Cowboys at Bears: Time, how to watch, live stream, odds, pick, what to know about Thursday's NFC showdown
The Cowboys and Bears clash in a game with major playoff implications
We've got two 6-6 teams going at it on Thursday Night Football this week, both of which have to be considered a disappointment this season.
The Dallas Cowboys hold a division lead and currently have possession of the No. 4 seed in the NFC, but that's only because the NFC East is the worst division in football. The Cowboys are just 3-6 since a scorching start during which they looked like one of the best teams in the NFL, and they have been undermined by horrid coaching on several occasions.
The Chicago Bears have managed to get back to 6-6 after a disappointing 3-5 start, but their most recent three wins have come against the Lions twice (with two different backup quarterbacks) and the Giants. The Chicago defense has expectedly regressed from "obvious best defense in the league" to merely "one of the five or 10 best defenses in the league," and instead of showing growth to make up for that regression, the offense has backslid even more.
Anyway, both of these teams still technically have a shot at the playoffs, because football just works that way. Fun! Let's break down the game.
Dubin joined Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to dive deep into the Cowboys-Bears matchup. Give it a listen below, and be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:
How to watch
When the Cowboys have the ball
The Cowboys lead the NFL in yards per game. They rank only eighth in points per game, though, and the red zone issues that plagued them for the last few seasons have cropped up again this year, as they have turned only 55 percent of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns despite having a cadre of weapons that should make them one of the most dangerous teams in the league when they get close to the goal line. This is a team that beats itself more often than it gets beaten by its opponent, and that's especially true when they go on the road.
They've also had a far tougher time against the four top-10 defenses (by Football Outsiders' DVOA) they have faced this year (Saints, Jets, Patriots, Bills) than the eight teams outside the top-10 they have gone up against. When playing those four teams, Dallas managed just 14 points per game. In their other eight games, Dallas has averaged 31.8 points per game.
The Bears, notably, have the NFL's No. 8-ranked defense by DVOA. The Chicago defense was far more effective when Akiem Hicks was on the field, though, and he remains out for this game. He'll also be joined by Prince Amukamara and Danny Trevathan on the sideline, which could hurt against a Dallas offense that has dangerous outside receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, as well as one of the NFL's most efficient run games (third in DVOA).
With Amukamara out, Kevin Toliver is likely to see more action at right corner. The Bears typically do not shadow with Kyle Fuller, but if there were any week to try that out, it would be this week with Amukamara on the sideline and Cooper being such a key factor in the Dallas offense. If Chicago elects not to shadow Cooper, it would not be surprising if the Cowboys aligned Cooper to the left side of the formation more often than usual. If they do shadow him, it would not be surprising if much of the passing game went through Michael Gallup, as well as Randall Cobb working on Buster Skrine in the slot.
The key for the Chicago defense is almost always the Khalil Mack-led front getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but Dak Prescott has been one one of the most well-protected quarterbacks in the league in games where Tyron Smith and La'el Collins were both on the field, which will be the case on Thursday night. Prescott has a microscopic 3.5 percent sack rate, and only 9.8 percent of opponent pressures have been turned into sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. When given a clean pocket, Dak has torched teams for 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions, with a 111.8 passer rating -- and that's despite his receivers dropping 21 passes delivered from a clean pocket, most in the NFL.
The issues with the Cowboys' offense this season have most often been a stubborn insistence on running when they shouldn't (mostly on first down, or when trailing late in games) and getting overly conservative on fourth downs. Jason Garrett tried to address the latter issue last week against Buffalo, but it sure seemed like an over-reaction to the criticism he received for not going on fourth down against New England the week before, rather than a realization that he was making poor situational decisions. Expecting the Cowboys to suddenly become aggressive and take advantage of the NFL's highest-paid offensive line and running back as well as a mobile quarterback who also happens to be 6-2 and 238 pounds, is expecting too much.
When Dallas has struggled in the past, Garrett has often preferred to fall back on the comfortability of the run game, so it would not be surprising if much of the Cowboys' game plan was based around Ezekiel Elliott on Thursday. The Cowboys may be without backup Tony Pollard, who popped up on the injury report earlier this week and is listed as questionable; but after talking him up as an Alvin Kamara type throughout the offseason, the Cowboys have utilized Pollard only sparingly, preferring instead to lean almost exclusively on Elliott despite their star's curious lack of explosive plays this year and the fact that they seemingly drafted Pollard specifically to limit Elliott's workload and have a designated pass-catching back.
When the Bears have the ball
Here are a couple choice excerpts from the preview we wrote prior to the Cowboys' Thanksgiving day loss to the Bills:
Dallas has done a solid job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking eighth in pressure rate, but they have been only average at concerting their pressure into sacks. Given Josh Allen's excellent mobility, it'll be important for Demarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn to box him into the pocket and not allow him to escape outside, where he can do a lot of damage running the ball downfield himself.
The best ways to beat Dallas in the passing game this season, though, have been with throws to running backs and tight ends. Their defense encourages and accepts checkdowns, counting on the linebackers and safeties to rally to the ball and prevent yardage after the catch. That worked extremely well for them last year, when Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch looked like two of the best linebackers in the entire league. It hasn't worked quite as well this season, when they have been merely good as opposed to great. It's also been typically easy to pick on safety Jeff Heath in coverage, last week's monster hit on Jakobi Meyers notwithstanding.
Why excerpt those paragraphs? Well, because Mitchell Trubisky can present the same pocket-breaking and running issues as Allen (though he has been far more reluctant to run since suffering a shoulder injury last year) and because the Bears have Tarik Cohen, who at his best can present matchup issues for even the best and most athletic linebackers. Cohen has seen his effectiveness muted this season as he has not recorded more than 39 rushing yards or 49 receiving yards in any of Chicago's 12 games, but his ability to work in open space could present issues for a Dallas team that has struggled to defend passes to running backs this season.
Any scenario where Cohen has success on Thursday night necessarily involves Trubisky playing well again, and that just has not been something the Bears can count on this season. Trubisky has had a passer rating over 100 in just three of the 10 full games he's played this season, while he has recorded a passer rating of 70 or worse in five of those 10 games. He has yet to throw multiple touchdown passes in consecutive games, and he has only gone back to back full games without an interception once. He has regressed this season in just about every area a quarterback can regress: completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, and QBR, as well as both his willingness to run (2.4 carries per game compared to 4.9 last year and 3.4 as a rookie) and the effectiveness of his rushing attempts (3.1 yards per carry compared to 6.2 last year and 6.0 as a rookie).
The only receiver with whom he has been able to sustain a consistent connection is Allen Robinson, who is just having a spectacular season. Robinson has hauled in 71 of 108 throws in his direction, for 850 yards and five scores. The Bears can and will move him around the formation, which should work well against a Cowboys team that plays sides with cornerbacks Byron Jones (right) and Chidobe Awuzie (left). Robinson (6-2, 220) also has a meaningful size advantage on slot corner Jourdan Lewis (5-10, 195) when he bumps down inside.
The Bears will again be without speedy deep threat Taylor Gabriel, which means we should see more of Anthony Miller, Javon Wims, and even Cordarrelle Patterson. The Bears would be wise to pick on Awuzie, as many Dallas opponents have this season. Awuzie tends to not turn around and play the ball when he's in man coverage, which results in contested catches being easier for opposing receivers than they should be, as well as pass interference penalties.
The Dallas pass rush, as we wrote last week, gets a good amount of pressure but often fails to convert that pressure into sacks, so if Trubisky can escape the rush and get outside the pocket, there will be opportunities for him to take off downfield or find receivers on scramble drill plays, as Allen did several times last week. Trubisky is not an excellent thrower on the run, though, and he can often turn those opportunities into turnovers rather than first downs or scoring chances.
It's not at all difficult to envision the Bears wanting to utilize a run-heavy game-plan in this one, hoping to keep the ball away from Dallas' explosive offense. David Montgomery has been extremely ineffective running the ball for most of this season (3.5 yards per carry) and Cohen has not been any better (3.2 per carry). The Chicago offensive line has struggled with run blocking (27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards), but it's notable that Dallas will again be without Leighton Vander Esch and Antwaun Woods (injured and ), and that Michael Bennett was limited in practices all week. Dallas has the NFL's 17th-ranked run defense, but they're only 24th in power situations, allowing opponents to convert 68 percent of opportunities on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go.
Prediction: Bears 23, Cowboys 21
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