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The Bears took advantage.
They tortured their fans all through the fourth quarter, but the team took advantage of a road game played at a neutral site, pulling out a 24-18 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to take a winning record into the bye.
The halfway point of the season arrives a week and a few days hence, so it certainly isn't too early to start speculating about a possible wild card playoff spot (especially since the Packers show no signs of allowing the Bears even a glimmer of hope for a repeat division title). And the Bears' 4-3 mark ties them for second-best among the non-division leaders in the National Football Conference, only a game in back of the top such team (Detroit).
As for the game itself, NFL officials tried to pump up the Buccaneers given that it was something of a home game for them (owner Malcolm Glazer and family also own Manchester United (which was thrashed by Manchester City 6-1 earlier Sunday). Wembley Stadium in London was a sea of Tampa Bay flags - at least early on. But there was no cheering to go with the waving, i.e., the crowd noise was never an issue for a Bear offense that has had more communications issues than most the past few seasons.
Grabbing a close victory thanks in part to an opposing home team not having a home-field advantage is the sort of result that can turn a mediocre season into a good one.
Not surprisingly, the controversy about the Bears waiting until near the end of the week to fly to London was overblown. Many believed the Bucs would have a big advantage because they had made the trip at the start of the week, but the bottom line is the flight to London just isn't that big of a deal. With just a little bit of sleep discipline (primarily avoiding an over-long nap during the day after arrival) a person can certainly either get over jet lag in less than 48 hours or even avoid it entirely. That probably won't be the case after the Bears' flight back today (the round trip does take a toll).
Some may say the Bears' poor fourth-quarter performance was due to fatigue but I would argue they just played poorly, in part because they were trying to protect a lead rather than continuing to stay aggressive.
The usual suspects the Bears have usually suspected would make big plays during the past several seasons (Matt Forte, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs) and just the past season-and-a-half (Julius Peppers) made big plays. Blockers like guard Chris Spencer created some space for Forte right from the start, and the running back's ability to wait for just the right moment to surge through an opening while making defenders miss was on display time after time.
Urlacher and Briggs continue to be the perfect linebackers for Lovie Smith's defense because of their ability to speedily drop into coverage, and they both turned such drops into big interceptions. The Bears caught a break when ref Tony Corrente saw a conclusive replay that I didn't see that convinced him to nullify Urlacher's fumble after his pick. I would argue that it wasn't just his knee that had to be down on that play but also that there had to be contact from a tackler and the contact just as the knee touched down seemed to pop the ball out instantaneously.
But the Bears had a break go against them on Briggs' pick. Chris Harris was flagged for blocking in the back during the subsequent return inside the one-yard-line, but Harris was hitting the intended receiver in the back a moment after the ball would have been arriving. It was still very much a defensive play, not a block.
Pay The Man, Jerry
Jerry Angelo will have to spend significant money on player salaries at some point relatively soon. It is estimated the Bears are more than $19 million under the salary cap for the 2011-12 season and the collective bargaining agreement requires teams to spend 99 percent of cap dollars on player compensation this year. He has waited to pay Forte, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, hoping the price would come down as the season progressed.
That clearly isn't happening. Maybe Jerry can find some time during the bye week to fork over the dough. Even if many believe teams should never pay running backs big money (they are too injury prone and every time you turn around a backup is having a big game, i.e., they are very replaceable), the Bears simply have to give it up to Forte, who is their biggest weapon by far.
I listened to a little post-game sports radio on ESPN radio and The Score and enjoyed Doug Buffone and Ed O'Bradovich as always, but also as always I could only take a few dim-witted callers pontificating about "the worst series of red-zone play calls I've ever seen."
Oh wait, the guy who said that was the guy who actually covered the game for the local ESPN outfit.
The Bears did not cover themselves in glory during the six plays they ran inside the 10 in the game's final minutes, but the second play would have resulted in a touchdown to Forte if Jay Cutler had just set his back foot a bit before fluttering a weak pass over the middle. And whatever play was called on third down had no chance.
Then the Bears caught the huge break when Aqib Talib was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and the team decided to just run the ball (which is what so many "old school" fans call for teams to do anyway when they have the ball inside the 5-yard-line). I would have liked to have seen at least one play-action pass (the Bears are too often terrible running the ball on second- or third-and-short) but it was understandable the Bears wanted to keep it simple after the Ronde Barber blitz almost caused Cutler to cough it up a few plays earlier.
And finally, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman was quoted after the game as saying his team had to "change everything' about its offensive game plan after backup running back Earnest Graham hurt his ankle in the first quarter. Graham was subbing for LaGarrette Blount, who did not even suit up due to a leg injury.
Really, Josh? There's a reason Earnest Graham is a backup, and despite his having run for 120 yards the previous week, if he was the pivotal part of the Buccaneer game plan, the Bears were in better shape than they knew going into this one.
Now, one way Graham's absence definitely hurt Tampa Bay was in blitz pick-up. Bear blitzers abused third-stringer Kregg Lumpkin in the first half, wreaking havoc on the Buccaneer pocket.
They didn't pile up sacks against Freeman, who was strong enough to shrug off some of the resulting hits and skilled enough to get rid of the ball just before others. But consistent pressure certainly had plenty to do with Freeman eventually tossing four picks.
And while the pressure ebbed during the second half, Peppers finally brought the heat in the end. His powerful pass rushes on the Bucs' final two plays forced an incompletion and D.J. Moore's game-clinching interception. In other words, Peppers took advantage.
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