Panthers at Bears preview

The action starts early Sunday with Chicago (11-5 straight up, 9-5-2 against the spread) playing host to Carolina (12-5 SU, 10-7 ATS) at Soldier Field in a rematch of the Bears' 13-3 win at the same venue back on Nov. 20. Most sports books have installed the Bears as either three-point favorites or 2 1/2-point 'chalk.' A bunch of books have been reluctant to come off the three number, instead forcing bettors to lay double juice on Panthers bets. On the flip side, some books are making gamblers wager at a minus 120 price for the Bears, but at 2 1/2 instead of three.

The total is low, real low. Depending on where you place your bets, the total is wavering between 30 and 31. Our friends at have it at 30 1/2.

Carolina dominated and destroyed the Giants in last week's wild-card round, cruising to an easy 23-0 win as a three-point underdog. DeShaun Foster showed no ill effects of a foot injury, running around a depleted New York linebacking corps for 151 yards. Nick Goings added 61 yards on 12 carries.

Steve Smith produced another stellar performance, hauling in 10 catches for 84 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown grab from Jake Delhomme. Smith also found paydirt by running for a 12-yard score on a reverse.

The Bears enjoyed a bye week after concluding the season with a 34-10 loss at Minnesota. Throw out that loss, though, because they rested many starters, including quarterback Rex Grossman.

Chicago's last meaningful game was on Christmas night when it captured a 24-17 win at Green Bay as a seven-point favorite. Making his first start in 15 months, Grossman played outstanding, although his numbers didn't necessarily reflect a monster performance.

The third-year QB out of Florida threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad on third-and-goal in the first quarter. Grossman finished with 11 completions on 23 attempts for 166 yards, throwing one interception on a deep ball into the wind that he didn't get enough on.

But Grossman's impact goes well beyond stats. You see, defenses have stacked the box with eight men to stop Thomas Jones all year. With the threat of Grossman and an improved passing attack, defenses now have to respect play action and be cognizant of Muhammad and Justin Gage trying to get deep behind the secondary. This opens up more running room for Jones.

In addition, the Bears can now be a threat in third-and-long situations. For 14 games under Kyle Orton, Chicago simply played field position and allowed its defense to win games. Lovie Smith still wants to live and die with the running game and solid defense, but at least now the passing attack exists and can produce when needed.

Neither team could get anything done offensively in the first meeting, but remember, Orton was under center for the Bears in that game. The Panthers were also favorites in that spot, while they come to the Windy City as underdogs this time around.

That's a good thing for Carolina. In fact, that's great news for bettors backing the Panthers in this NFC semifinals showdown. After all, they own an incredible 17-2 spread record in their last 19 games as 'dogs. During John Fox's four-year tenure in Carolina, the Panthers are 5-0 ATS in the playoffs. Plus, they have won outright in all three spots as road 'dogs.

Chicago won seven of its eight home games, posting a 6-2 spread record. The only non-covers came in an outright loss to Cincinnati and a sloppy win against San Francisco.

Carolina has played better on the road than in Charlotte. It owns a 7-2 SU record on the road to go with a 6-3 ATS mark.

The 'under' is 10-4-2 overall for the Bears, 7-1 in their home games. Meanwhile, Carolina has seen the 'under' go 8-7-2 overall, 4-4-1 in their road assignments.