Updated: December 10, 2011 5:37PM
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
On the ground
With Matt Forte out two to six weeks with a sprained MCL, Marion Barber (76 carries, 281 yards, five TDs) will start and Kahlil Bell (15, 57, 0) will fill Barber’s reserve role. While Forte was having a breakout season, his production had been cut in half (50, 180, one) in the last three games. Barber hasn’t had a productive game in a starting role since 2009 with Cowboys (14 carries, 91 yards vs. Eagles). But he’ll have an opportunity vs. Broncos’ 20th-ranked run defense. Toby Gerhart, subbing for Adrian Peterson, had 91 yards on 21 carries vs. Broncos last week.
In the air
Caleb Hanie was a disappointment last week against the Chiefs with three INTs and a 23.8 passer rating. But he’s not the only one on the spot against the Broncos’ 23rd-ranked pass defense (245 ypg). The offensive line allowed seven sacks against the Chiefs and now faces a better defensive front, led by rookie linebacker Von Miller (101/2 sacks). Mike Martz acknowledged a bad game plan last week prevented Hanie from getting into a groove. And the Bears’ receivers have to step up and take some heat off Hanie. Earl Bennett has two receptions for 10 yards in two games with Hanie.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
On the ground
The Broncos have the top-ranked rushing attack in the NFL and have been averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game in their five-game winning streak. At 6-3 and 236 pounds, quarterback Tim Tebow (75 carries, 431 yards, two TDs) is a challenge for any defender. Running back Willis McGahee (182, 886, four) has had six games of 100 or more yards, including 117 and 111 the last two weeks. The Bears counter with the No. 8 rush defense in the NFL and have enough speed to counter the Broncos’ strength. But for how long? The Broncos’ punishing attack takes a toll.
In the air
This is where the Bears have to be careful. Though the Broncos have done most of their damage on the ground, they have shown the ability to adjust to what the defense is taking away. Tebow threw eight passes in a victory against the Chiefs but 21 against the Raiders and 18 against the Chargers and was 10-for-15 for 202 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Vikings. Receivers Eric Decker (39 catches, 552 yards, eight TDs) and Eddie Royal (18, 153, one TD) have made big plays, and Demaryius Thomas had four catches for 144 yards last week.
The Bears are prepared to stop the Broncos’ offense, but can their offense score enough points to win? That’s a total unknown after the Bears crapped out against the Chiefs. Caleb Hanie has several factors working against him: No Matt Forte. He’s on the road. He’s at high altitude. And he’s facing a rejuvenated defense with big-play stars in linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Champ Bailey. If Hanie can avoid turnovers and get into a groove, he could surprise.
The Broncos have punted 51 times in seven games with Tim Tebow at quarterback, so Devin Hester should get enough chances to break one. But the Broncos are one of the better punt-coverage teams in the NFL, allowing an average of nine yards on a league-high 39 returns. The Bears’ league-leading punt-coverage unit will be tested by the Broncos, who have two punt returns for TDs — by Eddie Royal and Eric Decker. Royal is questionable with a concussion.