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Another Opportunity for the Patriots to Prove Themselves this Sunday

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The New England Patriots continue to show us that September means nothing to them. It's almost like Roger Federer in a sense. If you don't watch tennis then this next line is going right over your head. Federer notoriously uses the first portion of his matches as a feeling out stage. He determines what works and what doesn't work, content to concede a set or two before ultimately locking in and wiping the court with his opponent. That's where I'm at with the Patriots after a third consecutive win Sunday night.

The Pats continue to use the first month of the season as a trial and error period, and by the time November and December roll around, they are beating everybody because they know exactly who they are and what works for them. While far from a finished product, last Sunday night the Pats once again showed that the AFC is still their conference until they say otherwise, after an impressive victory over a team they'll probably see again in January.

This week's game presents another challenge. Though it comes against a team less talented than the Kansas City Chiefs, last Sunday's result could be just as important, or just as telling as last Sunday's victory. It's an opportunity for the Patriots to take this show on the road, something they have failed to do in two tries this season.

The Patriots travel to Chicago to take on a young Bears team coming off of a disappointing loss against Miami. The Bears present a different type of challenge than the Chiefs did. Whereas last week, the focus was on the Kansas City offense, this week is about a physical, Bears defense. 

Led by a ferocious front seven, the Bears boast a top 10 defense in yards allowed per game, and are in the top 5 in points allowed. Guys like Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith are good enough. Then, you add in a stud like Khalil Mack and the defense goes from good to great. A jack of all trades, Mack has 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and an interception through five games. With this combination of talent, it's no wonder Chicago has a top 5 rush defense. Therein lies an interesting storyline to watch -- New England's offensive line vs. Chicago's front seven.

The Patriots have shown a commitment to the run the past few weeks, in an effort to both become a more established offense and limit the amount of stress on Tom Brady. New England is just outside of the top 10 in rushing offense, but has rushed for over 170 yards in each of the last two weeks. After working off the rust associated with zero preseason reps, Sony Michel has found his groove. He's rushed for 106, 98 and 112 in the last three games respectively.

Chicago's pass rush and New England's pass protection will also be a key battle in this game. Led by Mack, the Bears are top 5 in the league in sacks. The Pats however, are second to only Kansas City in fewest sacks allowed. With Marcus Cannon questionable for Sunday, LaAdrian Waddle could be forced to line up against Mack. If that's the case, expect to see a lot of Dwayne Allen or Rob Gronkowski offering some assistance. The Pats line play needs to be strong regardless, but I'd expect to see a lot of quick throws by Brady -- an easy way to negate a good pass rush.

That's where there is a chink in the armor of the Bears defense. If there's one thing keeping this great defense from being elite, it's the secondary. It's not horrible, but it's clearly the weakest part of this defense. The Bears rank smack dab in the middle at 16th in the league in passing defense.

This will be the toughest defense New England has faced this year, outside of Jacksonville. At the same time, New England presents the toughest offense that Chicago's defense has faced all year. We'll see which side is up to the challenge.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago's offense isn't nearly as explosive as Kansas City's, but you'll notice some similarities. With head coach Matt Nagy a disciple of Andy Reid, expect to see some schemes and plays similar to what Kansas City does. That type of offensive design has been very challenging for the Patriot defenses of the past 5 years or so. There will be some run-pass options and some pre-snap movement designed to get some of their speed guys moving before the ball is snapped, putting the defender at a disadvantage.

For the Patriots, that's a big problem because of their lack of speed on defense. That's why they have struggled to contain Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill. What Hill did on Sunday is out of the ordinary for the Pats. They don't typically give up those type of numbers to receivers. However, with Hunt, that's been a trend the past few seasons. The linebackers are too slow and struggle to stick with any running back in pass coverage. They'll have another challenge this Sunday against Tarik Cohen.

Size-wise, Cohen will remind Pats fans of Danny Woodhead -- just ten times better. Cohen is extremely quick. He plays a similar role in the Chicago offense as James White does with the Patriots. He's primarily a pass catcher, and an effective one at that. He has recorded 14 receptions and over 200 yards combined in the last two weeks.

Now, New England isn't walking into a place like Mile High or Arrowhead Stadium, where they have historically struggled; but it is an unfamiliar place. The Patriots haven't played in Chicago since 2010. The Bears will obviously be motivated to play the Patriots, but after an embarrassing effort against an offense led by Brock Osweiler, there should be something extra there.

Winning at home is nice, but it's expected in today's NFL. Brady has lost just 19 home games in his career. The elite teams are ones who also dominate on the road. Winless on the road this year, the Pats bring an improved offense and a defense playing with some swagger to Chicago this week. We should learn a lot from Sunday afternoon's result.

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