Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bears' Special Season in Jeopardy

Of course, I wanted to take the time for this entire post to focus on the great win the Bears just earned today over the San Diego Chargers. I was going to take time to talk how this was yet another defining game for the Bears, as they showed on both sides of the ball that they are/were a true, complete contender. The offense was rolling all day, whether it was Jay Cutler doing work in the first three quarters, including some seriously amazing completions to Johnny Knox, or Matt Forte chewing up both yards and the clock in the 4th quarter. I wanted to talk about the defense, and how the unit as a whole was able to overcome the glaring weaknesses in the over the top secondary (see the stat line for Vincent Jackson and an uncharacteristically bad game from Charles Tillman) by creating turnovers and pressuring Philip Rivers to make mistakes more commonly seen in a rookie quarterback, let alone an 8th year pro coming off a 4,700 yard season. I watched this game and was so excited, so unbelievably amped for the rest of the season. This was a complete Bears team unlike we've seen in awhile, and they were firing on all cylinders. Then, in typical Chicago sports fashion, the bottom dropped out with the news that Jay Cutler broke his thumb in the game and will miss 6-8 weeks with surgery. Fitting that he broke it hustling to defend an interception that would never have happened had Knox not lost his footing, and not as a result of a sack or other defensive pressure. In other words, the next time we'd see Cutler is in the playoffs, which now appear to be in jeopardy.

Before we get to trying to move on, try to put this in perspective. I'm in shock. Cutler is so vastly underrated by anyone out of Chicago that the ESPN-dominated news media really won't be able to put a correct spin on this. Aside from Matt Forte, Cutler IS/WAS the Bear's offense. He makes a under average/mediocre receiving corps look decent to good on a weekly basis. His ability to feel pressure in the pocket and make throws on the move makes his offensive line look average, something well above their actual skill level. This doesn't take into account the throws he makes when he actually has protection. One thing that really hasn't been talked about this year is how improved Cutler has been in all aspects - footwork, timing, accuracy, and leadership. He's been tough in the face of intense media scrutiny on and off the field, and dealt with a physical abuse from opposing defenses usually reserved for MMA fighters. I think it's pretty safe to say that he is going to be missed, and that no one, not even the Caleb Hanie of last year's NFC Championship Game heroics, can replace him.

Time to step up, Hanie
So for the sake of preventing myself from whipping every throwable object in my apartment, let's try to get a realistic look at where we go from here. Caleb Hanie came in for Cutler in last year's NFC Championship Game and performed admirably well, all things considered. But this was for one game, at half time. For the rest of the season, each opposing team will be able to tailor their gameplan specifically to attack Hanie and shut down Matt Forte. It could essentially force the Bears into a near completely one-dimensional offense. Even Forte, having the kind of season that he is, cannot withstand the likely 8 man fronts he could face. Granted, Hanie has looked serviceable in other instances of spot duty, but clearly, none of us know what he can do full time. And when you look at the upcoming schedule, there's enough there to make you nervous that Hanie might not be serviceable enough to drag these Bears over the line and into the playoffs where Cutler presumably awaits.

The Bears play a tough game on the road at Oakland next week, return home for a definitely winnable game against the equally quarterback-less Chiefs, then play a very tough game (finally, the last out of the Bears AFC West schedule) on the road against the Denver Tebowners, and then return home to play the Seahawks. Then, the Bears travel to Lambeau to play a potentially undefeated Packers team on Christmas night, and finish the season on the road with a potentially Adrian Peterson-less Vikings. I think the Bears split the remaining 6 games 3-3, with wins against the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Vikings. That would leave the season at 10-6, a record that usually serves as the litmus test for playoff eligibility. A quick look at the NFC standings shows that there are really 4 teams, excluding the current division leaders, that will probably contend for the two wildcard spots. You have the suddenly-resurgent Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons, the well-known Detroit Lions, and our very own Chicago Bears. The Cowboys have a decent schedule left, with two very challenging games against the New York Giants, a tough one against the pesky Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and one left against the still-dangerous Eagles. The Falcons, already on a roll, have a slightly easier schedule, with a Matt Schaub-less Texans and the Saints the remaining obstacles on the schedule. The Lions, on the other hand, have an extremely difficult schedule remaining, with two games against the Packers, one against the Saints, one against Oakland, and one against the Chargers. It will be very difficult for the Lions to win three out of that five.

Bears will lean on their turnover-creating defense
So where does this leave the Bears? For one, they're going to have to rely on their exemplary defense and special teams, something that the Cowboys, Falcons, and Lions don't have, to help them win games. Moreover, Brian Urlacher and Company know this routine, riding a Rex Grossman-led team to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season on the strength of outstanding defense and special teams. Who says that the Bears couldn't do it again for 6 more games this year? If anyone can do it, it's Urlacher leading the defense and Devin Hester on Special Teams. Matt Forte will have to step up and help lead the offense, even more than he already has (if that's possible), and the Bears will have to get creative with their game planning. Surely Hanie, having the tutelage of Cutler for almost three years and having the benefit of being in the same system for nearly two years, could help the Bears get to at least three more wins in the regular season? Hopefully, some of the other teams falter down the stretch and the Bears sneak into the playoffs just in time for Cutler to get back under center.  Regardless of anything, this is unbelievably devastating news. We just have to hope that the Bears, with such great veteran leaders all over the team, can band together to keep what has turned into a remarkably special season going.