Chicago Bears: 10 Keys to a Super Bowl Berth
Sure, the Bears earned a first round bye and at least one home game in the playoffs. That's great, but all that guarantees is that they can't lose this weekend. But let's face it, the Bears and their fans have much higher aspirations—we want to go to the Super Bowl. Period.
Anything less than an NFC Championship title will be considered a disappointment. Recognizing that, what will it take to accomplish that feat?
Well, for starters, we need some help from other teams in the playoffs, While not absolutely necessary, it would be nice. Meanwhile, the Bears had better play their best football, limit their mistakes on offense and find a pass rush. If they can do those things, there is no reason to believe this Bears team can't go to Dallas.
Can they win the Super Bowl once there? Well, that's another story for a different day. Watching how New England manhandled us during the regular season makes the thought of a Super Bowl title a bit unsettling.
But the main point for now is that we first have to get to Dallas before we can worry about the Patriots or any other AFC team.
So let's take a look at 10 key factors for the Bears on the road to Dallas. Strap it down, 'cuz here we go!
Will Someone Please Beat Atlanta?
The NFL has been full of parity this season, and it wouldn't be too surprising to see almost any team beat another team on a given weekend. Well, maybe Seattle winning would be somewhat of a surprise. But I digress.
Still, there are two teams in the NFC that give me pause, as a Bears fan. Green Bay for obvious reasons, is a concern. But the main team that gives me the creeps is facing Atlanta at home.
The Falcons are a monster on their home field. While the Bears have been good on the road this season, with many thinking the turf conditions at Soldier Field are actually more conducive to winning on the road for a Bears defense which is predicated on speed, it is tough to beat the Dirty Birds at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons have a 19-3 record at home in Mike Smith's three years as coach.
The Falcons are 7-1 at home this year, losing only to the Saints on a Monday night, 17-14. And that's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. They are division rivals and the reigning Super Bowl champs.
Of course, the loss proves that the Falcons aren't invincible at home. Still, it would be nice if someone would beat the Falcons in Round 2, giving the Bears home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Memo to Mike Martz: A Balanced Offense Is Like a Balanced Breakfast
Just like your mom always told you, a balanced breakfast consisting of all the major food groups will start your day off right. Well, likewise, having a balanced offense will get the Bears playoffs off on the right foot as well.
In the final game of the season against the hated Packers, Martz got away from what had been working well since the bye week.
He called for 39 passes versus 18 running plays (not counting the two runs by Jay Cutler). That doesn't work for the Bears, especially with their offensive line.
A steady diet of Cutler moving in the pocket, shorter drops, quick passes and high percentage throws with an almost equal number of runs and passes will hopefully reduce the mistakes the offense makes and go a long way toward winning.
Bring on the Seahawks!
The Bears know how to beat the Eagles and contain Michael Vick. But if the Packers win, the Bears play the Seahawks, and I just don't believe Seattle can beat the Bears twice at Soldier Field in the same season.
I know that the Bears beat the Eagles the first time they played them and they forced Vick's first interception of the year. But I also realize that Vick has had an outstanding year, and it's difficult to beat a team twice in the same season.
Saying that I want the Seahawks may be surprising since they did beat us already. But when the Bears played Seattle, it was before they figured things out, and we went on to win five straight games once Martz changed up the offense.
I also think the Bears could have beaten the Saints, but they are (were) the defending champs, and despite their struggles (relative to last year anyway), including the INTs thrown by Drew Brees, I just feel they are the more experienced team able to handle the pressure of the playoffs, so I'd rather face Philly or now, Seattle.
I hate the Packers like any red-blooded Bears fan, but I do think they will beat the Eagles on Sunday. Unless I'm wrong (and when has THAT ever happened—OK, I predicted the Bears would finish 6-10), Seattle will be coming to Soldier Field for the second time this season.
It did not shock me to see Seattle beat the Saints as they are tough at home. But they would have to beat us twice in one season, at home, and I don't think that will happen.
So bring on the Seahawks.
Will Lovie's Focus on the Saints Bite Him?
Lovie Smith admitted to ESPN he has focused on the Saints, but with Seattle winning, that may be wasted energy.
Of course, he already should know Seattle, since we played them earlier in the season. But you still must wonder if the Bears could have better utilized their time working on Seattle. Of course, hindsight is 20-20.
"We do, and that's what we've done [focused more on New Orleans]," Smith said. "At the same time, we have a history with the Saints. Their coaching staff has been in place, so it's not like anyone is a big surprise to us right now. We'll look at everyone, but spend a little more time on the Saints."
It was a logical decision as the Saints went into the game as a 10-point favorite.
Unless the Eagles beat the Packers on Sunday, the Bears will be facing Seattle in Round 2.
How Will Jay Cutler Respond in His First-Ever Playoff Test?
For Cutler, this is new territory. He has never played in the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the pressure.
Many say that the games are won in the trenches. Still others will claim that defense wins championships. But whatever you believe, there is little doubt that the QB bears a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.
We know the Bears defense is good. We also recognize that the special teams are, well, special. But the Bears offense has not been nearly as good as those third-ranked units, so the road to the Super Bowl may indeed come down to how Cutler performs.
As mentioned before, a lot depends on Martz and the type of plays he calls. Still, even if we max protect and throw high percentage passes, Cutler's strong arm will need to have a couple of big pass plays in it if the Bears are going all the way.
There's no doubt he has the talent to do it, it's just that he never has done it. Meanwhile, a lot is riding on it.
As Windy City Gridiron reports, "In the team's five losses this season, Cutler has thrown one TD and nine INTs, with an average passer rating of 48.2. During his ten wins (remember, he didn't play against Carolina), he threw 22 TDs and seven INTs, with an average passer rating of 105.1."
Cutler can go a long way toward silencing his critics by showing up large for these playoffs. Count me among those who think he will.
Will Chester Taylor Contribute Anything to the Running Game?
Chester Taylor certainly did not live up to the $7 million the Bears paid him as a free-agent acquisition. In fact, at least statistically, he actually had the worst season EVER for a running back with more than 100 carries since the merger.
Taylor finished the season with 267 yards on 112 carries, an average of 2.38 yards per attempt. That is the worst rushing average ever, according to ESPN's Kevin Siefert.
Meanwhile, Matt Forte recovered his lost step from a year ago and was very good. But if Martz is going to call that balanced offense I've been asking for, that will mean a lot of runs and thus, a lot falling on one man's shoulders.
Bears Defense Has Plenty of Playoff Experience
You cannot discount the importance of experience when it comes to the playoffs. The game moves to a higher, faster level and four of the last five teams to win the Super Bowl had been to the playoffs in the previous year.
While the offense has very little playoff experience, the defense certainly has plenty of it.
Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs have 17 playoff games in their career. They have all played in the Super Bowl.
The last time the Bears made the playoffs, Charles Tillman, Danieal Manning, Chris Harris and Israel Idonije were all on the team. Hey, maybe Harris, who returned to the Bears in the offseason, is the lucky charm?
So the defense has the experience, and the offense does not. Then again, what's new, as the Bears D has led the way most of the season anyway.
Devin Hester and Special Teams Gives Advantage to the Bears
Devin Hester returned three punts for touchdowns and set a record for the highest punt return average (17.1) in NFL history. Danieal Manning was also very effective at returning kicks.
In short, Dave Toub's unit was third-ranked in the NFL and may be the Bears key weapon in the playoffs. Even if teams don't kick to Hester, by simply being on the field he helps create excellent field position.
Sure, the Eagles have DeSean Jackson but overall, the Bears unit is better. Think that isn't true? Check out the Football Outsiders' 2010 rankings of special teams.
Bears Are Very Healthy
The Bears do not need to apologize to anyone for this, but they have been the healthiest team in the NFL this season, with only one player on injured reserve (Hunter Hillenmeyer). And that health bodes well for the Bears as long as it continues.
Look at the Packers. Alright, I know Bears fans don't want to, but humor me. ESPN's Kevin Siefert wrote this: "Packers coach Mike McCarthy let slip the final total: 206. When it's all said and done, that's how many starts Packers players missed this season due to injury, according to team records. "
Well, boo-fricken-hoo, right? Still, it says a lot for Green Bay that they were able to make the playoffs despite those rash of injuries.
And it also bodes well for Chicago that we are in such great health. Call it lucky if you must, but hey, most teams that win championships, in every sport, get some good luck along the way.
We'll take it and no, it does not diminish what we've accomplished.
Knock on wood.
Just Win, Baby!
As Raiders owner Al Davis would say, "Just win, baby!" Now, I'm not trying to make this sound easy, but in reality all of this dissecting of stats and gnashing of teeth comes down to one thing: the Bears just need to win two more games, and they are in the Super Bowl.
Now, those two games will be more difficult than any game they played all season. Still, we're talking about a team that won 11 games during the regular season, so who is to say they can't win two more? Especially with at least one of them at home against a Seattle team that wasn't even .500 this season?
While you can't overlook the Seahawks (just ask the Saints), the Bears figure to be able to beat them. At least on paper. Of course, the same was true the first time we faced them. But as the saying goes, 'fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice'...
If that is true, then we only need one more win, and we're in! Now, that one win may have to be at Atlanta, but the Bears play well on fast surfaces. Bears' weather is a fallacy, folks. Just ask Brian Urlacher if the defense plays better on Soldier Field turf.
Yes, the Bears can win at Atlanta despite my earlier plea for someone to beat them. But hey, Atlanta could lose, and then, the Bears have home-field (dis?)advantage again.
Meanwhile, forget about respect. Forget about what the national media thinks. Screw all that nonsense. Win ugly if you must, but just win...baby!