Over the course of the season, the Saints have been a far superior team. But the Bears already have played them dead even once this season, so we know they can hang in if they play their best game.

Expect the effort and some big plays on both sides of the ball to be there for the Bears. They should compete, but it’s hard to predict their best game if Smith, Mooney, Skrine and perhaps Johnson aren’t there.