With the Divisional round of the 2011 NFL Playoffs scheduled to begin tomorrow, and the Chicago Bears set to take on the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday (noon CST), we take a look at the Bears; The 2011 Playoff Edition.
The defense has been rock steady. Robbie Gould and Devin Hester are two key elements in what some people are claim is the best special teams group in NFL history. The offense? Well, that's a little more involved.
We have a reliable running back in Matt Forte. He shook our confidence last year, after his stellar rookie season, he couldn't seem to get out of the backfield. We learned afterward that he'd been playing hurt most of the year. He's back this year, and what's more is he's shown some skills as a receiver that were barely hinted at, when the Bears offense only flavor was vanilla. Chester Taylor is an experienced second option, who hasn't always played to expectations this year.
The receivers have gained plenty of experience. They were among the league's youngest groups last year, but they've taken some strides and you can almost chart their progress over this season, picking up Mike Martz's complicated offenses. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have emerged as Cutler's go-to guys, and Devin Hester continues to improve, and make defenses account for him on every down. Last year, it looked to me at least, Johnny Knox was blowing routes a lot. This year, even with much more to know, the receivers' all look much sharper.
Jay Cutler, amidst a non-stop barrage of negative perceptions, has quietly broken many Bears quarterback records and has brought his team to an NFC North championship in his second year on the team. He's taken a lot of sacks, and endured a lot of hits, but keeps the offense moving. His decision making can be tainted sometimes by his self-confidence, and although he's thrown less interceptions than he did last year, that threat hangs over the offense on every passing down. Chicago fans aren't used to this kind of wide-open offense, and the highs and lows can be a bit dizzying.
But now we're in the playoffs and the group we need to depend on most has been the least dependable, or even identifiable: the offensive line.
In the first half of the season, the line was the deciding factor in how the offense played, as well as whether or not the Bears won. The defense was keeping the team in games, and if the offense could settle down for one or two key drives, they won. If not, they lost. The Seahawks game in Week Six was a prime example of that.
Mike Tice's group was the joker in the deck, in the first half. While they still give up some sacks, they've become a far more solid unit. Veterans Olin Kreutz, and a now healthy Roberto Garza are helping the younger players overcome their shortcomings. And the fact that they've all got locked into position and assignments is a huge advantage, more than any other group, an offensive line requires repetition to perform well.
And this is the time for that repetition to start paying off. I believe this Chicago Bears team can overcome poor play by any other single unit, if the other play to form.
Except the offensive line. If the line can't hold up for Cutler to drop back, or if it can't open up some holes for Matt Forte, the bears have a very slim margin to win with.