Chicago Bears at SF 49ers NFL Thursday Night Prediction

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In the first Thursday night NFL football game of the 2009 season, the 4-4 Chicago Bears travel to San Francisco to take on the 3-5 SF 49ers. Four short weeks ago this looked like a marquee match-up for the NFL Network. Both teams were sitting at 3-1 and poised to be potential playoff contenders after the first quarter of the season. Now, the Bears are sitting at .500, losers of 3 of their last 4, while the 49ers, losers of 4 straight, are starting to lose sight of the suddenly surging Arizona Cardinals. The Bears and the 49ers are looking at week 10 as their first “must win” game of the year or running the risk of losing control of the entire season.

For the Bears, the first 4 games hardly resemble what we have seen in the last 4 following the week 5 bye. Starting the season with an abysmal 4 interception performance in week 1 against Green Bay, Jay Cutler led the Bears to 3 straight victories. His quarterback rating in those 3 games was 104.7, 126.4, and, 100.4. Cutler had thrown for 7 touchdowns to only 1 interception, completing over 70 percent of his passing attempts in the victories. The team was averaging 30 points per game in those wins and the Bears finally had their pro bowl quarterback. The normally stout Chicago defense was impressive early in the year even without Brian Urlacher anchoring the middle. Opponents were averaging 19.25 points per game through the first 4 games and rushing for less than 80 yards per game. The defensive line was constantly bringing pressure, accounting for no less than 2 sacks per game, with a season high of 5 sacks against the Lions in week 4. It was a collective effort as the team had +4 turnover margin during their winning streak entering the bye.

Any momentum that did exist from Chicago’s 3 game winning streak was certainly gone by week 6 and anything resembling that same swagger has failed to return. The Bears are giving up more points, 28.25 and scoring far less, 16.25 in their last 4 games. Jay Cutler has reverted back to throwing too many interceptions, at least 1 in his last 3 games, and his quarterback rating is 77.25 in his last 4 games with 2 games being in the mid 60’s. The Defense is struggling to stop anyone from scoring, giving up more than 40 points twice and recording only 2 total sacks in the last 4 games. The end result is a total offense ranked 18th and a total defense ranked 15th in the league.

The 49ers, although sharing the same record as the Bears early on in the season at 3-1 before slowly and systematically self-destructing in the last 4 games, were never as good as their record indicated. I do not care who you are in this league, if you do not have quarterback, you cannot win on a consistent basis. The 49ers have failed to find a reliable player to lead them under center for the better part of a decade now. They started the season with Shaun Hill as their starter before switching to Alex Smith in the middle of week 7. Combine this with a very sub-par offensive line which has given up a 28 sacks already this year, tied for 28th in the league, and it is easy to see why this team is struggling so mightily.

Shaun Hill remains a back-up quarterback who found himself as a starter on a team with no real answer at the quarterback position. He was asked from the onset to only throw when necessary but when in doubt, run the ball behind Frank Gore and Glen Coffee. It was an offensive philosophy based on one of the few teams strengths in Frank Gore, but also based on the lack of confidence in Hill to throw the football. This over reliance on Gore made the 49ers very predictable as the season wore on; teams were often putting that 8th man in the box to stop the running attack and daring Hill to beat the one on one match ups. The 49ers are currently 22nd in the league in rushing and 22nd in the league in passing as Hill could never consistently expose match ups on the outside during his 6 games as a starter.

It would be week 7 at Houston before Singletary had seen enough in Hill. Hill was only completing 57% of his passes during starts and only once, week 1, did Hill ever throw for more than 200 yards in a game. At half time of the Houston game Hill was 6 for 11 with 45 yards before being benched for Alex Smith. Smith came in and has played decent football in his first game and a half, finishing the Houston game with 3 touchdowns, something in which Hill had not done in any game all year. Against Indianapolis, Smith was a respectable 19 for 32 for 198 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Smith imploded the following week with 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles in a combined effort of poor play on his part and equally poor play from his offensive line which gave up 4 sacks and lost starting left tackle Joe Staley for 6 weeks.

Enter Thursday Night football. Neither of the two teams really have any identity half way into the season. Chicago is average or worse both offensively and defensively this year. The 49ers want to run the ball but can’t and they still do not yet know what they have in Alex Smith as he makes his 3rd start of the season. The advantage Chicago has is that Cutler has been a pro bowl caliber quarterback and the 49ers secondary has been giving up huge chunks of yardage, allowing 241 yards per game, 24th in the league. On the flip side, Cutler has not played well on the road this season. The Bears are 1-3 on the road with some truly forgettable performances by Cutler. In Cutler’s 4 road games, he threw 4 interceptions against Green Bay, 1 in Seattle, 2 in Atlanta, and 3 in Cincinnati, totaling 10 interceptions to 7 touchdowns. While the 49ers secondary has game planned better in recent weeks, allowing 0 passing touchdowns in the last 2 games.

In the end, the advantage goes to the 49ers at -3. Even though Alex Smith remains an unknown commodity in the league after 5 years, he has averaged 2 touchdowns per outing this season and the 49ers are at home for the 2nd consecutive week. On a short week, don’t underestimate the importance of home-field advantage against a weak road opponent.

Thursday Night Football Pick: SF 49ers -3

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