Chicago Bears Could Have Playoff Troubles
by Trevor Whenham - 11/30/2006
Let me say this up front - unless they change things around dramatically in the next six weeks the Bears are going nowhere in the playoffs. It seems risky to write off the team that has two more wins than any other in the conference, but this team is as flawed as a 9-2 team can be. Their biggest attribute, though, is that they play in the NFC, so there aren't a lot of quality teams to chase them down. Still, they have too many problems that they need to overcome right now if they want to be somewhere other than their couches at home on Super Bowl Sunday:
Quarterback - For the first several weeks of the season Rex Grossman looked like Elway, Marino or Superman. The last few weeks he has looked like, well, Rex Grossman. Last week against the Patriots Grossman was 15-34 with three interceptions. The week before against the Jets he was 11-22 for 119 yards. In the shocking loss against the Dolphins that knocked the Bears from the ranks of the undefeated he was 18-42 and he added three more picks. His passer rating of 77.6 is only 21st best in the league, and he is behind 26 other passers in completion percentage. There are bright spots - his 18 touchdowns are just three off the league lead. He has 14 interceptions, however, putting his ratio among the worst out there. The Ravens showed with Trent Dilfer, and the Giants with Jeff Hostetler, that you don't need a superstar quarterback to win the Super Bowl. The difference here is that Dilfer could be relied on to avoid costly mistakes. Increasingly, bad mistakes are the defining element of Grossman's game. Brian Griese is waiting in the wings, but it's been a long while since he was a solid starter and if he were a significant improvement over Grossman then he wouldn't be a backup in Chicago.
The pass rush - When the Bears were winning, their pass rush was on fire. They were fourth in the league. In the last four games, two of which were losses, they have only chalked up a total of four sacks. Tommie Harris went from five sacks in the first four games to none in the last seven. Adewale Ogunleye led the team with 10 sacks last year, but he has just three this season, and only two in the last nine games. The rest of the linemen have slowed down their pace dramatically, as well. 24 of the 25 sacks the team has this year has come from the defensive line, with one from linebacker Lance Briggs the only exception, so the struggles of the big men means that opposing quarterbacks are getting all the time they need to make plays. It's not surprising, then, that they have allowed three of their four highest point totals in the last four weeks.
The Defense - There are few problems with the defense as it stands. They lead the league in fewest yards allowed, and they are near the top in most of the major defensive stats. The problem isn't that the defense isn't good, it's that that unit is so good that the team may rely on it too much. If the offense isn't working then the defense needs to keep points off the board. They can do that. As long as they aren't hit with injuries, that is. We got a glimpse into the problems that could arise in the New England game. Due to injuries and a suspension to Ricky Manning Jr. the secondary was badly depleted. As a result, the Patriots threw for significantly more yards than any other opponent all season, and the Bears lost. The secondary losses are potentially bad enough, but imagine what would happen to the team if Brian Urlacher or Tommie Harris were to go down for an extended period. It could get ugly.
Special teams - The Bears have been known for solid special teams for years now, but the Patriots game raised serious concerns. The Pats deflected a punt and they blocked a field goal. Either one of those things is a problem, but when they both happen in the same game it is more than a coincidence. Kicker Robbie Gould is very good, but the special team units, with their recent lapses in both formations and coverage, could be a problem if they don't improve.
Schedule - The Bears' schedule raises a real concern. Their 9-2 record could be a bit of a mirage. Look at the pack of losers that they have beaten - Detroit, Minnesota, Green Bay, Arizona, San Francisco, Miami, Buffalo, the Giants. Those are all either bad teams, or teams on bad runs. Only the Patriots are among the elite in the league, and Chicago lost to them worse than the 17-13 score indicated. The rest of their schedule - Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Green Bay - is as weak as a schedule can be, so it can continue to hide real problems that the team may have, and it won't prepare the Bears for the level of competition they will need to beat to go deep in the playoffs.
The NFC North - The division is the worst in the NFL. The other three teams in the division don't have a winning record, and a win against Minnesota guarantees them the crown. The division is a gift to the Bears when it comes to racking up wins, but it doesn't do them any favors in the long run. They are so far ahead of everyone else that they won't go into the playoffs with any intensity or momentum that comes from winning a close fight. They have two wins on anyone else in the conference as well, so they likely won't even have to try that hard to host games at Soldier Field throughout the playoffs. Coasting into the playoffs is almost never a good thing - ask last year's Colts.