Final Thoughts Before the NFC Championship Game…
This one definitely has a different feel to it than the last two NFC Championship Games in which the Bears participated. In 1985, we were the best team in the NFL—maybe the history of the NFL—and we knew it. The Rams knew it. The game was almost a formality; and the final score of 24-0 might as well have been 124-0. In 2006, we were again clearly the best team in the NFC. And we steamrolled the Saints, 39-14, at Soldier Field. In the Snow. All was right with the world. We had a dominating defense, a great running game, a QB that could make big throws, and the most dominating return man in the game. And we were a young team. Not only did it seem like we could win that Super Bowl, but it seemed like we were primed for a run of NFC dominance that would result in a couple return trips to the big game in the next few years. As the Super Bowl started, and Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards, it seemed as if the Bears were announcing themselves as the next great team in the NFL.
But we lost. 29-17. Cedric Benson & Rex Grossman couldn’t hold on to the ball. Our defense couldn’t stop the run. However, as the final seconds ticked away, I wasn’t all that sad—I felt almost like this was a rite of passage for the Bears, much like when we had lost in the playoffs the year before (at home) to the Panthers. It seemed like natural progression—step one, make the playoffs; step two, win a couple playoff games; step three, go all the way. Next year would be our year.
That offseason was a rocky road for the Bears. Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera was let go, and LB Coach Bob Babich was named his successor. RB Thomas Jones, the team’s leading rusher the past 2 years, was traded to the Jets. DT Tank Johnson was arrested for the final time before being released. We traded S Chris Harris to the Panthers to make room for new free-agent signee S Adam Archuleta. LB Lance Briggs was threatening to sit out the whole season without a new contract. Then came maybe the worst Bears’ draft in the last 20 years, with guys like DE Dan Bazuin, LB Michael Okwo, RB Garrett Wolfe, and OG Josh Beekman. Lance Briggs eventually signed his 1-year tender; but it was clear he wanted a big money deal, either in Chicago or elsewhere.
Then the season started, and soon came the injuries. Mike Brown, for all intensive purposes, had his career ended on an illegal block by Lorenzo Neal in the first game of 2007 against the Chargers. A few weeks later, it was CB Nathan Vasher and DT Tommie Harris against the Cowboys. Brian Urlacher was announced to have a chronic back condition that would limit him for the remainder of his career. And Rex Grossman kept throwing interceptions. The Bears finished 7-9. They followed that season with a 9-7 and 7-9 season. So we have been 23-25 since the Super Bowl.
There have been some bright spots during the last three years—the stealing of QB Jay Cutler from the Broncos, the free-agent signing of DE Julius Peppers; but mostly it has been about injuries and unfulfilled promise. That’s why when the 2010 season started, there was not much optimism out side of Halas Hall for the Bears’ prospect this season, even after the offseason pickups of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and offensive line coach Mike Tice. “Experts” claimed we had a QB who throw too many picks; a shoddy WR corps; an even worse offensive line; and an aging defense. Most people picked the Bears to finish between 6-10 and 8-8….and few people expected us to make the playoffs. Even when we started 3-0, much of the credit was given to good fortune. And when we lost 3 of our next 4, the experts said that THIS was the real Bears team. We were given no respect when we closed the season on a 7-2 run to finish 11-5, with a first-round bye. And the win at home over the Seahawks in the Divisional Round has done little to quiet the critics. Chicago started the week as 4-point underdogs to the 6th-seeded Green Bay Packers. Maybe thats why this game has such a different feel to it. The Bears have rarely been a part of this game when they weren’t expected to win.
I also cannot remember a game in the Bears’ history that felt like more was riding on a victory:
Lovie Smith could become the first Bears coach EVER to go to 2 Super Bowls. Three Division titles and 2 Super Bowls in 7 years probably nets him an extension. When the Bears are losing, Lovie Smith has always been an easy traget for crticism, with his easy-going approach to the players. But the players love him; the veteran leaders all swear by him; and with a win, his style would once and for all be vindicated.
QB Jay Cutler would be in the Super Bowl before QBs that are considered better than him—Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan—and would shed the label that he can’t be a winning QB. No QB has endured more criticism from the national media than Jay. He was told he couldn’t make the playoffs as a QB; then that he could never win a playoff game. Then he goes out a DOMINATES in his first playoff game, a victory, and all he did was beat a team he was supposed to beat. A win over media darling Aaron Rodgers would be a big middle finger to all those so-called experts.
DE Julius Peppers would seem like the smartest guy in the NFL. When he signed his $90 million deal with the Bears this past offseason, he said it wasn’t about the money. It was about being part of a team that could win. Now. And people laughed. He thinks the Bears can win now? He has been the most dominant defender on our defense this season. However many votes he gets for Defensive POY will not be enough. His impact has been compared to the one DE Reggie White had when he signed with the Packers. For that to be true, he has to win today.
LB Brian Urlacher will give his final case to be Hall of Fame-worthy. Has another player ever been named Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, AND been voted the most overrated player in the NFL in his career? For someone who was washed up two years ago, he has definitely had a great season. A MLB in a Cover-2 scheme isn’t going to amass the numbers that some other MLBs will; but his career numbers are hard to top. The top 2 MLBs of this era are, unquestionably, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. Ray Lewis led his team to a Super Bowl win. Its the only thing missing on Urlacher’s mantle.
More than anything to me, this seems like a chance for finish the business the Bears started in 2006. It seems only fitting that before the season we re-acquired S Chris Harris; and that now, in the last few games, DT Tommie Harris seems to be rounding into form, with 3 sacks in the last 2 games. It seems fitting that you can turn on NFL Network this week and see highlights of C Olin Kreutz and OG Roberto Garza plowing the way for Bear RBs; or discussion about how Devin Hester is the most dangerous return man in the history of the NFL. It seems fitting that the Bears would talk about activating TE Desmond Clark for the first time in like 10 weeks…
Because I think the Bears players and coaches are NOT playing today just to beat the Packers, or for a spot in the Super Bowl in two weeks. For them, this game is a final chance to make all the wrong that has happened since the Super Bowl 4 years ago RIGHT.