Bears need charitable foes on playoff schedule

CHICAGO – The ball spiraled down through the frosty air and Devin Hester(notes) pumped his fist. Nobody much kicks to the Chicago Bears returner anymore. Not the way he darts around blocks, between tacklers and down the sideline.

Kick to Hester and you might as well prepare to lose.

And so, as he saw the ball coming his way, he couldn’t help but to smile.

“It was the opportunity,” he said following the Bears’ 38-34 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at Soldier Field. “I wanted to make the most of it.”

Half a field later, as he was finally corralled in front of the Jets bench, he wagged a finger at the team so stupid to kick his way. No, no. Don’t you do it again.

He might as well have been waving to the rest of the NFL. Because what are the Bears in the looming postseason if they don’t get a team as dumb as the Jets?

They are 11-4 with a step toward a bye the first week of the playoffs, and yet, if a team isn’t crazy enough to kick or punt the ball Hester’s way or let him turn a defensive back in circles the way he did Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery(notes) on a third-quarter touchdown, then how good are they really?

Chicago is supposed to be built on defense, growling about its ability to dislodge the ball from runners, recovering fumbles and snatching opposing quarterbacks’ passes from the air. Yet on Sunday, the Bears gave up 34 points to a quarterback (Mark Sanchez(notes)) with a throwing shoulder (right) supposedly so sore he could barely throw in practice this week.

Against the Jets, the Bears scored plenty points of their own. Twenty-one of them came in a 7:14 time period in the third quarter when New York and the new clown prince of football, Rex Ryan, essentially handed Chicago the game. This was after Ryan thought a fake punt on his own 40-yard line at the start of the second half would be a fine idea. And right after Ryan’s assistants apparently let punter Steve Weatherford(notes) boot the ball to Hester who set up a touchdown with a 38-yard return, which was right before the kickoff went Hester’s way and he pumped his fist.

Without that 7:14 of Rex Ryan being Rex Ryan, Chicago likely loses this game and with it, much hope of getting that first-round bye. And that should worry many about these Bears.

They just don’t feel like a team that will go deep into January.

Chicago has not built its 11 wins on the carcasses of gifted teams. It withstood a furious rally from Philadelphia to win a game in late November, beat a mercurial Green Bay team and should probably have lost on Sunday were it not for the bumbling Jets who absorbed their defeat by shouting loudly in their locker room after learning that Jacksonville’s overtime loss had put them into the playoffs. Otherwise, the Bears’ résumé includes losses to the Redskins and Seahawks. In their two marquee games, they lost 17-3 to the Giants and 36-7 to the Patriots.

Such nights do not make a champion.

In some ways, the Bears themselves almost seem surprised to have come this far. Consider the responses when asked how good the Chicago offense has been heading into the postseason.

“I think we’ve been taking steps,” coach Lovie Smith said.

“It’s getting better,” receiver Rashied Davis(notes) said.

Johnny Knox(notes) pulled down a pair of third-quarter scoring passes vs. the Jets.
(Mike DiNovo/US Presswire)

“We’re getting more used to things,” quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) assured.

Usually teams on the verge of big playoff runs seem good at something. And Chicago did come into the game with the league’s eighth-ranked defense. But it was also a defense that gave up nearly 400 yards and let the Jets run free across the field, just as it allowed 475 yards to New England and 398 to Philadelphia.

Offensively Cutler looked alternately brilliant and awful on Sunday, which is sort of the way he’s been all season Only six times this year has he been the top passer in a game the Bears have played. There’s no sense counting on the quarterback, who has been derided in Chicago and previously in Denver as immature, to win games on his own. Certainly not behind the Bears offensive line which isn’t dominant enough to wait out his long looks downfield that have allowed him to be sacked 46 times this year and intercepted 14 others.

Sunday might have exposed the Bears, told the country that even after beating another top AFC team, Chicago is not destined to march far into the winter.

But along came Rex Ryan, already dragging behind him more chaos than one team should have with the locker room harassment, the wide receiver’s DUI, the strength coach who tripped a player and a supposed foot fetish of his wife’s. And in 7:14, the Bears were saved.

Only saved for what exactly?

A first-game loss in the playoffs?

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 26, 2010