View from the Moon: Rematch of the century awaits

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View from the Moon: Rematch of the century awaits

Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011
Posted: 10:33 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

First, to make this very simple: The winner of the Bears-Seattle Seahawks game at noon Sunday hosts the NFC Championship game. Sixth-seeded Green Bay, my preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, played out a jaw-dropper over the Atlanta Falcons, far beyond the expectations even of those who thought theyd dispatch the Falcons.

The speed-based Bears didnt especially want to go to Atlantas Georgia Dome. But they cannot be looking very forward to Aaron Rodgers and Friends coming in next weekend either.

In any case, Saturday was not a good day for defensive coordinators.

My picks of Pittsburgh over Baltimore and Green Bay over Atlanta were OK, -- the Steelers covered and the Packers won outright -- but the point production was staggering. The Steelers were No. 1 in scoring defense and gave up 24 to the Ravens, who ranked No. 3 and allowed the Steelers 31. The Falcons were No. 5 and gave up 28 points to the Packers in just the first half alone.

No. 2 Green Bay was the only one of the defenses on the field in the divisional playoff round that played to its defensive seed. And thats what waits for the Bears if they get past the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon.

The unaccounted-for No. 4 scoring defense? That would be the Bears. Very unlikely that they suffer the same kind of points hemorrhaging as the other elite defenses, but on any given Sunday. ...

What happens Sunday?

My thought is that New England will ease past the New York Jets 30-20, a points differential reflected in the differential between Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez.

The Bears-Seahawks will play out just about the same way, although not based on the quarterbacks. The Seahawks simply have no significant area of real excellence, and the playoffs are about high-impact playmakers. Even Arizona had Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin when they eked into their recent Super Bowl.

The Bears do. They have a defense that should be awake now, after seeing what the Seahawks did to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints and recalling what Matt Hasselbeck did to them back in October.

If Jay Cutler and Mike Martz can internalize the lessons of the first eight games since the off week and not regress to the kind of performance they gave at Green Bay, the Bears will slowly pull away in the second half. Cutler will throw for three touchdowns and the Bears will be one game from their second Super Bowl appearance under coach Lovie Smith.
Bears 31, Seahawks 14You wanted who?

The Bears, stuck with nobodies like Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, could certainly use a true No. 1 wide receiver, couldnt they? Like the ones that other teams went after, like Tennessee and Randy Moss, like everybody and Terrell Owens?

Like the Baltimore Ravens and Boldin oh, wait, he just dropped a TD pass in the one-touchdown, divisional-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. ...

Like the Seattle Seahawks and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and his 40-million deal ... oh, wait, the Seahawks let him go and Baltimore picked him up. So then, like the Baltimore Ravens and Houshmandzadeh ... oh, wait, he just dropped a fourth-down pass, the final play for the Ravens in that loss to Pittsburgh.

Of the top 35 wide receivers in the NFL for 2010 in number if receptions, only Roddy White in Atlanta, Wes Welker in New England and Greg Jennings for Green Bay were still playing this weekend. So, please, enough about how the Bears absolutely have to get themselves a No. 1 receiver.
Final pre-playoff Lovie contract thoughts

The outcome of the divisional-round game will factor into organizational thoughts on adding a year, two or more to the contract of Lovie Smith, which expires after 2011. The market has tightened and Smiths price is unlikely to tick dramatically upward from its 5.5 million given the widespread belt-tightening going on throughout the league.

If the Bears fall to the Seahawks, so too could the urge to keep Smith from entering his contract year. If the Bears progress to the NFC Championship game, however, the surprise will be if he and the organization do not extend their association.

Negotiations rarely are public with Smith, agent Frank Bauer and the Bears. And Smith, like Dick Jauron before him, keeps his innermost thoughts just that: innermost.

However, Smith is confident in his abilities, with cause. He reached a Super Bowl in his third year, one sooner than Mike Ditka, and went to the playoffs in his second year, one less than Mike Ditka, and reached a Super Bowl in his third, also one year faster than Ditka.

Since taking over a team with Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn for quarterbacks, an offensive line with Qasim Mitchell at left tackle and Steve Edwards at right guard, and David Terrell as the lead receiver, Smith has had no season with a winning percentage below .438 (two at 7-9) in his last six. Ditka had two of below that in his final four years.

What that means is that while considerable leverage rests with the Bears (Smith is under contract and the league is going cheap with multiple first-time head coaches), Smiths temperament is such that as far as agreeing to anything, he will likely be willing to let this season finish out first, if even then.

Hell gamble on himself.

Angel Gabriel

Former Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel used his billet of writing for National Football Post this week to do some self-serving puffy-chesting about how he was all over running back James Starks on draft day 2010. Gabriel had the kid on the phone but GM Jerry Angelo decided at the last minute to go for a quarterback, Western Michigans Dan LeFevour, in the sixth round.

Interesting timing by Gabriel, trumpeting his find (and taking a shot at Angelo, who let Gabriel go last offseason) after Starks bagged 123 yards in the Packers wild-card win at Philadelphia.

Thats great, especially by a sixth-round pick, although Starks had 47 yards through three quarters against Atlanta; couldnt find another Gabriel item on the guy. And I kept going over and over Gabriels original NFP Starks post and couldnt find his mentioning the picks of Dan Bazuin, Juaquin Iglesias, Mark Bradley, Roe Williams, Jarron Gilbert, Michael Okwo, Michael Haynes. Maybe those were all Angelos, too.

Oh, never mind ...

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."