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christopher l. gasper

Patriots’ contender status about to be tested

Bill Belichick’s team will face a series of challenging quarterbacks over the next six games. Stephan Savoia/AP

Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of Middling, represent what you would call a soft opening for the Patriots in a six-game span that is going to test their improved pass defense and their contender credentials.

Since 2010, there have been numerous soft openings in the Patriots’ pass defense. No team in the NFL from 2010 to 2013 allowed more passing yards than the Patriots (17,005) and more pass plays of 25 yards or more (146).

But this season the skies have become less friendly for opponents, even though Revis Island has been more like Revis Isthmus, which apparently has its own time zone. Through seven games, the Patriots have the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL, allowing 208 yards per game, and they’re the only defense in the NFL that hasn’t allowed a pass play of 40 yards or more.

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The next six games will tell us just whether the Patriots pass defense has undergone a makeover or just got photoshopped facing mostly pedestrian passers. It’s an important distinction in a league that is increasingly geared toward passing and in a conference where the road to the Super Bowl goes through Peyton Manning.

The best quarterback the Patriots have faced thus far is Kansas City’s Alex Smith — sorry, Andy Dalton fan club — and he went 20 of 26 for 248 yards and three touchdowns in the Monday Night Massacre. Starting Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots will face in succession Cutler, Manning, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers. Pass the test against these passers and you have to feel a lot better about the Patriots chances of playing into February.

Unfortunately, the Patriots are going to have to play some of these games without their best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, who is expected to miss about a month with a hip injury. Anyone who has been paying attention to Tom Brady and the torrent of criticism that flowed his way in the first four games of the season can attest that the best way to make an elite quarterback look eminently mortal is to pressure him.

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Without Jones, the Patriots aren’t really built to do that.

The injury to the Patriots’ best pass rusher calls into question whether the team should have done more in the offseason to acquire another pass rusher to complement Jones and the ever reliable Rob Ninkovich. It was apparent in training camp that washed-up Will Smith wasn’t the answer.

The way the NFL has evolved offensively a third pass rusher is basically the same as a third cornerback. Those are now starter-caliber spots on a team and have to be treated as such. The Patriots are stocked at cornerback, but thin on edge rushers.

Perhaps reclamation project linebacker Akeem Ayers, acquired via trade from the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday, can help compensate for Jones’s absence.

Facing the bickering 3-4 Bears gives the Patriots a chance to experiment with the best way to camouflage the absence of Jones and the best way to employ hulking cornerback Brandon Browner, who made his season-debut against the Jets.

Chicago has a potent passing game with redwood-sized receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, and Martellus Bennett, who is tied for the NFL lead in receptions among tight ends with 41, and versatile running back Matt Forte, who leads the NFL in receptions with 52.

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Imagine what Brady would do with these weapons.

For such a storied franchise, the Bears are light on hallowed quarterbacks, so you can’t blame them if they don’t know what one looks like. Another Sid Luckman isn’t walking through that door, Bears fans.

Cutler is the quarterback equivalent of former Celtic Jordan Crawford. He is a gunner who can win the game for either team. Cutler has the physical skills of Brett Favre and the decision-making skills of a Kardashian.

He is capable of jaw-dropping throws and hair-pulling mistakes. He gets ripped by former teammates such as Brian Urlacher.

Cutler is completing 67.3 percent of his passes and has a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ration, which sounds great. The only problem is that Cutler has accounted for 10 of Chicago’s 13 turnovers this year (seven interceptions and three fumbles).

Cutler should apply for a 501 (c)(3), a charitable organization tax exemption, on the seven-year, $126 million contract he inked in the offseason. He is almost single-handedly the reason the Bears have a minus-1 turnover differential.

Only recently-benched Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has turned the ball over more this year than Cutler, who is tied for the second-most turnovers in the NFL.

Cutler is lucky. He has fumbled a total of eight times this season. If Bill Belichick were his coach he would be standing on the sideline cradling a football like it was a newborn.

The turnovers play right into the hands of the opportunistic Patriots, who seem to almost Jedi mind trick opponents into mistakes. New England has forced 14 turnovers this year, leading to 53 points.

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Cutler was 12 of 26 for 152 yards and two interceptions in the Patriots’ 36-7 win at Soldier Field in 2010. He will want to redeem himself and also prove a point to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Cutler and McDaniels had a rather nasty contretemps in Denver when McDaniels took over as head coach in 2009. It stemmed from McDaniels trying to trade for former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel.

That was seen as a betrayal by Cutler, who demanded a trade and at one point wouldn’t even return McDaniels’s phone calls, forcing McDaniels to ship him to Chicago.

Cutler isn’t Manning or Luck or Rodgers or Rivers, but he is a quarterback capable of probing the Patriots improved pass defense. He is also the first step in a six-game, seven-week QB gauntlet.

Sunday will either further inflate the Patriots’ confidence in a retooled pass defense or take the air out of it.


Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.