Bears problem vs. Packers: Lovie Smith? Or someone else?

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Bears problem vs. Packers: Lovie Smith? Or someone else?

The immediate effects of the Bears 21-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers were the easy part.

The Packers (10-4) clinched the NFC North division. The Bears (8-6) lost any meaningful control over their own playoff chances, going from the No. 2 seed in postseason standings at the midpoint when they were 7-1 to now trailing Seattle (9-5), the New York Giants (8-6, better conference record), Minnesota Vikings (8-6, better division and conference records), and ahead of the Dallas Cowboys (8-6) only by virtue of a Monday night win so long ago (Oct. 1) that it seems like a different season.

Which it effectively was.

Them winning this game in our house is what we needed to avoid today and we didnt do it, center and co-captain Roberto Garza said.

Sunday marked the sixth straight loss to the Packers, a ominous development given that one of the first reasons cited for firing general manager Jerry Angelo was the failure to keep up with the Packers.

It now looms as a tipping point for Lovie Smith as well. And maybe more than just Smith, who was 6-2 against Green Bay when the Packers were quarterbacked by Brett Favre; 1-1 with Kyle Orton vs. Aaron Rodgers; and 1-7 in games vs. Rodgers with Jay Cutler as his quarterback.

A QB who cant beat the Packers

The teams with youthful second- (Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco), third- (Russell Wilson, Seattle) and fourth-round draft choices (Kirk Cousins, Washington) at quarterback are right now firmly in playoff contention or better. The one that traded away two No. 1 picks is wondering whether he is worth a contract extension with a year left on his deal.

And Cutler has now established definitively that he does not have the wherewithal to overcome his shortcomings visavis Aaron Rodgers and beat the Green Bay Packers.

If that flaw has been enough to put Angelo and Smith in jeopardy, the same assumption can be safely made about Cutler, now 1-7 vs. the Packers and Bears centerpiece since 2009.

As I noted in a column Sunday morning, the Bears quarterback is simply not as good as his opposite number and has not found ways to overcome that. The question now is whether he ever will be able to.

It wears on me, Cutler said. It wears on everyone. You dont want to lose to your rival year-in and year-out. Then its not a rivalry anymore. Its a domination.

Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron were brought down in some significant measure because they were unable to handle the Packers and Brett Favre. Smith, who could handle Favre but not his successor, is now feeling their pain.

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."

Bulls' Jimmy Butler voted All-Star Game starter

Bulls' Jimmy Butler voted All-Star Game starter

Jimmy Butler is heading to his third straight All-Star Game, and for the first time he'll be in the Eastern Conference's starting lineup.

CSNChicago.com Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill reported that Butler was voted an All-Star starter.

Butler has been sensational this season, averaging a career-best 24.8 points (tied for the 10th-best mark in the league entering Thursday's games), 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest through 41 games. He's shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 34.5 percent from 3-point range.

Butler previously made Eastern Conference All-Star squads in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, though this is his first time in the starting five.