Future suddenly bright for Bears' Smith

·NFL columnist

Imagine this for a collection: Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and … Lovie Smith?

There is a very real possibility that three months from now, those could be the four longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. With the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis and Carolina Panthers' John Fox in the final seasons of their current deals, the end is seemingly near. The Jacksonville Jaguars' Jack Del Rio and Tennessee Titans' Jeff Fisher? I'm not convinced that they'll remain in place in 2011. That means the oft embattled Chicago Bears coach could find his longish job tenure treading water alongside a modern NFL icon (Belichick), a Super Bowl winner (Coughlin) and one of the winningest coaches of this era (Reid).

The Bears under Lovie Smith are 8-3.
(Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

Indeed, if you had taken a poll four months ago asking which of the aforementioned coaches was most likely to lose his job after 2010, Smith might have won in a landslide – even with Fox and Lewis entering the final season of their deals. Yet, here we are heading into December, and the smart money is on Smith being among the most likely retentions. In fact, after Sunday's commanding win over the Eagles, Smith is very much in the running for the NFL's coach of the year honors.

That makes him this week's biggest winner as the Bears continue their fairly stunning climb into the race for the NFC's top playoff seed. All thanks to a scoring defense that has rounded into one of the stingiest units in the NFL, and an offense that continues to score points despite the fact that not a single skill position player is worthy of a Pro Bowl nod this season (outside of Devin Hester(notes) as a return man, that is).

The reality is Smith has taken two head coaching castoffs in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and discovered a balance that has eluded this franchise since its run to the Super Bowl during the 2006 season. Marinelli's motivational tactics and Smith's defensive play-calling have worked wonders with a cast of good-but-arguably-not-elite veterans – including cornerback Charles Tillman(notes) and linebackers Lance Briggs(notes) and Brian Urlacher(notes) – and one All-Pro level player, defensive end Julius Peppers(notes).

All while Martz has made due with an offensive line that is still in store for at least a partial overhaul in the offseason. The Eagles game aside, Martz's unit still has moments that leave fans with high anxiety, whether from an inconsistent running game or Jay Cutler's(notes) see-sawing between brilliance and befuddlement. And that's what makes the final month of the schedule an ominous sight, with the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers all on the slate, and all engaged in a fight for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Minnesota Vikings remain, too, and no longer look like pushovers thanks to the removal of the Brad Childress gloom last week.

But for now, Smith has turned the tide … enough so that a playoff win could even trigger the unthinkable contract extension. With only 2011 remaining on his deal, it's feasible that his latest success could push the Bears to belly up to the bargaining table again. The win over the Eagles certainly didn't hurt. Make no mistake, that was a quality win over a very real playoff contender. Now the Bears belong in the same breath.

On to this week's other winners and losers …


Dwayne Bowe caught 13 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns.
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Dwayne Bowe(notes)
The Kansas City Chiefs wideout is looking unstoppable of late. And after Sunday's 170-yard, three-touchdown effort in the win over the Seahawks, you could argue he has taken his place (at least for one season) right next to guys like Andre Johnson(notes), Roddy White(notes) and Calvin Johnson(notes). Fourteen touchdowns in 11 games? Is there any wideout in the league who wouldn't want to play for Chiefs coach Todd Haley right now? All he does is turn guys into Pro Bowlers.

Atlanta Falcons
If you didn't believe they were Super Bowl contenders going into this weekend, it's time to wake up. They're tough as nails at home, and with Sunday's win over the Packers, they're on track to make sure the playoff road goes through the Georgia Dome. Forcing an Aaron Rodgers(notes) fumble in the end zone was a decisive moment early in the game. But Matt Ryan's(notes) clutch play in the fourth quarter continues to show that this team is legit.

Sam Bradford(notes)
With three touchdown passes in a road win over the Broncos, the St. Louis Rams quarterback has 11 touchdowns against only one interception in his last six games – not to mention a 3-3 record with an undermanned team surrounding him. There have been several very good quarterbacks to come out of the NFL draft in the last few years: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco(notes), Mark Sanchez(notes), Josh Freeman(notes), Matt Stafford, etc. I really like all of those guys. But the more I watch Bradford, the more I get the feeling that he might ultimately be better than all of them. There is something frighteningly good about the package of leadership, arm, awareness and intangibles that Bradford possesses. What he's doing right now with second- and third-tier wideouts (arguably third- and fourth-tier wideouts) is amazing.

Eli Manning(notes)
The New York Giants quarterback struggled for three quarters against the Jaguars and then put together two big-play drives in the fourth, completing passes of 18, 25, 26 and 32 yards in a pair of decisive touchdown marches. He was turnover free, too … no small thing after giving the ball away six times in back-to-back losses heading into Sunday. It was a much-needed rebound for a team that has a tougher-than-it-looks schedule the rest of the way.

The Steelers William Gay pushes the Bills' Steve Johnson out of bounds.
(Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Steelers
They dodged an immense bullet with the overtime win against the Bills. The fact is, Pittsburgh can't afford to lose to anyone at this point, not with the Patriots and Jets one game ahead in the playoff standings and seemingly getting better heading into the final quarter of the season. And not with the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' next opponent, fighting down to the wire for the AFC North title. The Steelers likely didn't take Buffalo anywhere near the seriousness that is warranted. That will be a lesson the rest of the way.

Buffalo Bills
They lost, but they are still playing hard late into a lost season. If Steve Johnson(notes) didn't have stone hands against Pittsburgh, we'd be talking about a Bills win and how the Bills are starting to get their act together. I'm not much for moral victories, but this one definitely falls into that category for the Bills.

• Leslie Frazier
You know the Vikings were going to play hard in their first game out from under the mostly joyless Brad Childress regime. Not only did the defensive pressure pick up significantly, the offense did some old school grinding, even without the services of Adrian Peterson (sprained ankle) for much of the day. It helps that the Vikings were playing a hapless Washington Redskins offense, but this was a nice ball-control, defensive-minded win. Now it's imperative to get Peterson back on the field for Frazier to have any chance of retaining this job.

Houston Texans defense
Do I really think they are as good as they played in the win over the Titans? Of course not. Inept play by the Titans' quarterback made the Texans look like world-beaters. That said, cornerback Glover Quin's(notes) three interceptions and two defended passes were impressive. Brian Cushing(notes) also looked a bit like the guy we saw last season. Will the defensive prowess last? I doubt it, but it was a nice single-game performance that keeps slim playoff hopes alive.

Cleveland Browns
The Browns lucked out on a missed field goal that allowed them to slip by a bad Panthers team. Should it have been a loss? Yes. But Cleveland overcame some bad play from starting quarterback Jake Delhomme(notes) and won anyway. That's something that really hasn't happened in the Eric Mangini era. Add in the fact that five of Cleveland's seven losses have come by seven points or less, and this team is far more respectable than the 4-7 record indicates.

Miami Dolphins offense
If you want to see grinding dominance, watch Miami's win over Oakland. The Dolphins murdered time of possession (41:38 to 18:22), and limited the Raiders to only 11 first downs. And while the running game produced only one big play, the 44 runs to 30 passes protected quarterback Chad Henne(notes) perfectly.

• Baltimore Ravens
After the 17-10 win over the Buccaneers, the Ravens defense has limited opponents to only 33 points in the last three victories. They've positioned themselves well heading into a huge Week 13 matchup against the Steelers. With the Patriots facing the Jets a day later, a win next week would slide the Ravens a bit closer to a playoff bye week. The most important week of the season thus far for the Ravens? No doubt.


The Broncos under coach Josh McDaniels are 3-8.
(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

• Josh McDaniels
It's amazing how many embarrassing issues have occurred for the Denver Broncos regime in such a short time. The Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall(notes) soap operas … the collapse in 2009 … the Peyton Hillis(notes) trade … this season's crash and burn … the souring fan base. But nothing compares to McDaniels' deception about the walkthrough taping scandal in London. No matter how he wants to paint it (or whether you even believe his framing of the events), it's a significant black eye for the franchise. Maybe he's lucky owner Pat Bowlen is still paying Mike Shanahan next season, too, and likely won't want to add a third head coach salary. Otherwise, Bowlen has to be wondering if all the hassle with zero return is worth it.

Philadelphia Eagles
Hit the pause button on calling this team one of the Super Bowl favorites, even coming out of the relatively weak NFC. In the last five weeks, the Eagles' opponents have scored an average of 27.4 points. The defense isn't playing well enough to win consistently in the playoffs. You can't put the pressure on Michael Vick(notes) to play his best every single week, and that's what Philadelphia is doing right now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's hard to put them all the way into the loss column, because they played the Ravens fairly tough. But the reality is Tampa couldn't get into the end zone until there was three minutes left in the fourth quarter. This game highlighted the need for a high-caliber wideout to pair with Mike Williams. Tight end Kellen Winslow(notes) isn't enough.

• Green Bay Packers running game
This is the part of the season when Ryan Grant's(notes) absence will be felt … when the Packers start playing games where they have to sustain drives and score points inside the 5-yard line. Brandon Jackson(notes) hasn't taken hold as a consistent go-to option, and the pivotal end zone fumble on the Aaron Rodgers sneak against Atlanta was indicative of that. Maybe it's better for the Packers if the playoff road goes through Atlanta, because I can't imagine Green Bay grinding out rushing yards in a cold weather game in late January.

David Garrard(notes)
The Jaguars’ quarterback was having some serious ball-security issues, fumbling three times (losing one) and throwing an interception in the loss to the Giants. He had to deal with a lot of pressure in this one, but Garrard continues to make critical mistakes at inopportune times. None was bigger than his game-killing fumble driving into Giants territory late in the fourth quarter. He's a perfect match for this team … good enough to stay competitive, but never good enough to be considered a Super Bowl contender.

• Washington Redskins defense
You cannot let the Vikings take a 17-13 lead, and ice the game by rattling off 13 plays in the final 6:13. Particularly when it's Toby Gerhart(notes) – and not Adrian Peterson – running in seven of those 13 plays. Brett Favre's(notes) 10-yard run on third-and-8 from the Washington 24-yard line was downright embarrassing. Donovan McNabb(notes) and the Redskins offense were anything but great, but this one falls on a defense that couldn't get off the field.

Tennessee Titans QB Rusty Smith yells at offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger after throwing an interception.
(David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

Rusty Smith(notes)
Mark my words … Smith is going to get Vince Young(notes) another shot with the Titans next season. Why? Because owner Bud Adams is watching Smith play awful football, and realizing that he has almost no other options, unless he wants to draft another player (no) or back Kerry Collins(notes) (hell no). In an odd way, Smith's poor play will likely be the tipping point that leads to coach Jeff Fisher walking away from this franchise – after Adams makes it clear Young will be part of the team next season.

Marshawn Lynch(notes)
I have been willing to give the Seattle Seahawks running back a mulligan for much of this season because he has played behind poor offensive lines, but he's looking more and more like a bit player. It's fair to doubt that he can bounce back and be a 1,000-yard back. He's reminiscent of how LenDale White's(notes) play fell off a cliff. Lynch runs hard … but rarely toward daylight.

Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden(notes)
Hello? Search party? Didn't this guy look like one of the top three or four running backs five minutes ago? Now he hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 7, and has been minimized as the Raiders have struggled to keep pace with teams in blowouts the last two games. McFadden is a groove kind of guy. If he touches the ball early and gets on a roll, watch out. But when he starts slow, he ultimately vanishes.



Peyton Hillis scores a touchdown in front of Panthers' safety Sherrod Martin.
(Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Loved: Peyton Hillis' impression of Reggie Bush(notes) on his pylon dive at the end of his nine-yard first-quarter touchdown. If I had the ball at the 10-yard line, I'm not sure there is another running back in the NFL I'd rather be handing off to … including Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster(notes).

Loathed: The "White Rhino" nickname for Hillis. We all know he's white. Do we have to beat it to death? How about just calling him "The Rhino"? People don't call Calvin Johnson the "Black Megatron," right?

Loved: The reversed roles for Brandon Jacobs(notes) and Ahmad Bradshaw(notes). The duo looked as comfortable as ever on the Giants' opening drive. And while Jacobs is saying all the right things to support Bradshaw, he's running like he wants to keep the starting job.

Loathed: Seeing the missed time stacking up for Buffalo's C.J. Spiller(notes) and the Detroit Lions' Jahvid Best(notes). Both sat out of this week's games with injuries. Not a good sign for two smallish guys whose first-round price tag came with size and durability worries. This is why teams prefer to invest in running backs who are in the 220-pound range. They can take the punishment as true centerpiece guys.

Loved: Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb's 10-yard touchdown pass to Fred Davis(notes) off play-action in the first quarter against Minnesota. Say what you want about McNabb, but there might be only five or six quarterbacks in the NFL who could have laid that ball over Davis' shoulder so perfectly. Given time to operate, McNabb is still a top 10 quarterback in this league.

Loathed: The Giants' multiple missed tackles on Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard's five-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Unless it's Michael Vick, no quarterback should be able to entirely reverse field, elude five defenders and score.

Loved: The 34-yard screen pass to Adrian Peterson in the first quarter against Washington. One of the first things that new coach Leslie Frazier made clear was that the Vikings weren't getting the ball to Peterson enough. The Vikings made a point to feed him on the first drive Sunday, and they scored a touchdown … the first time Minnesota has done that all season. That's not a coincidence.

Loathed: Seeing Peterson's right ankle get rolled under in the first half and then have to watch Toby Gerhart carry the load. This team is snake bitten. Even when they do things right, something goes wrong.

Loved: Green Bay going with the no-huddle offense in the first quarter against the Falcons. It's a frightening new wrinkle for the Packers' attack. If Green Bay masters it by the postseason, I can't imagine how you could stop the Packers.

Loathed: Watching Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme play at this stage of his career. He's the nicest guy in the world, but you have to hold your breath every time he drops into the pocket. It's only a matter of time before a mind-numbing turnover ensues.