It might be difficult to imagine Jay Cutler as a Super Bowl quarterback, but the Chicago Bears and their fans can dream. The reality is the Bears defense gives them the best shot to get there.
“Their defense is the best in the league, in my opinion,” handicapper Mark Franco said.
At 7-1 and seeking a seven-game winning streak, Chicago hosts the Houston Texans (7-1) tonight in what Franco said “could be a preview of the Super Bowl.” It definitely will be a showdown between two of the NFL’s top defenses.
With cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Brian Urlacher leading the charge, the Bears rank second in the league in scoring defense, allowing 15 points per game, and lead the league with 28 forced turnovers.
The Texans, who have committed a league-low six turnovers, are unlikely to be charitable, and they are strong on both sides of the ball. Arian Foster, fifth in the NFL with 770 yards, carries the rushing load. Defensive end J.J. Watt will be setting his sights on Cutler and aiming to add to his 10½ sacks.
Chicago ranks 25th in total offense at 324.4 yards per game, but Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall connected for three touchdowns in a 51-20 blowout at Tennessee a week ago.
“I may be going out on a limb here, but I trust Cutler and the Bears offensive line to do enough to get the win and put them in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the NFC,” said Franco (FrancoSports.com). “Chicago has a much more opportunistic defense.”
Franco said the “only solid trend” he could dig up to support the Bears as 1-point favorites is their 7-1-1 record against the spread in their past nine November games.
The Texans, 20-7 ATS in their past 27 games, are 3-0 on the road this season, but this is their first road trip since Oct. 8.
Franco breaks down the rest of today’s Week 10 schedule:
■ Buffalo at New England (-13): Following a bye, there’s no way the Patriots lose this division game at home. The last time they played Buffalo, quarterback Tom Brady led them to 52 points, and New England outscored the Bills 31-7 in the fourth quarter. It won’t be much different today. These teams combined to score 65 points or more in four of their past five matchups, including three in a row. I’ll back the Patriots minus the big number and lean over the total (52½).
■ New York Giants (-4) at Cincinnati: Giants quarterback Eli Manning had an off day against the Steelers last week. He completed only 2 of 11 passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield. He will have a better day today against a softer defense. The Bengals had problems with the Denver pass rush, and they will have more against the Giants. Cincinnati has lost four in a row and gets unlucky by drawing a Giants team off a loss. Manning will outplay Andy Dalton, and the Giants defense should hold down a mediocre Bengals offense. I’ll lean to the Giants.
■ San Diego at Tampa Bay (-3): West Coast teams traveling east and playing at early kickoff times are at such a disadvantage that even the NFL has acknowledged it might tweak the schedule in the future. The Buccaneers are 6-2 ATS, and the only wins the Chargers have after Week 2 came against Kansas City. Josh Freeman has been solid at quarterback, and the Buccaneers clearly found a gem in rookie running back Doug Martin. It’s Tampa Bay or pass for me.
■ Denver (-4) at Carolina: The Panthers finally picked up their second win last week at Washington, but that positive feeling won’t last long. Their next opponent is Peyton Manning, who has 20 touchdown passes on the season, including 15 in the past five games. Manning should exploit Carolina’s secondary and score enough points to force Cam Newton to play from behind and likely make mistakes. It’s tough to take a favorite that’s on the road for the second straight week, but I’m willing to ride the Broncos as a small play.
■ Tennessee at Miami (-6): After their three-game winning streak was snapped, the Dolphins have a prime opportunity to start a new streak against a soft opponent. The Titans are terrible defensively, and their offense simply isn’t good enough in the passing game to take advantage of Miami’s weaknesses in the secondary. I’ve been impressed with rookie Ryan Tannehill, who has no interceptions and a 95.5 rating in his past four games. Miami’s defense is too good, and Tannehill should have a nice day against the porous Tennessee secondary. The Titans are back to starting Jake Locker at quarterback, and I don’t think that’s a plus. Miami wins going away.
■ Oakland at Baltimore (-7½): The Ravens are 4-0 at home, and the tough trip should be a major stumbling block for the Raiders, who are 0-7 in their past seven trips to the Eastern time zone. This isn’t the strong Baltimore team of recent seasons, but it still should manage to beat the inconsistent Raiders and their horrible defense. I see over the total (46½) as a better play than either side.
■ Atlanta (-2½) at New Orleans: If the Saints stop the Falcons’ undefeated run, it could propel them to save their season and make a run at a wild card. The Falcons are due for a bad game, and I think this is it. Look for the New Orleans defense to learn from last week and use the blitz more to force quarterback Matt Ryan into mistakes. The Saints have won 10 of the past 12 in this series, and they can steal a victory in this spot at the Superdome.
■ Detroit (-2½) at Minnesota: Christian Ponder and the Vikings’ passing attack looked inept at Seattle last week. The second-year quarterback went 11-for-22 for 63 yards with an interception. Missing big-play wideout Percy Harvin obviously won’t help Minnesota. The Lions defense will be stacking the box to stop running back Adrian Peterson and dare Ponder to beat them. I doubt he can do it. Detroit has won three of its past four games, and its offense is back on track. I’m backing the Lions to avenge their Sept. 30 loss to the Vikings.
■ New York Jets at Seattle (-6): Although the Jets are coming off a much-needed bye, it won’t matter. Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has been solid at home, where he is 4-0, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 9-to-0 and his passer rating is an astonishing 118.2. The Jets offense will be hard- pressed to get much going in front of the loudest crowd in the league. This is only the second time Seattle is a favorite, and rightfully so. It’s the Seahawks or pass for me.
■ Dallas (-1½) at Philadelphia: The Eagles offense is in shambles, averaging 16.6 points to rank 30th in the league. The Cowboys are not much better offensively, and I see both teams having problems getting into the end zone. In an ugly matchup with two disappointing NFC East teams, I lean to the Cowboys and under the total (44½).
■ St. Louis at San Francisco
(-12½): Both teams are off byes, so they should be rested. But the Rams need more than rest if they plan on hanging with the 49ers at home, where coach Jim Harbaugh has been almost unbeatable. The San Francisco defense has held four of its past five opponents to six points or less. St. Louis wide receiver Danny Amendola looks ready to return, but that won’t be enough to boost an anemic offense. I lean to laying the points with the 49ers.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL