Most of the blame and praise dished out to NFL teams goes to quarterbacks and coaches. The credit for the Chicago Bears’ success mostly should go to the defense, especially enforcers Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher.
The Bears (10-4) are getting better and gaining confidence, already locking up the NFC North in a season that Green Bay and Minnesota were supposed to control.
Aside from being embarrassed by New England and Tom Brady in the snow two weeks ago, Chicago’s defense has been consistently solid. Urlacher and Lance Briggs lead the way as linebackers, and the measure of Peppers’ impact is greater than the eight sacks he has on the stat sheet.
The defense has removed coach Lovie Smith from the hot seat, and it has allowed quarterback Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz time to put an improved product on the field.
This is not meant to build up the Bears as a Super Bowl threat, because they’re not that good. The script in the NFC postseason will have Michael Vick guiding the Philadelphia Eagles into Atlanta to face Vick’s former team.
The New York Jets (10-4) are not capable of surviving the AFC postseason, either, and the blame for that will be assigned to quarterback Mark Sanchez.
In cold weather, Sanchez shrivels. In his past four games, he has completed only 51.5 percent of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions.
The Bears are 1-point home favorites over the Jets on Sunday. Sanchez is probable with a slight cartilage tear in his right shoulder. Expect him to play, but either way I’ll go with Chicago.
This matchup will be decided largely by LaDainian Tomlinson and the Jets’ running attack against Urlacher and the Bears’ run stoppers.
Another key will be Cutler’s ability to avoid the clumsy mistakes that Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie capitalize on so often.
The Jets need a win to secure a playoff spot. The Bears are trying to clinch a first-round bye.
It was revealed this week that Jets coach Rex Ryan apparently has a foot fetish. Look for the Bears to put their best foot forward in a grind-it-out defensive struggle.
Four more plays for Week 16 (home team in CAPS):
■ Vikings (+14½) over EAGLES: It appears Minnesota is going without quarterback Brett Favre (doubtful, concussion), but running back Adrian Peterson has a shot to play with a bruised thigh. The Vikings will play hard as two-touchdown ‘dogs. Philadelphia, after its miraculous comeback against the New York Giants, might be in a flat spot.
■ RAMS (-2½) over 49ers: St. Louis (6-8) still can win the NFC West by closing with victories over the 49ers and Seattle. That will happen only if rookie quarterback Sam Bradford plays better than he did the past two weeks. San Francisco coach Mike Singletary is steering a lost ship and switching quarterbacks again, this time going back to Troy Smith.
■ Texans (-2½) over BRONCOS: It was redundant a long time ago to call Houston a disappointment. I despise taking the Texans, but I’ll gamble on this one and hope the Matt Schaub-Arian Foster-Andre Johnson combination can outshoot the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.
■ FALCONS (-2½) over Saints: New Orleans’ run defense is getting soft, and Drew Brees continues to throw interceptions. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is 19-1 in starts at the Georgia Dome, winning 15 straight.
Last week: 1-4 against the spread
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports writer Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.TWO ‘CAPPERS ON COWBOYS
Two of the 10 competitors in the Review-Journal NFL Challenge, which is published Sundays, are playing today’s Dallas-Arizona game. R-J sports editor Joe Hawk and Mark Franco of VegasInsider.com are siding with the Cowboys as 6½-point favorites over the Cardinals.
All point spreads in the R-J contest are based on the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest lines. Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay is the contest leader with a 43-32 record against the spread.
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL