Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

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Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

More than ever, it starts up front

First, by way of background and perspective:

What has happened to the Chicago pass protection in the past three weeks is perhaps the biggest mystery of 2012, exceeding even what precisely Charles Tillman does to get so many footballs out of peoples hands. It is certainly the most concerning.

To dismiss it as proof that a line that blocked for 2,015 rushing yards and three different 100-yard rushers was really horrendous all along doesnt wash. In the five games, all wins, before Jay Cutlers thumb injury last season, the Bears allowed exactly five sacks total. That was with an offensive line that started four different front-fives in the first five games.

This year, with only one change (Chilo Rachal for Chris Spencer at left guard) and that done for upgrade rather than injury, the Bears gave up as many sacks the each of the Green Bay (seven), Detroit and Carolina games as they did in that entire five-game win stretch last season.

The Bears gave up five sacks to the Detroit Lions (out of their 18 total for the year), six to the Carolina Panthers (equaling one-fourth of their season total) and three to the Tennessee Titans, who had 11 in the previous eight games.

Now they have the Houston Texans, who already have 24 for the year. The headliner is end J.J. Watt and his 10.5 sacks. But Antonio Smith on the other end has four and nine different Texans have sacks this season.

NFLs best D? A style problem

It is superfluous to debate whether the Bears, Texans or 49ers defense is the best in the NFL. Those units dont play each other.

But look beyond simply yardage totals. The Texans rank behind only the Bears in the Aikman Ratings, a weighted composite favored by coach Lovie Smith. They rank in the top 10 in 11 different defensive categories (vs. the Bears eight of 11). There no glaring weaknesses in the Houston defense.

The immediate problem is that although the Texans play a version of a 3-4, it is one that attacks and disrupts with its line. Many 3-4s are read-and-react with their down linemen, typically bigger bodies who do not regularly threaten quarterbacks.

But Mike Tice likened the Houston scheme to the Steelers of recent 3-4 vintage, with linemen playing a one-gap, get-into-the-backfield similar in mindset to the Bears.

The nose tackle is about the only one whos reading, Tice said. Theyre not butting up and peeking into the backfield.

What this means is that all three down linemen in this 3-4 have more tackles (Watt 59, Smith 29, nose tackle Shaun Cody 21) than the highest-ranked Bears lineman (Henry Melton 19).

The game is ideally out of Cutler's hands

The mandate is for the Bears to run the football, although this will require a patient and game-long commitment. Houston is ninth in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt (4.0) so there will be more than a few tries that net little in the first half. And Houston is the only NFL team to allow zero rushing touchdowns this season, the last one coming in game 15 of last year.

Matt Forte is averaging a career-best 5.0 yards per carry. If the Bears can approach that against Houston, they create multiple opportunities.

Matt, he's a beast, said wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who will be the prime beneficiary if the Texans must commit a safety to the box for Forte duty. And that's our guy, our offense is tailored around him, and we're going to continue to try and get him the ball. When he's rolling, everything else opens up for myself and Earl Bennett.

The overriding directive is protecting Jay Cutler, whom the Texans are intent on rattling.

I hope so, said free safety Glover Quin, who is third on the Texans in tackles, has a sack and has broken up more passes (seven) than anyone other that Watt (10). Obviously, we want to try to get to the quarterback and put some pressure on him and force him into some throws that arent his best throws. If we can get him in that situation, thatd be good for us.

Cutler can be his own worst enemy and if he is this week, when his offensive line and protections have their hands full, is middle of the pack (13th) in time to throw, the time from snap to throw or no longer throwing, based on studies by Pro Football Focus. But he is an ominous No. 4 in time to sack at 4.01 seconds, behind only Seattle rookie Russell Wilson, Alex Smith in San Francisco and Michael Vick.

That points to Cutler holding the ball sufficiently to allow his tormentors to close.

Game plan?

No team has given the ball away fewer times than Houston (six five interceptions, one fumble). This points to very little chance that the Bears will have double-digit points coming on turnovers, and that Cutler remain in a controlled place more than most games.

It sounded this week like that has sunk in.

Im just trying to, the way our defense is playing, its just minimize turnovers, try to convert on third down and protect the ball and make smart decisions in the red zone, Cutler said. Were running the ball well. I think offensive lines getting better and better. As they move and get better, thats going to open up more doors for what were able to do in the passing game and kind of open up my game a little bit.

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead