Sunday at 3:40 CT, the Bears will play a playoff game in New Orleans. This is the first in a three-part preview of that contest.
Cairo Santos has been the biggest surprise on the Bears roster this season and is due a contract extension. Santos hasn’t missed a field goal since September, and has missed only one extra point on the season.
Will Lutz has had a down year for the Saints, making only 82.1% of his field goals. But his numbers have been substantially better at home, where he has not missed an extra point and missed only one field goal.
If this game comes down to a big kick late, both teams will be comfortable sending their kicker out there to make it.
Pat O’Donnell has become one of the more consistent punters in the game. But if there’s a flaw in his game it’s the absence of the great punt. He is fourth in the league, leaving 28 punts inside the 20, but in a game where the Bears’ specials need to be special, PO’D needs to pin Brees deep a few times.
Thomas Morstead is having (arguably) his weakest season but the metrics used to judge punters are often yardage-based and those don’t always compute. But Morstead’s punts have been fair caught more than any in the league and returners are averaging 2.3 yards per return against his punt unit, best in the league.
Cordarrelle Patterson is the best kickoff return man in the sport but I don’t imagine a scenario where Sean Payton gives him an opportunity to dramatically alter momentum. And the Bears simply haven’t found a replacement for Tarik Cohen on punt returns. (The playoffs are no time to experiment back there, either.) As a team they rank 10th in kickoff return average and 22nd in punt return average.
Deonte Harris is one of the best return men in the league but he’s been battling injuries since late-November. If he’s unable to play Sunday, the Saints have a found a more-than-capable replacement in TommyLee Lewis. Santos has not been blasting kicks through the end zone lately, but one wonders if that will change as they move indoors. As a team the Saints rank 6th in kickoff return average and 9th in punt return average.
If the Bears want to win this game, they need to find an advantage at one of these three points. That means (a) Lutz struggling, (b) P’OD having a career game and forcing the Saints into long-field situations consistently, or (c) Patterson changing field position routinely/scoring. All three can happen but the most likely scenario is Patterson paying off his Pro Bowl campaign by making things easy for a Bears offense that will struggle mightily to create explosive plays.