Merry Christmas, Lovie Smith.
Your Chicago Bears were handed a first-round bye when the upstart Minnesota Vikings, whom your defense made easy work of last week, defeated a Philadelphia Eagles team that looked less motivated than Homer Simpson after a six-pack of beer and a dozen donuts.
And that offensive performance against the New York Jets? Wow. Who would have thought that an offense, which struggled to put up points against the likes of the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, would put up 38—that's right, 38 points against the No. 5 defense in the NFL? Either Cutler and company have finally found a rhythm, or the Jets defense performed one of the greatest disappearing acts ever seen in professional sport. Or maybe it was a combination of both.
Maybe it doesn't matter.
All that matters is that win or lose next week against the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears are not playing a first-round game. This gives the team some time to rest up, study potential opponents and prepare more thoroughly for their second-round tilt. So, what can the Monsters of the Midway do to best create a deep playoff run?
Get Back to Basics
The Bears are an old-school, black and blue type of team. They thrive on a good defense, solid special teams and a good running game. Special teams doesn't appear to be an issue; the Bears don't really give up big plays on special teams and create big plays of their own with the most feared return man in the NFL, Devin Hester. However, that defensive performance against a Jets offense that was mediocre at best simply won't do. True, the defense was only responsible for 27 of the 34 points given up, but that is far too many against an average offense.
The run game is much improved over last year and Matt Forte is quietly enjoying his best career yards per carry average. If Mike Martz and Jay Cutler want to light up the scoreboard like they did last week, they will need Forte and Chester Taylor to take the pressure off of Cutler in order to set up big plays downfield. The receiving corps is more than capable with the speed of Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox and Hester, but the Bears cannot depend on the big play to win games. They will need to grind it out, control the clock and hold on to the football.
Play 60 Minutes of Football
Last week against the Jets, Chicago jumped out to a 10-0 lead halfway through the first quarter. They were running the ball, swarming on defense and creating turnovers. It appeared as though the rout was on.
Then the Bears took the next 15 minutes off.
The Jets took advantage, reeling off 21 straight points. Finally, the Bears offense woke up at the end of the half to produce a touchdown. Although they only gave up 13 more points in the game, the Bears defense was no better than average the rest of the way. And a team with three Pro Bowl defensive players should not be mediocre.
This is what separates good teams from great teams. There is one team in the NFL that never takes a play off, and that is the New England Patriots. They keep the pedal to the metal the whole game. This is why they led the Bears 33-0 at halftime three weeks ago. This is why they are the current Super Bowl favorites. This is why they are 13-2.
True, Chicago's offense cannot draw comparisons to Tom Brady and Co., but their defense is certainly better than New England's. It just didn't play the whole game.
Playing half a game, or three-quarters of a game, or playing down to the level of competition is absolutely unacceptable at this point. If Chicago wants a deep playoff run, they need to play hard every down.
Keep Their Heads in the Game
During their 15-minute siesta against the Jets, Chicago looked lost. Charles Tillman was giving 10-yard cushions to possession receivers. Jay Cutler was sacked near his own goal line after having time enough to have a tea party in the backfield. Chris Williams was flagged for a false start. Twice. During the same offensive series.
These kinds of mental mistakes lose games in the playoffs. How they didn't lose to the playoff-bound Jets last week is actually hard to figure out, although it appears that New York's defense did much of the same in giving up 38 points to one of the worst statistical offenses in the NFL. When looking at this, it seems as if Rex Ryan's crew may need some similar advice if they want to avoid a swift, first-round exit. But I digress.
Chicago got to the Super Bowl in 2007 with solid (not great) quarterback play, a good defense, fantastic special teams and a decent running game. But above all, they were all on the same page. The Bears lost to an Indianapolis Colts team that year that was more talented than they were, not because they were thinking about the postgame spread or why Brett Favre wasn't keeping his "private matters" to himself. There's no shame in that.
But if Chicago wants to do the same thing this year, if they want to shock the NFC with a Super Bowl run; if they want a shot against a vastly more talented team (New England) for the greatest prize in professional football, then the mental mistakes need to stop. Immediately.
Chicago, you are a professional playoff football team. Act like it. You've got a shot at the title. Your final exam starts now.