The Jets can secure a second-straight playoff berth on Sunday if they soldier on through frigid Chicago and escape with another road victory (1 p.m., CBS).
Knowing what’s at stake, the road-warrior Jets (10-4) can improve to 7-1 on hostile ground – winning games away from home is a necessary skill if Gang Green is to survive January football. Mark Sanchez, tasked with facing Julius Peppers and the Bears’ ferocious pass rush, will play with a cartilage tear in his throwing shoulder.
The wildly unpredictable Bears (10-4) have already clinched the NFC North, but could land one step closer to grabbing a top seed in the NFC playoff bracket with a win.
Shake away Peppers
Julius Peppers is as disruptive of a force as you’d expect from a five-time Pro-Bowl defensive end. He’s been an impact player through the Bears’ last five games, notching six sacks, five pass deflections, an interception, and a forced fumble. With right tackle Damien Woody still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, backup Wayne Hunter will need help protecting a banged-up Sanchez. Although Sanchez has become more elusive, the Jets offensive line may rely on blocking tight end Ben Hartsock for extra support.
Bad news for the Bears
Chicago’s offense is not powered by big bruisers at the line of scrimmage. Running back Matt Forte won’t take over the game, but his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield means the Jets will need to keep defensive backs nearby when he ventures toward the flats. The Bears’ 25th-ranked rush offense means Gang Green can employ more nickel and dime packages to counteract any attempts at a short-passing game.
Down and out
The Bears offense is among the league’s worst on third downs, ranking 28th in the NFL with only a 32.9 percent conversion rate. Without a running game to lean on, the Jets will need to clamp down on the Bears’ top two targets, receiver Johnny Knox and tight end Earl Bennett (92 rec., 1,514 yds., 6 TD combined), to keep them from moving the chains. Keeping quick corner Antonio Cromartie on the speedy Knox should free the Jets to experiment with coverage schemes.
Exotic blitz packages
The Jets found a path to Ben Roethlisberger for three sacks and well-applied pressure last week when blitzing defensive backs. By keeping that strategy, Jets defenders should be able to exploit the Bears’ offensive line, a unit that’s allowed a league-high 48 sacks on their quarterback. Most importantly, a strong rush on Jay Cutler could force panic and lead to his sixth multiple-turnover game of the season.