After a fantastic outing against the St. Louis Rams, the Bears face an unusual kind of uncertainty. They face an unknown starter in Denver. Either they will play against a struggling Peyton Manning (unlikely, given his injury) or a fledgling Brock Osweiler. Even with the pandemonium that will swirl around the struggles of a legend, it's hard to imagine that the media frenzy will miss a couple of interesting angles.
John Fox will face off against the team that fired him (edit: "mutually parted ways"), and Jay Cutler will face off against the team that traded him. To quickly recap, Fox was let go despite posting a 46-18 record in the regular season while leading the Broncos, and going 12-4 is an interesting way to lose a job. Meanwhile, simply recapping the Jay Cutler trade is likely to provoke strong reactions from all quarters, so it's probably easier just to point out how remarkable it is that Jay hasn't faced the Broncos yet, and that it's probably for the best that this matchup is at Soldier Field instead of Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Those stories are interesting, of course. It's hard to compete with the Manning Saga, and the drama of a 7-2 team bound for the playoffs will dictate storylines more than the hopes of a 4-5 team rebuilding its identity. However, there are three interesting stories nestled inside the bigger picture.
Jay Cutler vs. Wade Phillips
In 2006, Jay's second game as a starting quarterback in the NFL was against the San Diego Chargers, whose defensive coordinator at the time was Wade Phillips. Jay was 17/30, with 188 yards and two touchdowns without any interceptions (97.6 passer rating). Despite this, the Broncos lost that game.
The rematch waited until 2010, when the Bears played the Dallas Cowboys with Phillips serving as the head coach and defensive coordinator. Jay was 21/29, throwing for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception (136.7 passer rating). This was one of only seven games in Cutler's career where he had at least three touchdown passes without an interception—Sunday against the Rams was another one.
However, in 2012, the Bears played against the Houston Texans, where Phillips was serving as the defensive coordinator. Cutler was terrible, going 7/14 for 40 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions (16.7 passer rating). He was also knocked out of the game with a concussion. During this game, Matt Forte managed under 40 yards on the ground. After this game, Brandon Marshall called Jay the "heart and soul" of the offense. Because of this game, Jay fell to 1-2 against defenses coached by Wade Phillips, despite managing a total passer rating of 93.7 against the same.
Sunday will be Jay's chance to pull even against a man whose defenses he has faced coming at him in three different uniforms.
Gary Kubiak vs. Vic Fangio
As a head coach or offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak has faced defenses coached by Vic Fangio before, as well.
In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers faced the Houston Texans and held Kubiak's team to 3 points. A good part of that was the turnover differential, with Schaub throwing three interceptions and Ben Tate losing a fumble. Recent history, then, is on Fangio's side.
Things are less rosy going back. In 2004, the Denver Broncos (then with Kubiak as offensive coordinator) beat the Houston Texans (who, at that point, had Vic Fangio serving as defensive coordinator). Denver scored 31 points and avoided any turnovers—though playing against David Carr probably didn't hurt Denver's chances of success.
On the other hand, three years earlier, Fangio was defensive coordinator for the Colts when Indianapolis beat Houston 29-10. Fangio's defense intercepted Brian Griese four times that day while holding him to a single touchdown. That win was likely a relief for Fangio, given that in 1997, when he was defensive coordinator for the Panthers, the Broncos hung 34 points on Fangio's defense behind John Elway's 227 passing yards and 1 touchdown (the Panthers failed to score any points that day).
Sunday is the tiebreaker, as Kubiak's offenses are 2-2 against Fangio's defenses.
Chicago Bears vs. Injury
Injuries are part of the NFL, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Every year there are various attempts to quantify which team has suffered the most from the injury bug, and the conversation can quickly devolve into a movie scene where tough guys compare scars.
However, on a team that is as depleted for talent as the 2015 Chicago Bears, each player lost to injury has a more magnified impact. Forget, for the moment, the offensive side of the ball. Gase, Cutler, and the rest seem to have things solidly in hand. Forte going down seems to have cleared the way for Langford and Carey to shine. Jay seems to be working with all of his available weapons, and the offensive line is good enough for a mobile Cutler to work with.
Defense is another story. If Pernell McPhee's knee keeps bothering him, the defense is going to suffer. In fact, the defensive depth on this team is probably the biggest question mark at this point. One amazing thing about the 2015 Bears, though, is that they do seem to have embraced the "next man up" philosophy.
On that note, though, it's worth pointing out that in six games, Shea McClellin has 24 tackles (5th on the defense) and 17 assists (1st on the defense). It's also worth pointing out that two of the three biggest rushing games the Bears suffered came while he was out, and that two of the three biggest passing games also occurred while he was injured. There were other factors at work there, too, but it might be time to give the man a bit more credit (perhaps this is another hidden matchup—Shea vs. the ghosts of past Chicago linebackers) as a competent member of the defense.
However it works out, try not to get distracted from these three stories, because they might end up being a lot more interesting than Peyton Manning's foot or John Fox's "revenge" efforts.