On our video preview of the Bears-Saints game, my Sun-Times colleague Hub Arkush challenged me to find some ‘‘piece of analysis’’ that would portend to a Bears victory. There wasn’t enough time in the video to list each and every facet of this game that might portend to a Bears victory. Here’s a closer look at why the Bears, coming off a dreadful 40-32 loss to the Lions, can beat the Saints, who are coming off back-to-back lopsided victories — 31-7 over the Cardinals and 38-17 over the Dolphins on Monday night:
1. The Bears are starting stronger under Marc Trestman. A year ago, the Bears were the second-worst first-quarter team in the NFL. In 16 games, they averaged 4.4 yards per play (2.9 yards per play through the first four games), with 71 points and 23 ‘‘negative’’ plays — six interceptions, four fumbles and 13 sacks allowed. In four games this season, they’re averaging 6.3 yards per play in the first quarter (ninth in the NFL), with 44 points (a pace for 176) and one negative play — one interception, no fumbles and no sacks allowed.
2. The Bears’ improved play early gives them a better chance to win because the Saints ‘‘new and improved’’ defense has not been stellar in the first quarter. The Saints are allowing 6.3 yards per play (25th in the NFL) in the first quarter, with only one of their 12 sacks and none of their 15 takeaways. In fact, against the Dolphins on Monday night, the Saints defense allowed 8.8 yards per play (221 yards on 25 plays) until Ryan Tannehill threw an interception with 1:30 to go in the first half. The Dolphins were trailing 14-10 at the time. The Saints scored a touchdown off that turnover for a 21-10 lead. Only in the second half did the Saints turn the game into a rout, getting all four of their sacks after taking a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter.
3. The Bears should be able to establish the run early against the Saints. Trestman downplayed the fact that the Saints are 22nd in the league in rushing defense and 32nd in rushing defense per attempt, but these are the facts: In the first quarter, when every game has been close, the Bears are third in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt (6.7); the Saints are 25th in rushing yards allowed per attempt (5.8).
4. In games on grass, the Saints are 3-3 against winning teams (based on final records) with Drew Brees at quarterback. The Saints don’t become a different team on grass or on the road. But they’re not as lethal as they are in the Superdome.
5. As imposing as the Saints have appeared in their last two games, this is the same team that needed a field goal as time expired to beat the still-winless Buccaneers 16-14 in Tampa in Week 2. The Buccaneers, in fact, missed a 47-yard field goal with 1:10 to go that would have given them a 17-13 lead. Instead, Brees got the ball at the Saints 37 and needed only three plays to get a chip shot field goal to win it.
6. The Saints also nearly lost to the Falcons at home in the opener. Trailing 23-17, the Falcons had a fourth-and-goal at the Saints 3 with 49 seconds left in regulation when Matt Ryan’s pass for Tony Gonzalez was tipped by rookie Kenny Vaccaro and intercepted by Roman Harper. They’re good and playing better recently. But they’re hardly a robust 4-0.
7. For what it’s worth, the Saints have struggled on the road after playing on Monday Night Football in the Drew Brees era. In 2009, when they were 11-0 against the 3-8 Redskins at Fed Ex Field, they needed a late fourth-quarter touchdown to tie and won 33-30 in overtime. In 2008, they lost at Tampa Bay, 23-20. In Brees’ first season in New Orleans in 2006, the 3-0 Saints lost at Carolina 21-18 after playing on MNF.
That doesn’t mean the Bears will beat the Saints on Sunday. The Bears still have to find a way to stop Drew Brees with a defensive line that is missing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton and is struggling to make the impact it has in the past. Jay Cutler has to avoid the turnovers that plagued him against the Lions. But to answer Hub’s question, there are some factors in the Bears’ favor that make it possible to predict a Bears victory.