I imagine you got a lot out of the Packers losing to the Giants Sunday Night I’m sure, but realistically that was just empty satisfaction. Nothing erases the fact they swept the division, won 15 games, and were at least in a position to contend for the Super Bowl while Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler, and the rest of the Bears watched at home. You wanted to just enjoy the NFL playoffs for what they are, and how can’t you? There was so much fun and good football played last weekend that I wish we as fans had that level of play every weekend…But don’t tell me you weren’t the least bit jealous in the back of your minds of what the remaining contenders have that the current Chicago Bears don’t. Fortunately with Jerry Angelo ousted and some new philosophies soon to be implemented to the culture of the team, changes leading to optimism are probable. What I’d like to do, and couldn’t help myself from over the weekend, is play the “Wish List Game” with the teams that will be competing in Conference Championship Sunday. Look at the Bears’ strengths and then look at the glaring weaknesses. What sticks out to you?
1) The 49ers/Ravens’ DBs
In the regular season, Baltimore and San Francisco were ranked 3rd and 4th in total defense. The Bears finished 17th overall. While all 3 teams are top 5 in run defense (49ers 1st, Ravens 2nd, Beard 5th) the biggest difference between being elite and simply serviceable can be compared in the pass defense. I was left in awe right out of the gate watching the 49ers corners and safeties. Ranked 2nd in interceptions this season, Niners DBs Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, and Tarell Brown were major contributors to New Orleans’ 5 turnovers in the game. They hit the Saints hard; Whitner forcing running back Pierre Thomas to fumble in the red-zone and to leave the game with a concussion in just the 1st quarter. And they were able to cover the league’s number 1 passing attack staying physical with the Saints’ receivers and cover them man-to-man. Goldson and Brown both picked off Drew Brees, and what was even more impressive to me was their ability to keep their heads on a swivel and their awareness to where the ball was being thrown. How often did you wish Tim Jennings, Zach Bowman, and even Charles Tillman would just turn around and intercept the ball when instead they kept their backs to the quarterback while covering receivers?
And who wouldn’t want Ed Reed in their secondary? The Baltimore safety is arguably the best in the game today and although the combined 3 interceptions he and cornerback Ladarius Webb had came from Texans rookie QB T.J. Yates, it was 3 more than the Bears took from Tyler Palko. Reed helped lead the Ravens defense to being 4th against the pass, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 68.8 quarterback rating (lowest in the NFL). Webb was also 8th in the league in interceptions and 3rd in passes defended. It would be nice to have him opposite of Tillman as a Bears cornerback. Baltimore and San Francisco didn’t need to worry about the revolving secondary problems this season like the Bears did. Both teams’ free safeties, Reed and Goldson, are going to the Pro Bowl and deservedly so while the safety position in Chicago is a giant question mark.
2) Giants WRs/Patriots TEs
How often have you asked the question, “How good would the Bears be if Cutler had weapons to throw to?” If you watched the Giants wide receivers this season and last Sunday, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Eli Manning had an exceptional year throwing the ball, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 29 TDs, but was overshadowed by the outstanding performances of Aaron Rodgers and Brees. A lot of Manning’s success, though, should be credited to the efforts of his receivers, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. All 3 were major playmakers this season while the Bears don’t have one to brag about. Before Roy Williams joined Chicago’s receiving core (and we wish he hadn’t), Earl Bennett was the only “pure” receiver on the roster with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox being converted returners. Add any of the Giants’ top 3 to that group, and the Bears will have upgraded at the position significantly. Cruz and Nicks finished the season ranked 3rd and 12th in receiving yards respectfully while combining for 239 yards against Green bay on Sunday with Nicks scoring 2 touchdowns. Together, Cruz and Nicks compiled more yards receiving (2,728) this season than all 6 Bears receivers had total (2,369).
And not only do the Patriots have one outstanding pass catching tight end in Rob Gronkowski, they have a second in Aaron Hernandez who also had 5 rushes for 61 yards averaging 12.2 yards per carry. The Bears had one decent pass catching tight end that was traded to Carolina before the season started. It is no secret that a huge piece in a top passing teams’ success is a receiving threat from the tight end position. The top 3 passing teams in the league (New Orleans 1st, New England 2nd, and Green Bay 3rd) all have dangerous dual threat tight ends with the ability to block and catch. Both Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham of the Saints caught for 1,300 yards on the season and Gronkowski led the league in touchdown catches. Understand that it’s still apples and oranges when comparing them to the Bears tight ends in the Mike Martz system. Matt Spaethe and Kellen Davis were primarily valued as extra offensive linemen and probably needed to be, as bad as the tackles were. But as Mike Tice takes control of the offensive play-calling, he better consider the effectiveness of an athletic pass catching tight end especially with Cutler’s strengths in play-action and throwing on the run.
3) Patriots Offensive Line
The other common question Bears fans usually ask is, “What if Cutler actually had time in the pocket?” Behind the New England offensive line against the Denver Broncos, Tom Brady threw 6 touchdown passes and 1 interception. Eli Manning has the exact same numbers but needed 2 games to do it. Brady wasn’t sacked once and was hit just twice by a Broncos defense that ranked 10th in the league in sacks (41) during the season and sacked Ben Roethlisberger 5 times the week before. On the season, the Patriots offensive line gave up just 32 sacks compared the Bears’ 49 allowed. And with a full season without having to be scraped off the turf as often as Bears quarterbacks, Brady threw for a historic 5,235 yards and added 39 touchdowns. You would hope the next Bears general manager will value the importance of quality offensive linemen that will help improve Cutler’s numbers and probably extend the length of his playing career as well.
4) Swagger of the 49ers Special Teams/ Ravens "Ball So Hard University"
There isn’t a lot of quantitative evidence to back up this point, but it was something that stuck out in my mind all weekend. Sitting at home, I may have been just as jacked up as those in attendance at Candlestick Park every time the 49ers prepared to kick off. As kicker David Akers set the ball and stepped back before sending it deep, the other ten Niners players were clumped together, dancing, pointing and blowing kisses to the Saints kick return squad. It may seem silly and odd, but stuff like that gets in the heads of the opponent. The Saints may say it didn’t phase them at all, but put yourself in their shoes. How are you not thinking about the guy across from you dancing and blowing kisses at you and will soon be running at you full speed? And what more can be said in regards to the Ravens D than “Ball So Hard University”? Again probably silly, but it’s catchy. The fans get into it and the opponent can’t help but think about it whether they are seeing it on TV or reporters ask questions about it. All I can say as a fan is, “I want that!”