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When the Green Bay Packers lost veteran left tackle Chad Clifton to a neck injury on the opening touchdown drive when his own running back conked him in the head with a knee, it looked like the Bears had caught another lucky break in a season full of four-leaf clovers.
"Clifton went to the bench with what is called a 'neck stinger' and eventually was taken to the locker room so the trainers could work on him. It's a nerve injury that causes numbness and pain in the shoulder and down the arm, which is devastating for an offensive lineman," the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports.
In came third-year man T.J. Lang. The promising start by the Packers now looked like it came with a heavy price that could cost Green Bay the game; Lang had the unenviable task of trying to keep Defensive Player of the Year candidate Julius Peppers from Aaron Rodgers.
That would be the T.J. Lang who is so obscure Yahoo! doesn't have any stats on him available.
(It turns out he played in a dozen games this year but didn't start any; likely he had only a few snaps in each.)
"Lang stepped in for Clifton and wasn't ready to face the physically imposing Peppers," the Journal-Sentinel reports.
"When Clifton went into the locker room, the trainers performed ultrasound on him and massaged his neck and shoulder to get everything working right again.
"Once he started to feel better, Clifton came to the sideline, did some contact drills and decided he was OK to return. He came back into the game with 7 minutes, 40 seconds left in the second quarter and never left.
"Peppers finished without a sack for the second straight game against Clifton. The Packers looked bad on offense in the second half, but Peppers wasn't dominating Clifton to the point the veteran needed any help."
There's no telling what Peppers would have done to Aaron Rodgers if Clifton hadn't overcome his injury, the Journal-Sentinel concluded.
Perhaps that's when the luck ran out on the Bears this season. Sure, Lance Briggs ran into an interception of Donald Driver's shoe, but Brian Urlacher was also tackled - sort of - by Rodgers on an interception return, preventing a sure touchdown. (Given Urlacher's post-game comments about the defense getting "gassed" a couple times, Urlacher appears to have been less "tackled" than "assisted in stumbling while out of breath.")
And, of course, there was the grand irony of the Bears being forced to turn to their third-string quarterback after getting to face three third-stringers in a row in the regular season. Of course, on the Bears, having to use their third-string quarterback was an improvement on having to use their second-string quarterback.
And their first-string quarterback? All the doubts that Jay Cutler had seemed to assuage about him are now back in full force. Is it ridiculous to question Cutler's toughness? Perhaps. But hearing that from a classless Brian Urlacher, who called the fans who pay his enormous salary "stupid" for wondering in his post-game interview, doesn't exactly put the issue to rest. Wasn't Urlacher the first one to call Cutler a pussy?
On the other hand, Cutler showed his toughness playing behind an offensive line that earlier in the season couldn't have kept a ballboy from sacking him. He gets the benefit of the doubt - if only Lovie Smith didn't sow it so much.
Smith, in his post-game interview, shut down questions about Cutler's knee; the game ended without even the vaguest injury report of what in the hell was wrong with it.
Cutler, in his post-game interview, put the decision to stay out on the team's medical staff. Really?
Forgive the fans for thinking that, in an NFC Championship Game, you should play if you can walk, or even stand.
That's not to say they are right for playing amateur doctors without the foggiest notion of what the facts are; it's to say that the Bears didn't do Cutler any favors by clamming up (nor did Cutler when he said he didn't even know when he hurt his knee) - and that Urlacher should shut his piehole.
While Urlacher snapped at reporters - hey, Brian, if you aren't in the mood to face stupid questions (perfectly understandable), just bail - asking one who apparently wasn't paying sufficient attention if he was, you know, bothering him, he didn't seem to mind the media as much when he later went on to his paid gig on Fox Chicago News. (Genuflecting Fox Chicago host Lou Cannelis asked Urlacher such tough questions as, "Is this team good enough to get back here next year?")
When the question of fans' bewilderment about Cutler arose again, Urlacher said "That shows how much they know about football."
About as much as you know about birth control?
And yes, many fans are stupid. But the harshest criticism came from Cutler's and Urlacher's own football-playing peers.
Urlacher also called the roughing-the-passer penalty on Julius Peppers early in the fourth quarter "bull." Peppers absolutely smashed Rodgers helmet-to-helmet and could have broken his neck; I was on the phone with a friend at the time and we thought Peppers ought to have been thrown out of the game, especially given all the talk this year about just such hits. (Rodgers had already suffered two concussions this season and looked dazed for the next few plays.)
After the game, Peppers wasn't complaining. But during the game, Peppers, Urlacher and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sure lost their composure whining like little babies about a dirty hit that could have ended a man's career. You didn't see the Packers complaining, though. ("He lowers his head, leads with the crown," analyst Troy Aikman said. " You see Julius Peppers complaining about the call, but that was an easy one to make. It's a wonder Aaron Rodgers can even get up.")
Urlacher still managed to be the standout on defense, making a handful of great plays and a handful of bad ones (he admitted during his Fox appearance to getting absolutely juked by Packers running back Brandon Jackson on one embarrassing play that Aikman initially blamed on the shoddy Soldier Field turf until he saw on the replay that Urlacher hadn't slipped at all.)
Like Caleb Hanie, Urlacher kept both teams in the game. But the real - and only - star on the Bears' offense was Matt Forte, who turned in perhaps the grittiest performance of his career. Likewise, Chester Taylor played his role perfection. But the lack of a big-time receiver - like Packers MVP (in my book) Greg Jennings - finally proved costly.
And where were the Bears vaunted (rightly so) special teams?
Lovie Smith probably made the wrong decision when he declined to go for a 48-yard field goal in the middle of the game only to have a punt go in the end zone and result in only a net 11-yard gain, if only because of Brad Maynard's inability to execute this season.
Otherwise, the reasoning was sound: Gould's longest field goal at home in 2010 was 37 yards; he was 0-for-3 beyond that. On the road, Gould's longest was 54 yards; he was 7-for-11 beyond 40 yards. Probably a combination of the swirling winds off the lake inside Soldier Field and the infamously crappy sod.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy made the same decision in a similar scenario, but his punter turned in a superb performance.
There's no question the Packers deserve to go to the Super Bowl. They were a pre-season favorite hobbled by a slew of injuries early on; they had as much bad luck as the Bears had good.
But they persevered and managed to beat the Eagles, Falcons and Bears on the road in the playoffs. Is there any doubt they're the best team in the NFC?
Of course, there might be several AFC teams that are even better. One of them might be Super Bowl opponent Pittsburgh, with its fierce defense.
Still, you'd think Urlacher would wish the Pack well. No.
"I hope they get pounded," he said.
This from your leader.
Stay classy, Bears.
* Lovie Blew It
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