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More than luck put Bears in NFC title game

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Whether you attribute it to good fortune, fate or divine intervention, you can't deny that the Chicago Bears have had a lot of things go their way this season. From the dubious rule that nullified Calvin Johnson's(notes) apparent game-winning catch in an opening-week victory over the Detroit Lions to the league's healthiest roster in 2010, the team that will host the Green Bay Packers in Sunday's NFC championship game has been consistently kissed by Lady Luck.

If you believe in the power of the football gods – and believe that they smile brightly upon organizations with the guts to take bold, unconventional risks in the pursuit of excellence – then the Bears' blessings seem more like a cosmic reward than they do coincidence.

At least that's what I prefer to think as I prepare to watch the most surprising team still standing in the postseason play in person for the first time since last fall. And since I'm the one doing the offering here, the theme in question shall be driven into the frozen tundra until you roll your eyes all the way into the back of your head, or skip ahead to the Lies, or fantasize about laying me out like Brian Urlacher(notes) pummeling an oblivious receiver on a crossing route.

On that note, in honor of Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, here are 11 gambles that helped propel the Bears on their path to providence, and to within a victory of their second Super Bowl in five seasons.

1. The Jay Cutler(notes) trade: In April of 2009, when the Bears sent starting quarterback Kyle Orton(notes), two first-round draft picks and a third-round selection to the Denver Broncos for Cutler and a fifth-rounder, I called it the NFL's biggest blockbuster since the Oakland Raiders sent coach Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a sink-or-swim move for general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith, and by late last season both men appeared to be wearing cement boots in the middle of Lake Michigan. Cutler, an ultra-talented passer whose leadership skills had been questioned long before newly hired Broncos coach Josh McDaniels shipped him out of town, had been hailed as the Bears' first true franchise quarterback since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman retired in 1950. In Cutler's first season with Chicago, however, he struggled mightily, throwing a league-high 26 interceptions as the Bears wheezed to a 7-9 record, their third consecutive non-playoff season following their Super Bowl XLI defeat to the Indianapolis Colts. Cutler, who hadn't had a winning season since high school, was cast as a colossal bust. This season, he's one of the league's better passers, and he's coming off a terrific effort in his first career postseason game.

2. Keeping Lovie Smith: After last season there was speculation that all three of the Bears' top decision-makers – Smith, Angelo and team president Ted Phillips – could lose their jobs. At the very least, it was believed that Smith, who'd taken over defensive coordinator duties before the season, would be fired. Instead, the McCaskey family retained the trio, with Phillips explaining to reporters that maintaining continuity by keeping Smith gave the Bears the best chance of a turnaround in 2010. It was an unpopular move with fans, but it went over well in the locker room, and Smith's players understood that without a strong season big changes would result. Now, with a year remaining on his deal, he seems to be in line for a lucrative extension.

3. Hiring Mike Martz: Smith, who'd served as Martz's defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams from 2001-03, was a controversial choice to take over for fired Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner because it was feared his abrasive coaching style might cause a personality clash with Cutler. Nor was Martz the Bears' first choice – or far from it. The team interviewed three NFL assistants and were rebuffed by former USC offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates before settling on Martz in early February of 2010. Smith reportedly wanted Martz from the start, but Angelo resisted until other options dried up. Yet it was still questionable whether Martz's aggressive play-calling would mesh with Smith's more conservative approach to offense. At this point, the Bears are very, very happy they made this move.

4. Promoting Rod Marinelli: Smith's closest friend in coaching, Marinelli had been brought in as a defensive line coach the previous season after his ill-fated tenure as the Lions' head coach. Yet Marinelli had never been a coordinator, and when Smith announced he was essentially replacing himself as defensive coordinator after last season, his first inclination was to look for outside candidates. Eventually, he gave the job to Marinelli, one of three former head coaches (along with newly hired offensive line coach Mike Tice) on Smith's staff, and the defense has improved appreciably from a year ago.

5. Signing Julius Peppers(notes): The McCaskey-owned franchise typically isn't known for spending freely, but at the start of a free-agency period in which most NFL teams showed restraint during the uncapped final season of the collective bargaining agreement, it was Chicago which made the biggest splash. Peppers, one of the league's elite pass rushers during his eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers, signed a reported six-year, $91.5 million deal, putting the Bears in the running for mythical "Champion of the Offseason" honors for the second consecutive spring. Chicago continued its incongruous spending spree by signing former Vikings halfback Chester Taylor(notes) to a reported four-year, $12.5 million contract. Peppers has been a beast in his first season with the Bears, earning his sixth Pro Bowl selection.

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Knox led the Bears with 960 receiving yards.
(Mike DiNovo/US Presswire)

6. Standing pat at receiver: The Bears also generated buzz from some of the moves they didn't make. From the time the team acquired Cutler, many NFL observers wondered why Chicago didn't try to bring in an elite receiver in free agency or the NFL draft to enhance its quarterback's chances of success. But even after the nightmarish 2009 campaign, the team elected to stand pat with Johnny Knox(notes), Devin Hester(notes), Earl Bennett(notes) and Devin Aromashodu(notes). Count me as one who still thinks they should have upgraded, but it's tough to question a crew that's a victory away from the Super Bowl.

7. Keeping Greg Olsen(notes): Once Martz was hired, the speculation began that tight end Greg Olsen wanted out of Chicago. The thinking was that Olsen, a pass-catching tight end who'd been the Bears' leading receiver in '09, was a poor fit for Martz, who shortly after being hired told Chicago radio station WSCR that in his eyes the "first responsibility" of men who play the position is to block. Olsen's numbers went down in 2010, but he had a career game last Sunday in the Bears' 35-24 divisional-round drubbing of the Seahawks, catching a 58-yard touchdown pass on Chicago's opening drive and finishing with 113 receiving yards, the best playoff performance by a tight end in franchise history.

8. Sticking with Brian Urlacher: This might seem like a no-brainer now, but last season, with Urlacher sidelined by a dislocated wrist he suffered in Week 1, there was talk that the team should part with its star middle linebacker and defensive leader. I heard plenty of this type of chatter in November of '09 after I spent a weekend with Urlacher and wrote a column in which he questioned the team's offensive direction. Several Chicago media personalities opined that Urlacher's criticism of Cutler, however tame it might have been, was a sign of jealousy over having been usurped as the team's marquee player and that he had become a divisive force in the locker room. This year Urlacher, 32, has been the best player on a revived defense, and the only time he's divisive is when he separates opposing ballcarriers from the football.

9. Benching Tommie Harris(notes): When the Bears deactivated Harris, their three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, for their Sept. 27 game against the Packers at Soldier Field, most people figured it was due to injury. It wasn't – Harris had simply been benched by Smith, who explained that he "just felt like we wanted to get a look at Marcus Harrison(notes), him and [Henry] Melton inside, a little bit. Just performance based." Ouch. Harris, plagued by knee pain the past several years, came off the bench the following week and struggled through a subpar season statistically. However, he has turned it up when it counts – Harris has 2 ½ sacks in Chicago's past two games.

10. Trusting Mike Tice: Heading into their bye week in late October, the Bears looked like a fading team. Chicago had lost three of four games to fall to 4-3, and its dubious offensive line seemed alarmingly vulnerable. Cutler had been sacked an unfathomable nine times in the first half of a 17-3 defeat to the Giants (an NFL record) before leaving with a concussion, and the line remained leaky over the next three weeks. During the bye, the Bears elected not to do anything drastic, instead committing to a more balanced attack (a concession from Martz) and putting faith in Tice to fortify his unit. The former Vikings coach shifted some personnel around after the return of injured linemen Chris Williams and Roberto Garza(notes) and coached his way out of the mess. The line settled down, and so did Cutler – and the Bears won seven of their next eight games. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick recently said Tice had been responsible for "one of the great coaching jobs I've ever seen."

11. Trying to KO the Packers: Heading into their regular-season finale against their NFC North rivals at Lambeau Field, the Bears were already assured of a first-round bye, while Green Bay needed a victory to clinch a playoff spot. Smith could have taken the safe route and rested Cutler and other key starters, or pulled them at some point during the game, to ensure that his team's remarkable run of health would continue. Instead, he went for the kill – possibly because he understood the potential of a Packers team that, sure enough, would roll off impressive road playoff victories over the Eagles and Falcons and emerge as Chicago's last remaining obstacle to a conference title. The Bears didn't win that game at Lambeau, as a late touchdown secured a 10-3 victory for the Pack, but Smith got away with his gamble, as his team suffered no significant injuries. By contrast, three key players went down for the fifth-seeded New Orleans Saints during their regular-season finale against the Bucs: halfback Chris Ivory, tight end Jimmy Graham(notes) and safety Malcolm Jenkins(notes). None of the three played in the following week's first-round matchup against the Seahawks, and Jenkins' absence was a huge factor as New Orleans' secondary got singed for 272 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 41-36 defeat. Chicago, meanwhile, rested up and reported no significant ailments heading into its game against Seattle – and cruised to a victory that was never in doubt. We'll see what happens in the Bears' third meeting with the Packers, after which we'll be free to speculate whether Smith's decision to go hard in the game at Lambeau had any impact. And if the football gods still seem to be looking out for the Bears on Sunday, or even if they don't, I'll believe in my heart that teams which play it safe are inclined to end up sorry. I realize some of you might question that logic – and that, my friends, is a risk I'll have to take.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Packers will put more pressure on Cutler than the Bears do on Aaron Rodgers(notes) at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon, and that will tilt the NFC championship game Green Bay's way. … Lots of pink-clad autograph seekers will ask for Rodgers' signature before, during and after the Pack's trip to Chicago – and he'll oblige every one of them. … In what Jets fans will experience as a very bad flashback, a missed Nick Folk(notes) field goal will weigh heavily in New York's narrow AFC title game defeat to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Chicago, for the first time in waaaay too long, to see the 182nd (and most momentous) meeting between the Bears and Packers. I wouldn't mind rocking out to some Del Crustaceans while I'm there.

LIES, LIES, LIES

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Ryan has the Jets one win away from just their second Super Bowl.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

1. Following his lively news conference to introduce new coach Hue Jackson, Raiders owner Al Davis joined actresses Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet and Julia Roberts as the newest face of Lancome.

2. In addition to recommending Rex Ryan to the Jets while serving as the Dolphins' vice president of football operations, Bill Parcells recently revealed that he "told John McCain about that four-eyed broad in Alaska" during the 2008 presidential campaign.

3. If Yahoo! decides to send me to the Senior Bowl next week, I will seek out Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, greet him with "What's up, bro?" and begin singing one of my favorite Neil Young songs.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

My friend Granville DeMerritt, a longtime Candlestick Park press box attendant – he actually began working 49ers games when they played at Kezar Stadium – and absolute joy of a human being, who passed away last week at the age of 86. Granville, a San Francisco native, World War II veteran and Stanford graduate, lived in Santa Rosa and subscribed to the Press Democrat, the paper for which I worked from 1989-94. I've never met a kinder, more appreciative reader, and it was always very cool to hear his perspective on football and life. The thing is, I was hardly the only journalist who got to experience this – so many of my fellow Bay Area sportswriters had special relationships with Granville, and I know they join me in sending thoughts and prayers to his wife, Alice, and other loved ones.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

It's that time of year when 2012 U.S. Olympic coach Teri McKeever and the Cal women's swim team starts to get serious about dominating – the Bears finished a close third at last season's NCAA championships after winning their first national title in '09 – and the fourth-ranked Bears will kick off their Pac-10 schedule at Arizona State on Friday and No. 7 Arizona on Saturday. McKeever's star-studded cast includes seniors Amanda Sims, Hannah Wilson and Katie Kastes, juniors Sara Isakovic and Liv Jensen and sophomore Caitlin Leverenz. Coach Dave Durden's fourth-ranked Cal men's team, coming off a second-place showing at last year's NCAAs, is also a bona-fide title contender, with three returning NCAA individual champs (Nathan Adrian, Damir Dugonjic and Tom Shields) leading a deep and talented roster. They'll also be in Arizona to face the Sun Devils and Wildcats in joint dual meets with the women's teams.

On a more serious note, as we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, here's a flashback to the slain civil rights leader's 1967 visit to the world's greatest institution of higher learning, where he noted that "Berkeley is the conscience of the academic community in the nation."

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