LAKE FOREST – The New Orleans Saints’ visit to Chicago on Sunday is a game Saints and Bears fans have had marked on their calendars since this season’s schedule was released in April.
Time, injuries and other events have a way of altering expectations, and it’s possible the loss of Drew Brees, Akiem Hicks and Kyle Long took a little bit of the shine off this one.
But not much.
The way the Saints have soldiered on with Teddy Bridgewater has made them the NFL’s best team through six weeks.
New Orleans is a game behind the Patriots in the standings, but the schedules the two have played are like night and day.
The Bears’ defense has been as expected with the exception of a letdown in London after the injury to Hicks, while the offense has struggled to get off the starting line.
Knowing that, however, the Bears still are 3-2, and a win Sunday would catapult them right back into the top five or six in the league.
It gets bigger.
No one can project injuries, bad calls or a dozen other factors beyond their control that might affect these teams over the next 11 weeks, but should they both make it to January, – or if one doesn’t – we may look back at Sunday’s meeting as the biggest game of the regular season.
The Saints are the favorite right now to win the NFC, the Bears remain not terribly far behind, and should they meet again in January, the difference between playing that game indoors in New Orleans or on the frozen turf at Soldier Field would be galactic.
With all that as the backdrop, Friday brought both game- and mind-altering news that while the Bears appear close to having almost all hands on deck – with the exception of Hicks and Long and Mitch Trubisky most likely, if not certain, to make his return under center – in addition to Brees, the Saints now will be without starting tight end Jared Cook and All-Pro running back Alvin Kamara.
New Orleans already has proved it can be great even without Brees, but it is hard to overstate how significantly the loss of Kamara slants the playing field toward the Bears.
Bears coach Matt Nagy said of Kamara on Friday before the news broke that he would be absent, “He’s such a weapon because he has speed, he has vision, he can run in between the tackles, he has excellent hands, he’s a playmaker, he knows the system. So everything that he does, he’s one of those guys that when you go into a game as a defensive coordinator you’ve got to know where he’s at all times.”
The knowledge that Kamara will either be on the sidelines or at home in New Orleans on Sunday gives Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano a couple of extra nights’ sleep I’m sure he’d already written off.
I know, I know, we learn about injuries like this and go leaping off the deep end, and more often than not, the wounded team shocks us all with its best performance and overcomes.
Sure, that could happen Sunday.
But if the real Bears defense returns from the hiatus it was on in London, New Orleans will have to rise to a level it hasn’t achieved before to make it so.
That could happen if the Saints’ defense, which is not all that far behind the Bears, failing to match up only at linebacker, can stifle Trubisky and company.
Once again in Chicago, all roads seem to lead to Mitch.
Trubisky doesn’t ever have to be DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes to lead the Bears to greatness, but he does have to in certain situations be the reason they win games like this.
With both Brees and Kamara gone, the Bears appear to be the slightly more talented team.
This is not a must-win for either team. The Bears started 3-3 last year, and we all know what happened, and if you had told the Saints they’d be 5-2 after Brees went down, they would have been thrilled.
But this is easily the biggest statement game of Nagy’s and Trubisky’s young careers, and I for one can’t wait for them to get it on.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.