Like a well-meaning student, Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton listened carefully to the question and tried his best to come up with an informed response.
More than 27 years have passed since the last time the Bears traveled to San Francisco and won a game. Why?
“Maybe the length of the flight?” Melton, 26, said with a smile and a shrug. “I don’t know.”
Melton and his teammates can silence the question with a win tonight.
For the first time in more than two months, the Bears (7-2) will be the underdog when they face the 49ers (6-2-1) tonight at Candlestick Park near the shores of San Francisco Bay. The Bears have lost seven consecutive road games against the 49ers, with their last win in San Francisco coming Oct. 13, 1985, as part of a Super Bowl championship season.
Many players on the Bears’ 53-man roster were not alive when the Bears won that game. Yet they probably remember the Bears’ most recent visit to Candlestick Park in 2009, when Jay Cutler threw five interceptions and the Bears lost, 10-6, in primetime.
Cutler will have to wait to avenge that performance, which was one of the worst games of his nearly four-year tenure with the Bears. He is out today because of a concussion, which means Jason Campbell will make his first start since signing a one-year deal in March.
Campbell, 30, is an experienced veteran with 70 career starts for the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders. His likely counterpart will be veteran 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who is expected to start despite sustaining a concussion a week ago. If Smith cannot start, the 49ers will turn to athletic second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
After a full week of practice with the starters, Campbell said, he was ready to lead the Bears’ offense. He said he and Cutler shared several similar attributes as former first-round picks.
“We both have big arms,” Campbell said. “We both move around a little bit. For me, it’s just getting out there and just getting comfortable, trying to get my rhythm and go from there.”
The Bears haven’t gone much of anywhere on offense for much of the season. Mike Tice’s group is No. 28 in total offense with 316.8 yards a game, and it will be facing a 49ers defense that has allowed the fewest points per game (14.1) of any team in the NFL.
Tice said the only number that he could afford to worry about was how many wins the Bears amass. The Bears need a victory to stay in first place in the NFC North ahead of the Green Bay Packers (7-3), who rallied to beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
“We’re in the second half of the season,” Tice said. “It’s not the time now for even me, a Brian Billick stat guy, to be staring at stats or lack of stats. What we have to do is win football games any way we can win them.
“We have to get the run game going. We have to take some pressure off of Jason. It all starts with that. It’s going to be tough sledding, though. These guys are pretty doggone good.”
That goes for both sides of the ball.
Led by Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, the 49ers have the league’s best ground game with 170.2 rushing yards a game. But the Bears defense has been historically good this season with seven touchdowns and a plus-14 turnover ratio through nine games.
“The Niners have a great running game,” Melton said. “Gore comes downhill.”
Melton’s choice of words was appropriate. As the Bears’ history in San Francisco suggests, today’s game could be an uphill battle.
Five things to track during today’s Bears game against the Texans:
• Be decisive
Jason Campbell is a steady veteran, and the Bears are lucky to have him for spot starts like today. But Campbell has had a tendency to hold on to the ball for too long and to check down to receivers, which is a dangerous habit against a feisty defense such as the 49ers.
• Hit the QB
Barring a late setback, Alex Smith is expected to start at quarterback for the 49ers today despite sufferiung a concussion against St. Louis one week ago. The top candidate to make Smith uncomfortable is Julius Peppers, who has a sack in three of the past four games.
• Pop it loose
The Bears’ defense has feasted on takeaways with 19 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Their mission will be the same today, but their success rate might be different. The 49ers are No. 1 in ball security in the past two seasons with 19 turnovers in 25 games.
• Ground attack
Matt Forte and Frank Gore both earned selections to the Pro Bowl in 2011, and their coaches will be counting on them for a big game today. Gore has averaged 5.4 yards a carry with 892 yards from scrimmage this season, while Forte has averaged 4.7 yards a carry with 754 yards from scrimmage.
• Enjoy the show
Fans of old-school football will enjoy today’s matchup of middle linebackers. Brian Urlacher is a future Hall of Famer who has been improving steadily since knee surgery this August. Patrick Willis has been selected to five Pro Bowls in five seasons and is well on his way to an Urlacher-caliber career.
–Tom Musick, firstname.lastname@example.org