Today in Chicago, the New York Jets have an opportunity to do something that has happened only four times in franchise history. With a win over the Bears, the Green & White will join elite membership as one of the few clubs (1968-69, '81-82, '8586 and 2001-02) to earn consecutive trips to the playoffs.
"This game could make or break our season and right now," said star CB Darrelle Revis.
Even if the Jets fall short in this interesting matchup of 10-4 clubs, they'll be playoff-bound if the Colts lose at the Raiders or the Jaguars drop a decision to the Redskins.
"Anytime you have a chance to clinch a playoff spot, you want to do it that time," said RB LaDainian Tomlinson. "You don't want to depend on anybody else. You don't want to wait till a week later. It's critical for us and they've already clinched their division, so I would say we need the game more than they do."
While sharing identical records, the Jets and Bears find themselves in far different situations.
The Jets began the season with a goal of winning their division, but that hope is gone unless the 12-2 Patriots lose both at the Bills today and vs. the Dolphins in Week 17. In addition, New York's AFC representative would need to win out as the aforementioned Bills come to New Meadowlands Stadium to close the regular season on Jan. 2.
Lovie Smith's Bears are already NFC North champions and they have their eyes on their conference's No. 2 seed.
"There's no such thing as let-up around here," said Smith. "You have different steps that you take towards a goal and all we've done is taken one step, no more than that. We have a lot to play for. Yes, we want to be playing our best ball as much as anything at the end of the season. We are playing for the first-round bye."
The Bears haven't exactly been Monsters of the Midway at home, owning a 4-3 mark at Soldier Field. They'll entertain a club that is 6-1 on the road this season and 13-5 (including playoffs) away from home under Rex Ryan. And the Jets are confident, having steadied their course after a bumpy two-game slide with perhaps their most impressive win of the season in Week 16, their 22-17 triumph in Pittsburgh.
"This is a huge steppingstone for us, a big hurdle this week, and I feel like our team plays the best when we're kind of backed up against the wall," said QB Mark Sanchez, expected to make his 15th start of the season despite a sore right shoulder. "That's when we played our best last year. We know what's at stake this year and we want to make it to the playoffs. That's our goal — just make it to the playoffs now, just make it to the dance, and we'll take it as a new season from there."
Although Sanchez and the offense played well against the Steelers, nine of the team's 22 points came as a result of a Brad Smith kickoff return and a Jason Taylor safety. The Bears yield just 17.3 points a game and they bring great edge pressure in their base 4-3 look as both Julius Peppers, who will be matched up with LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and Israel Idonije, opposed by RT Wayne Hunter, have eight sacks apiece. The Bears fly to the ball with linebackers Brian Urlacher (113 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Lance Briggs (76 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and they turn teams over, ranking third in the NFL with 19 picks.
"They do a good job of not having to bring a lot of pressure because their front four is pretty dominant," said FB Tony Richardson. "They bring a little bit of pressure — more on third down, third-and-long. But for the most part they're a low-pressure team. You don't have to when you have a defensive line like they do."
The Bears don't wow you with offensive statistics, but RB Matt Forte is one of the best run/catch combos in football. You also always have to keep an eye out for WR Devin Hester, TE Greg Olsen could be a focus against the Jets, and QB Jay Cutler is working well with offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
"When you look at a classic quarterback who can make all the throws, you talk about the guy who can throw to every spot on the field from anywhere on the field, whether on his back foot or moving forward, it's a guy like Cutler," said OLB Jason Taylor of the 61.7 percent passer with 20 TDs and 13 INTs.
Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine will surely be dialing up a number of blitzes for Cutler and a Bears O-line that has surrendered a league-high 48 sacks in 2010. Special teams is always critical in these close games and each team boasts a quality return man in Devin Hester and Brad Smith.
"It's pretty safe to say we're not planning on kicking to him," Ryan said this week of Hester, already perhaps the most accomplished returner in history and only in his fifth pro season. "I don't think you can deal with him. As a returner, it's ridiculous. He's got to go down as the best punt returner in the history of the game."
Snow flurries are in the forecast yet again but Jets Nation will have plenty to feel warm about if their team cements its postseason trip. And any team that sweeps two formidable division winners in their back yards on successive Sundays will show the world they're ready to stick around awhile once the dance begins.
"We don't want to go into next week having to think about it," Taylor said. "We don't want to rely on anybody else to do our dirty work for us. I'm confident we'll be ready to go and go out there and do what we're supposed to do."