CHICAGO – It's still hard to forget that scowl Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher wore last July. Or the growl that accompanied any mention of last season's 29-21 playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Bears coach Lovie Smith said Monday the team has let that one go – that the Carolina disappointment "has very little to do with what we're doing."
"Not very little," Smith said, correcting himself. "It has zero to do with what we're doing right now."
He would say that. It's practically the prefix to every playoff press conference: How this is a new season and you don't look back. That may be true where statistics are concerned. But humiliating losses tend to change an NFL player's DNA. It's like Bruce Banner and those gamma-rays; you tend to come out on the other side of defeat with a green monster lurking behind your eyes. And last July, a tranquil training camp conversation with Urlacher morphed into something menacing when that playoff loss came up.
"I'm still pissed off about it," Urlacher said. "It was so frustrating to play the way we did – in our own stadium and in front of our own fans. … We're pretty good at getting that home-field advantage and then pissing away that first game. We should be experienced enough now to win in the playoffs. Period."
He was right. The Bears looked like it in July and they look like it now: A team that should win in the playoffs. And to take it a step further, a team that should represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLI in Miami. They have the league's best defensive unit, even with some injuries along the way. They have the NFC's most dynamic defensive player in Urlacher. And they have an offense that, even on its bad days, should be good for 20 points.
Yet, the outside world has an uneasy, creeping feeling about the Bears. One that suggests that despite all it has going for it, this is a team that's ripe to fall on its face again. Maybe it's because of the mercurial play of quarterback Rex Grossman, or the scatterbrained performance of the defense over the last four weeks of the season. Whatever the reason, the Bears enter the postseason as a 13-3 team with few external proclamations of greatness.
Maybe Smith alluded to the outside pessimism when he said Monday, "We lost our last game to our rivals. We didn't play our best ball at the end of the season. It's not like we're an overconfident football team right now. We're an anxious team."
He also said the key word for the Bears now is "finishing." With that in mind, here are 10 reasons why Chicago should finish off the rest of the NFC and roll into the Super Bowl next month.
The Carolina scar
Last season's playoff loss ate at the Bears for an entire offseason. Smith can say whatever he wants about that defeat being long forgotten, but it's not. It's been brought up throughout the season by veterans. At the beginning of training camp this year, linebacker Lance Briggs called it the low point in his football career, and you wouldn't have to look far to find other guys who felt the same way. And of course, the media in Chicago has never let that game get too far in the rearview mirror. Embarrassment can be a huge motivator in sports, and no team enters these playoffs with a more disappointing playoff chip on its shoulder left over from last season.
After the week off, the Bears are in relatively good shape. No, defensive tackle Tommie Harris won't be there, and neither will safety Mike Brown. But cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, and safety Todd Johnson figure to be as healthy as they have at any point in the season. Losing Harris late in the season was anything but ideal, but otherwise maintaining their depth chart from opening day is a big plus.
"We're getting a healthy group back," Smith said. "We'll put the best group we possibly could at this time of the year onto the field Sunday."
Tillman's return after missing the last two games of the season is particularly important. He's just as important to that secondary as Harris was to the defensive line, and his presence will pay dividends in the pass defense. Meanwhile, nagging injuries to guys like running back Thomas Jones have gotten some extra time to heal. And if you think that's no big deal, peruse the Seattle Seahawks injury report, which features about half of the wide receivers and defensive backfield.
The alternative at quarterback
Considering how Brian Griese looked in the season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers, this probably doesn't look as promising as it once did. But go back to last season's playoff loss to Carolina – or the multitude of Rex Grossman's sub-40 single game passer ratings this season – to realize just having another option is an upgrade over last season's situation. There is no reason to let Grossman's playoff mistakes snowball out of control. There is already evidence this season that when he commits multiple first-half turnovers, a bad game is in store. So when Smith feels the game getting away from the Bears, he's got the option of going to the bench for a spark.
A physical running game
OK, so the backfield doesn't have an MVP like Seattle, or the flashiness and versatility of the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. But the Bears do have a dependable grinder and pass blocker in Thomas Jones, and a physical alternative in Cedric Benson, who comes with some extra burst on the edge. There is depth and change of pace, too, with Adrian Peterson, although you haven't seen his number called much because of Benson's emergence this season. And all three of the remaining NFC playoff teams rank near the bottom of the conference against the run, allowing at least 4.5 yards per carry and double-digit rushing touchdowns this season. Faced against a punishing and consistent number of carries, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Seattle can all be bullied.
In the playoffs, balanced offensive teams cause problems. But the ones with balance and playmakers are the ones with the potential to run the table. And the NFC really only had two such offenses at season's end: New Orleans and the Dallas Cowboys. The fact that Seattle took care of the Cowboys in a game that Dallas really should have won is a point in Chicago's favor. Say what you want about having to face the Seahawks again (and the nightmares of how the Carolina redux turned out last year), but the Cowboys had the potential to cause more problems. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't nearly as mobile as Tony Romo, and Dallas' skill position package of Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Marion Barber, Julius Jones and Jason Witten would have forced some kind of defensive compromise for the Bears.
Having an accurate and dependable kicker is a no-brainer in the playoffs. Every year, an unfortunate soul blows a team's opportunity to advance in the playoffs (Mike Vanderjagt last year with the Indianapolis Colts; Doug Brien two years ago with the New York Jets; etc.). Conversely, we can always count on someone converting at a crucial moment to keep a franchise advancing (David Akers for Philadelphia last week). In Robbie Gould, the Bears have a dependable option who gets the job done in any climate.
Hester playing where he belongs
Now that the secondary is healthy, the Bears shouldn't have to use Devin Hester in defensive packages. Which is good, because his defensive usage negatively effected two units – in the secondary, where Hester isn't all that accomplished, and sucking some of his energy out of the return game. The bottom line: field position and scoring on special teams can be killer in the postseason, and Hester is far and away the best return man in these playoffs. He forces opposing coaches to actually consume some of their precious hours of game-planning on special teams, which is a rarity. Having him devote all of his time to his All-Pro position is a plus for Chicago.
Like the Bears with Grossman, every other team in the NFC has glaring weaknesses that can be exposed. As mentioned before, every remaining team outside of the Bears has struggled consistently against the run. And the defensive backfields of the Eagles, Saints and Seahawks are all prone to giving up big plays in the secondary. Hasselbeck has forced too many balls and committed too many turnovers. Philadelphia has been hanging on by its nails during much of its six-game winning streak, needing quarterback Jeff Garcia and the offense to play nearly perfect turnover-free football to win games. New Orleans' back seven on defense isn't overly talented or deep, which has contributed to opponents scoring 21 or more points against the Saints eight times this season.
Yes, the last two playoff losses have come at home – and after a bye, no less. But Soldier Field in January is about as daunting as it gets. It's not the field or the conditions that have let the Bears down in January. It's the team. And playing in frigid temperatures this time of year gives Chicago an edge. Particularly against NFC teams at or below the nation's Bible Belt (ahem, New Orleans). At capacity, the noise from the home crowd rivals any non-dome team in the league, including Seattle's much-hyped "12th Man," and the swirling winds can be biting on the skin, and wreak havoc in the passing game.
The Bears are due
Since the playoff system was expanded, no team has ever lost its first game three times in a row after a bye. So at least Chicago has history on its side. This franchise is 3-8 since winning the Super Bowl 21 years ago and hasn't advanced to a NFC championship game since the 1988 postseason. But the conditions are right for the next step to be taken by this team. Unlike last season or in 2001, this has been the best team in the conference from start to finish … even with the bumps along the way. It has secured home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl. The coaching staff has remained intact. The roster added talent in the offseason and lost none. And Grossman – for better or worse – has been healthy all year long. If this team can't win a conference championship now, when will it?