AGAINST A QUARTERBACK and an offense as inconsistent and unthreatening as Geno Smith and his Jets, the Patriots could get away with it. New England failed to force a turnover for the second time this season last Thursday, yet lived to tell the tale as winners in no small part because New York didn't have the skill to translate almost 41 minutes of possession into enough points.
Do the same today, though, and the Patriots might not be so fortunate because a quarterback and an offense as tantalizingly talented as Jay Cutler and his Bears, the Pats' ability to take the ball away could be what determines whether a vicious six-game stretch begins with a victory.
Turnovers are always important. Teams that don't give the ball away are winning at a 77 percent clip this season (49-15). But it's been even more pronounced for the Bears, this year and in the recent past.This year, when it doesn't turn the ball over, Chicago is 2-0 (with road wins at San Francisco and Atlanta) and averaging 27.5 points per game. It's 1-4 and scoring 20.2 points when it coughs up the pigskin at least once, and since Marc Trestman took over as head coach in 2013 the Bears are 4-12 in such contests.Ball security often begins with the quarterback, and over the past two seasons Cutler is 5-1 when he doesn't throw an interception, 5-9 when he does. In last week's loss to Miami he compounded his pick by also losing one of his three fumbles, and afterward there were reports that things got heated in the Bears locker room, with some suggesting star receiver Brandon Marshall called out Cutler regarding his inability to protect the ball.
If that's true, Marshall's gripes are justified. Since coming to Chicago in 2012, the team is 9-1 when it doesn't turn the ball over, but just 12-17 when it does.
"It just makes everything more difficult when you turn the ball over," Trestman said this week. "It makes everything much easier when you take care of it and you're able to take it away, and certainly that's what the Patriots are feeling right now.
"The one thing that they do exceptionally, exceptionally - they do a lot of lot of things well - but they're sitting where they are, like most teams are when they have that kind of record, because they're high in the plus area almost halfway through the season."
Indeed, the Patriots are plus-nine in turnover margin, best in the AFC and second only to the Packers' plus-10 in the NFL. Part of that is the reliability of Tom Brady's offense, which is reflected in their record. New England has won all five games it finished without a giveaway, and lost both of the games where the offense turned it over. But the defense deserves credit, too. Only the Texans (15) have more takeaways than the Pats' 14.
And it's imperative that New England adds to that total today because Chicago's attack has too much talent to be given chances.
"They're very explosive," said Bill Belichick, who suggested that the dynamic Matt Forte might be the best running back in the NFL. Not only does Forte average 4 yards per rush, but his 52 catches are a league high, and bring him to 884 yards from scrimmage through seven weeks.
The Pats can't focus everything on Forte, though, because the strong-armed Cutler has at his disposal a few more dangerous weapons. Marshall has gone over 1,000 yards receiving each of the past six seasons and scored 12 touchdowns a year ago. Alshon Jeffery took a star turn in compiling 1,421 receiving yards last season, and his 504 lead the club thus far in this one.
Then there's tight end Martellus Bennett, who Cutler has targeted more than Marshall or Jeffrey and whose 41 catches, 422 yards and four touchdowns compare nicely to the numbers put up by the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (31-409-4).
"We're throwing the football recently well," Trestman said. "What we haven't done is we haven't done a good job collectively as an offense, starting with me, in terms of putting ourselves in a position in our losses, to take care of the ball. I've got to do a better job with that; our football team does. I think with that will come an ascension to another level."
Without question, this Chicago offense is already on another level than the New York unit New England survived in Week 6. They're loaded with talent. And if Cutler is on, they'll be difficult to stop.
Unless the Patriots can help the Bears find a way to stop themselves.
OVERRATED: Cutler's demise. When he's bad, he's borderline brutal. But for the season, Cutler has completed 67.3 percent of his throws, is averaging 252.7 yards per game, has a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, is averaging 7.1 yards per throw, and has a QB rating of 94.4. Save for Brady's 13 scores and two picks, the quarterbacks of New England and Chicago are having comparable seasons.
UNDERRATED: Chicago's defensive aggressiveness. They're not the ball-hawking savages that Brian Urlacher's groups used to be in the middle of the last decade, but the Bears have forced a league-high 10 fumbles while ranking third with eight interceptions and eighth with 19 sacks. They still have a nose for the football.
KEEP AN EYE ON.: Kyle Fuller. The cornerback was the Bears' first-round pick this spring, and his career is off to a terrific start with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and six passes defended through seven games. However, he broke his hand last week while also incurring a hip injury, and though he's considered probable to play, his effectiveness with a cast on his right hand will bear watching.
KEY MATCHUP: Brandon Browner vs. whoever. When the Patriots signed Browner as a free agent, it may have been with matchups like this one in mind. Marshall is 6-foot-4 and Jeffery is 6-foot-3, so the Patriots could attempt to use the height of the 6-foot-4 Browner against either. Or, what might make even more sense, is to have Browner cover the 6-foot-6 Bennett, while Darrelle Revis takes one receiver and a tandem of cover men is dedicated to the other. Whatever the strategy is, Browner's execution could be a major factor in determining today's outcome.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Since the start of the 2007, the Patriots are 51-2 when not turning the ball over. Over that same span, they're 61-9 when registering at least two takeaways, and 69-5 when finishing with a positive turnover margin.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader.