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This is it.
Tonight is just about the whole season for the Bears. Of course it is still early and of course all sorts of squads come back from rough starts to make the postseason.
But if the team doesn't knock off the Lions in Detroit tonight after losing to the Packers two weeks ago, it will find itself way, way behind two different divisional foes. It will take the rest of the season (and lots of good fortune) for the Bears to make up the resulting three-game deficits, and those huge runs would have to include even-up wins over rivals that have already knocked them off.
To venture way out into projection land . . . there would be a better chance the Bears would win the second wild card than that they would rally in the division after starting 2-3. And yes I know that would mean three teams qualifying for the playoffs from the NFC North. Skeptical? Well, let's just say the rest of the conference fails to impress at this point. Only two teams other than the division leaders (Washington, New Orleans and San Francisco) have winning records in the East, South and West divisions and both off those squads (the Giants and the Buccaneers) have two losses.
So I suppose it isn't right to completely write off the Bears playoff chances if they lose tonight. Instead, let's go ahead and make one large prediction: If they drop this game, the Bears will not win the NFC North. If they don't win the division, they won't make the conference final, and if they don't make the conference final, they obviously will fall short of last season.
Plenty of teams talk about their only goal being a spot in the Super Bowl. But if a team that only won four games last year grabs nine victories this time around and squeaks into the playoffs as a wild card, it has succeeded. On the other hand, the sad truth for a team that made the conference final a year ago is that there is only one more step to take. If the Bears don't make the Super Bowl a year after grabbing a spot in the Final Four, the season really is a flat-out bust, no matter who was hurt or whatever else happened (the Packers suffered all sorts of injuries last year - enough said about a possible injury excuse).
As for a few specifics about tonight's match-up, well, I don't do "keys to victory." More than 90 percent of stories written before games - copy that purports to break down what it will take for this team to prevail over that one, are full of it. Who knows what the heck is going to happen other than the absolutely obvious, i.e., if one team pressures another team's quarterback consistently, it will have a much better chance to win. I'm guessing you know this already.
But I will go ahead and list some "keys to not driving Bears fans crazy."
1. Throw play-action passes on first downs.
The Bears became so enamored of the running game against Carolina, they missed numerous chances to diversify the offense in the second half. In the end, the Bear offensive line wore down the Panthers and finished off the game with two great drives for a critical field goal and what was essentially a clinching touchdown. But in the third quarter in particular they had a series of three-and-outs in which it was clear a play-action pass on first down was superior to a totally predictable run.
2. Take advantage of the fact that the Lions' running game is terrible.
Jahvid Best has been a bust at running back for Detroit and they don't have anyone else. Then again, maybe Best has just been waiting for a chance to take on a defense like the Bears, who couldn't stop the Panther rushing or passing game to the tune of the unbelievable 543 yards allowed last week.
Still, Brian (Urlacher) and Lance (Briggs), several tackles for losses of the hapless Lion running back would go a long way toward helping an average Bears fan maintain at least a semblance of sanity.
3. Find a way to help Jay Cutler avoid a pass-rusher and make a play.
He used to do this all the time in Denver; move smartly around the pocket to buy a little time and then make the killer last-second throw for a first down that demoralizes defenses.
Now, I'm not saying roll him out. As has been noted before, rolling out a quarterback just diminishes the amount of field he and his receivers have to work with.
But perhaps Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz could have a heart-to-heart chat before the game about how to play quarterback in the Martz system. Perhaps the coordinator could reassure his quarterback that if he occasionally brings his eyes down from looking at receivers after going a couple reads and feeling pressure, it will be okay.
Perhaps Martz could say Cutler doesn't have to look downfield until the absolute last split second every time he goes back to pass; that every once in awhile he can focus on avoiding pressure and then return his gaze to receivers who I'm sure will have made late moves that will make possible a few of those crushing completions that come after fans were certain their team was going to get a sack.
Do it for the sake of a metropolis' mental health.
Programming Note: Watch the game tonight at the venerable Beachwood Inn. Steve Rhodes behind the bar and Jim Coffman providing late-night commentary.
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