Bears guard against letdown against Panthers

CHICAGO – The Bears will face a desperate opponent today on the lakefront.

At 1-5, the Carolina Panthers cannot afford another loss. Most of the team’s coaches are fighting to save their jobs. Many of the players are battling to prove that they belong in the league.

By comparison, the first-place Bears (5-1) would seem to be happy and carefree.

Maybe it seems that way, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice said. But it wasn’t reality.

“We’re desperate, too,” Tice said recently at Halas Hall when asked about the dangers of facing a desperate team. “We need to be 6-1. Have you looked at our schedule coming up?”

Tice is right.

Although the Bears feature the third-best record in the NFL behind the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, a tough second-half schedule looms. Seven of the Bears’ final eight opponents entered Week 8 with a winning record, including talent-laden teams such as the Texans (6-1), San Francisco 49ers (5-2) and Green Bay Packers (4-3).

So far, the Bears have kept pace with the league’s heavyweights. They have done so by beating relative lightweights such as the Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Enter Carolina, another seemingly soft visitor that the Bears should dominate.

The Panthers rank in the bottom third of almost every category in the NFL. They are No. 28 in points scored, No. 24 in total offense, No. 21 in total defense and No. 26 in turnover ratio.

Yet situations often transcended statistics, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said.

The Panthers endured the firing of their longtime general manager, Marty Hurney, on Monday. Midseason front-office changes are almost unheard of in the NFL, and an embarrassing wake-up call could fuel the Panthers’ desperation – and danger – for success, if only for the short term.

“Absolutely,” Cutler said. “It’s a good point. It’s hard, week in and week out, and then you get some teams that have their backs against the wall. You just never know if they’re going to play their hardest football they’ve played all year. We’ve got to be ready for that.”

It’s not as if the Panthers haven’t played hard to this point.

They lost by six points on the road to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. They lost by two points on the road to the Falcons in Week 4. They lost by four points against the Seahawks in Week 5. They lost by five points to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7.

Sense a pattern?

Bears coach Lovie Smith does. He has emphasized the Panthers’ strengths to his players throughout a week of practice, and he showed replays of last season’s narrow win in which Carolina gashed the Bears defense for 543 total yards (374 passing, 169 rushing).

“During the course of any year, most times it’s not just going to be smooth sailing throughout,” Smith said. “I think it’s a little early to start trying to cast exactly what someone is and what a team is right now, especially Carolina. The last three games, it’s all been close games.

“Ron [Rivera] has an excellent coaching staff, with a lot of good players. You go through some times like this, but you keep working on what you believe in. We just hope they don’t get it right this week. But they’ll be fine in time.”

Five things to track during today’s Bears game against the Panthers.
1. Stay patient
Cam Newton possesses all kinds of talent, but he has thrown for 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in 22 career starts. Newton likely will rack up some yards against the Bears’ defense, but the key is to stay patient and eventually turn a risky pass into a key takeaway.

2. Look down
Six days after shutting down 6-foot-5-inch wide receiver Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, Charles Tillman and the Bears’ secondary must turn its attention to 5-foot-9-inch wide receiver Steve Smith. In 11-plus seasons, Smith has posted 40 games with 100-plus yards.

3. Turnover ratio
The Bears lead the league with a plus-13 turnover ratio, while the Panthers are tied for 26th with a minus-6 turnover ratio. Here’s why those numbers matter so much: Since Lovie Smith arrived as head coach in 2004, the Bears are 47-9 when they win the turnover battle.

4. Old friend
For a couple of seasons, Greg Olsen was the best receiver on the Bears despite the fact that he played tight end. Now in Year 2 in Carolina, Olsen trails only Steve Smith with 26 catches for 324 yards and a touchdown. His size (6-5, 255 pounds) presents a difficult matchup.

5. Be smart
Jay Cutler practiced without limitations Thursday and Friday, but his ribs might still be sore after a brutal hit by Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh on Monday night. The Bears can limit hits against Cutler by emphasizing the run. Let Matt Forte and Michael Bush absorb the contact.