Another View: Can The Bears Win?

Will The Shufflin' Crew Shuffle Again?

Last August, while previewing the upcoming 2010-2011 NFL season, I tried to separate myself from my Minnesota upbringing and Wisconsin residency in order to write a blog in which I asked the question “Can the Bears Compete in 2010?”

At the time, more people would have predicted the return of the disastrous The Jay Leno Show then would have predicted a Chicago Bears NFC North division title.  After all, Brett Favre had just agreed to return to the Minnesota Vikings, and if any team was going to stop the Purple from winning its third straight division crown, surely it would be the Green Bay Packers, who had looked so strong the previous season before its defense inexplicably melted down in the first round of the playoffs.  

But even though I erroneously predicted the Packers would win the division this year, I felt like the Bears could leapfrog over the Vikings, in large part due to the arrival of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who I thought could help Jay Cutler immeasurably (he did). I also felt that Matt Forte would have a  much better season than the sophomore slump he suffered the year before (he did), and I knew that the Bears defense, especially if Brian Urlacher could stay healthy (he did) and new acquisition Julius Peppers could contribute (he did), was rock solid. 

I also said that the Bears’ main problem would be their porous offensive line, which, for the first third of the season, it was: Cutler was sacked 27 times in their first seven games, including nine sacks against the Giants and six sacks against the Seahawks (not surprisingly, both losses). Despite holding a 4-3 record after those seven games, it looked as if my prediction that the Bears would be scratching their way back to relevancy was as ill-conceived as, well, The Jay Leno Show.  

(BTW, I highly recommend the book The War for Late Night: I’m devouring it right now, which should help to explain the none-too-timely Jay Leno references.)

But then, something incredible happened: The heretofore pass-happy Martz, who liked to call running plays about as much as the work-obsessed Jay Leno liked to take vacations (seriously, read the book) realized that Jay Cutler was no Kurt Warner, that Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett were no Issac Bruce and Torry Holt, and that his offensive line wasn’t strong enough to hold for those seven-step drop pass plays that he called when he coached the St. Louis Rams.

Realizing that relying on Cutler to throw the ball 35-plus times a game was a recipe for disaster, Martz started to call more run plays. He started to call for shorter pass plays, eliminating the pressure on Cutler that seemed to result in either sacks or interceptions (Cutler went from 27 INTs in 2009 to 16 in 2010). The defense continued to play terrific. And the Bears went from being a much-maligned 4-3 team to, well, being a much-maligned 11-5 team.

Why can’t the Bears, an underdog for this weekend’s much-hyped and much-anticipated NFC Championship Game against the Packers despite the fact that they are: A) at home; B) the #2 seed to the Packers #6 seed; and C) coming off a resounding playoff victory, get much respect?

I think the reasons football fans deny the Bears love to the same extent that “Tiger Mothers” deny their children love are many:

1. They weren’t supposed to be there. As late as week seven, Cris Colinsworth, during NBC’s broadcast of  the Packers’s 28-24 victory over the Vikings, said that despite records, the Packers and Vikings were the two teams who would be battling over the division title.

2. Lack of stars. The Bears arguably have bigger names patrolling the sidelines (Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, Mike Martz, Mike Tice) than they do on the football field. That’s not the way to generate excitement about your team.

3. One Night Only — Rodgers vs. Favre. Last year some were drooling over a Rodgers-Favre Round 3 in the playoffs. Surely we would get one this year, many said. But instead, Favre was too busy battling injuries, his head coach, a sexting scandal, and old age to survive even the regular season, much less the postseason.

4. Big Collapses. The Bears laid complete eggs during two of their most-viewed games, an October Sunday night game against the Giants during which their offense gained a total of 110 yards, and a much-hyped late-Sunday afternoon game against the Patriots that the Bears lost at home 36-7. For many, the images they have of the 2010 Bears season are from those games.

5. Beating the Unworthy. Despite the fact that they completely dismantled them, the Bears impressed few with their beating of the Seahawks in the divisional round. Seattle, the experts said, were a terrible team and they played like a terrible team. Most seemed to quickly forget how the Seahawks had dispatched of the defending Super Bowl champs just the week before.

It also doesn’t help the Bears’ cause that they lost to the Packers 10-3 just three weeks ago. This weighs on people despite the fact that the Bears had nothing to play for and, being an elimination game for Green Bay, the Packers had everything to play for.

Well, the Bears did have something to play for: Keeping a potential threat out of the postseason (and the Packers were perceived as a “threat” to all NFC teams even though they were just 2-3 in their previous five games). But since they failed that test, can they pass a much more important one Sunday in order to reach their third Super Bowl?

Here’s five reasons they could:

1. Their running game. The clearest advantage that the Bears have over the Packers is they have Matt Forte and Chester Taylor in their backfield. Matt Forte is more than just a weapon for the Bears — he’s their best offensive player, totaling over 1,000 yards on the ground and 547 yards receiving this season. And while Packers rookie James Starks turned heads with his Wild Card performance over the Eagles, he was far less spectacular last weekend, averaging just 2.6 yards a carry.  Note also that Forte had one of his best games of the season January 2 against the Packers, with 151 all-purpose yards. If the Bears can get similar production from Forte with Taylor providing some relief, they can win.

2. Their defense. Football pundits are so high on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense that most of them seem to have forgotten that just three weeks ago, the Bears more than held Green Bay’s high-flying offense in check; they kept them out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. They also kept Seattle, a team that laid 41 points on the World Champs the week before, scoreless for almost three quarters last week. If they can repeat those two defensive performances, anything is possible. 

3. Their kick returner. With two defenses as strong as the Packers and the Bears, Sunday’s game could come down to a big play on special teams. And if it does, you can count on Devin Hester being the one to make it. Hester returned five punts for 128 yards in the two games against the Packers this season, including a 62-yard TD in the Bears’ week 3 victory over the Packers. If the Packers can score enough points to limit their need to punt the ball (as they did last week against Atlanta when they had exactly zero punts), then Hester becomes a non-factor. But you can’t count on that against the Bears.

4. History. The last thing Packers fans want to hear about is their team’s recent history in close games. But as much as they may want to shut it out, the truth is unavoidable: The Packers were 2-6 this year in games decided by four points or less. The oddsmakers — and most others  — seem to think the game will be decided by four points or less. That doesn’t bode well for the green and gold.

5. The Oprah factor. Oprah is from Chicago. Oprah wants a Bears victory. From what I can tell, Oprah gets what she wants.

Despite these reasons, I believe in the end the Packers will prevail. For two simple reasons:

1. Aaron Rodgers is better than Jay Cutler. And frankly, it’s not even close.

2. The Packers are mentally tougher. In my head, I keep going back to that 36-7 pasting the now-we-know-they’re-not-perfect Patriots laid on the Bears in week 14. I know it was only one week and one game, but the Packers didn’t get blown out a single time this year (and really haven’t been soundly beaten since a 51-29 loss to New Orleans in 2008), and in fact gave the now-we-know-they’re-not-perfect Patriots a very close game the very next week with Matt Flynn under center. That tells me that on the rare occasion that Chicago finds itself outmatched, it can emotionally, physically, and mentally surrender. The Packers under Mike McCarthy simply don’t do that. Should the Packers jump out early, I could see them blowing the Bears out. Should the Bears jump out early, I could see the Packers coming back to win it in the end. Either way, I see the Packers winning.

Final score prediction: Packers 23, Bears 20. 

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