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With an opportunity to climb back to the .500 mark and improve their standing in the AFC playoff race, the Ravens travel to Chicago on Sunday to take on the Bears for the fifth time in franchise history.
Baltimore will be playing its final road game until mid-December and has struggled away from M&T Bank Stadium with a 1-4 record this season, but the Bears are dealing with a number of key injuries including an ankle ailment to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, who is out for Sunday’s game. The Ravens have listed six starters as questionable for Sunday’s game, but all but two — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Marlon Brown — took part in Friday’s practice.
Sunday’s forecast at Soldier Field calls for temperatures in the low 60s with an 80 percent chance of rain and winds approaching 30 miles per hour, which could make for a very interesting day as the Ravens play in Chicago for the first time since 2005. The all-time series is tied 2-2 with the Ravens winning the last meeting against the Bears, a 31-7 final in Baltimore on Dec. 20, 2009.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their second consecutive game and even their record at 5-5 before a three-game stretch at home that could dramatically alter their playoff outlook …
1. Ray Rice will start the game, but backup Bernard Pierce will finish with more carries than the struggling starting running back. The three-time Pro Bowl running back continues to say all the right things, but there have been no signs of him regaining his old form as his numbers have been even worse since the bye week (29 carries for 47 yards). Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged earlier in the week that the Ravens will go with the hot hand in the backfield, and Pierce showed flashes of improved explosiveness against the Bengals and his power running style has a better chance of gaining ground behind a poor offensive line moving forward. The Bears’ 31st-ranked run defense might provide the Ravens with their last best chance to finally make strides in the running game, and Pierce will be given the ball more consistently after another lackluster start from Rice.
2. Jacoby Jones will finally shake free for a kickoff return for a touchdown to help the struggling Baltimore offense. The Bears gave up a 105-yard kickoff return for a score earlier this year and Jones has yet to make a major impact in the return game since recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1. Call it a hunch, but the 2012 Pro Bowl return specialist is due to bust a long one and the Ravens will need it on a day in which the rain and wind will limit quarterback Joe Flacco’s effectiveness in the passing game. To win enough games to remain in the playoff picture, the Ravens need more game-changing plays from their defense and special teams and Jones represents the best chance to do so in the return game.
3. The weather will help the Ravens in the battle against Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but Bears running back Matt Forte will collect 150 total yards and a touchdown. The rain in the forecast will stunt the Bears’ passing game, but Forte presents a major problem in coverage for either linebackers or safeties as backup Josh McCown will lean on shorter passes. Tight end Martellus Bennett will be another challenge for the pass defense, but his ankle injury will leave him less than 100 percent as he’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Marshall and Jeffery will still make an impact with their size advantage over Ravens defensive backs, but Forte will be leaned upon to move the chains consistently against the Baltimore defense.
4. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will exploit one of the weaker pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL with a combined 3 1/2 sacks. After arguably his worst game of the year against Cincinnati last week, Suggs will bounce back against a Chicago offensive line that has struggled all season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will move Suggs and Dumervil around — perhaps even occasionally lining them up on the same side in an overload look like he did last week — to give each rusher opportunities against right tackle Jordan Mills, whose pass blocking has been a major liability. The Ravens’ pass rush must come up big in putting heat on McCown and eliminate his opportunities to make big plays in the passing game, but head coach Marc Trestman will need to call for more quick passes to help neutralize the Ravens’ deadly pass-rushing duo.
5. The Bears’ ability to run the ball more effectively will be the difference in a low-scoring 20-17 win over the Ravens. If the weather proves to be as bad as forecasts are predicting, this one will come down to the running game and field position, which will play into Chicago’s hands perfectly. The Bears have struggled to stop the run this season, but the Ravens’ historically-poor rushing attack has shown no ability to gain yards other than the final 30 minutes of the Miami game in Week 5. Meanwhile, the Baltimore run defense has struggled from time to time — including a four-game stretch earlier this year in which they gave up 140 or more rushing yards three times — and the Bears possess the league’s 15th-ranked running game. After years of priding themselves as a team equipped to win games in the harsh conditions of November and December, the Ravens will show that’s no longer the case on Sunday as Flacco and the passing game won’t be able to do enough in another road loss.