Monday, January 3, 2011

A Meaningless Loss...or Was It?

The Chicago Bears are the #2 seed in the NFC. They have a bye this week, and they host their first playoff game in the Divisional Round the following week. After an abysmal preseason, a few terrible home losses, and colossal embarrassments against the Giants and Patriots, their playoff position is without a doubt an unexpected surprise (thank you Joe Webb). But, after a hard-fought loss to the Packers yesterday that had no impact on their playoff seeding, do we really know what this team is capable of accomplishing in the playoffs?

There are some encouraging signs that we can take from yesterday's game. In a playoff-type atmosphere in a hostile environment, the defense shut down one of the hottest passing games in the NFL. The defensive line made Rodgers uncomfortable most of the game, and the secondary executed much better than in recent games. They completely shutdown the Packers running game, got two turnovers, and were especially good on third down. After recent subpar performances against the Jets and Patriots, this is definitely encouraging. I would've liked to have seen Peppers or Urlacher make a game changing play, but they've been great most of the year, so I can't really complain. Overall, an outstanding effort by the defense on the road in a meaningless game against a desperate, hungry team.

However, the protection problems that have plagued the Bears most of the season have reared their ugly head again. The Packers employ a complicated, blitz heavy scheme that utilizes lots of man-under coverage. This makes it tough for the quarterback to find open receivers compared to playing against a zone scheme where holes underneath the coverage are common. But, the Bears have now seen this scheme four times in the past two years. Yet, it continues to befuddle Cutler. At some point, he and the offense need to learn how to beat this scheme. Most of his completions were short, and when he did throw down the field, it was frightening. There were at least two passes that should've been intercepted on top of the two that were intercepted. The quick dump-off passes to uncovered receivers running down the seam worked once or twice against the blitz, but then the Packers adjusted to that and took away a huge part of the Bears blitz-beating plays. Some of the protection problems weren't on the offensive line (Brandon Manumaleuna missed an easy block on a blitzing Charless Woodson), but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried that their confidence might be a little shaken heading into the playoffs.
I've read that the Bears utilized a "vanilla" game plan, and that they didn't do anything different in their game planning since the Jets game. That may be true, but aren't in-game adjustments needed even if you're not trying to show your hand to the rest of the league, especially when you're QB is getting mugged? This was the Martz offense from early in the season when ineffective pass plays kept getting called in place of running plays that had proved effective. I'm hoping this was an anomaly, but I'm worried that Martz still defaults to pass-whacky play calling when his back is against the wall. Let's hope Forte and his 4.5 yards per carry make a return visit in the next game because it seems like the offensive line has gotten the running game mostly figured out.

Johnny Knox, after a great game against the Jets, is starting to show his limitations as a number one receiver. He dropped an easy catch that hit him in the stomach, and his small stature limits his ability to make plays when the ball is in the air. His speed and quickness still make him dangerous, but the Bears need a reliable go-to receiver who can make a play in crunch time. Knox isn't that guy yet. Let's hope Bennett will be healthy for the playoffs because he has become, without a doubt, the most reliable receiver in key situations for the Bears.

It's tough to be overly critical of Cutler's performance. The protection wasn't great, and the Packers secondary stuck with the Bears receivers like glue. He provided us with his usual inexcusable throw with the interception in the end zone, but his other pick was just a bad pass. In fact, Hester was open on the play, and it would've given the Bears a first down inside the 15-yard line. I still worry that Cutler's few bad decisions each game will cost us in the playoffs, but I hope that he can play a mistake-free game when it counts. Or, at least overcome those mistakes with his potential for brilliance.

Pulling out my crystal ball, I think the Bears will play the Saints in the divisional round. I think the Packers and that defense of theirs will shutdown Vick and the Eagles. And, I don't see how the Seahawks can beat the Saints. I'd prefer to see Seattle in a rematch from earlier this season, so we can crush them on our way to the championship game, but I'd bet on Sean Payton and Drew Brees any day over Pete Carroll and Charlie Whitehurst/Matt Hasselbeck. I think the Bears match up pretty well to the Saints and we've already beaten the Eagles. So, if the Bears can tighten up things in their protection, and the defense can play with the intensity they showed yesterday, maybe the Bears can get themselves a playoff win.

But, no matter what happens this Sunday, we know we won't see the Packers again...unless it's in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. If that happens, maybe Martz and company will figure out a way to beat that Capers defense. They didn't do it yesterday, but that was a meaningless game...right?

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