More than anything else, football is a game of attrition. Statistically improbable good fortune in the injury category can carry a team to the playoffs --see, Bears 2010 season--, while snake-bitten injury reports can rapidly unfurl a promising playoff run before it gets going --see, Bears 2011 season. So far this season the Bears have had about average "luck" with injuries. Matt Forte goes down for a few weeks, Michael Bush is inserted and everything remains disco. Jay Cutler gets his soft, soggy brain concussed? Enter Jason Campbell. So how will Campbell and the Bears react on a Monday Nighter against a vicious San Francisco defense? The doomsayers in the peanut gallery are already foretelling a terrible Hainie-esque 2011 redux, but fret not, Campbell is no Caleb and let's remember that this scenario is EXACTLY what Jason Campbell was brought in for during the offseason. Mind you, Jason Campbell won't be perfect, the 49ers defense is leagues beyond what he's seen, save for the second half of the Houston game. But the Bears defense is no bunch of slouches either and San Francisco has their own concussed quarterback and his backup to worry about.
So what will Monday's bash in the Bay Area bring? Probably relatively sloppy quarterback play and a lot of handoffs. Most telling for the Bears' fortunes will be the line play. In the rain on Sunday night against Houston's bruising o-line and equally nasty d-line, the Bears collection of "big and uglies" got pushed and bullied around. Houston is definitely a Super Bowl contender and, lo!, the 49ers are too and are armed with just as nasty a roster of men in the trenches. The Bears all season have been lumped in the same rare air of "Super Bowl contenders" and playoff games are, more often than not, won by the team with the better, more aggressive, "push you 'til you stay down," offensive and defensive lines. Chicago can get all the wins they want against the Jacksonvilles and Tennessees of the NFL, but for them to honestly remain in the altitude of Super Bowl, they're going to have to push back against another hulking bully in the form of San Francisco. Following the Monday Nighter, Chicago's schedule only gets relatively "easier" against a schedule of Minnesota, Seattle, Minnesota, teams with, surprise!, very talented lineman who the Bears will have to line up and dismiss. With so much of the focus on Jason Campbell's immersion into the spotlight, the frequent and familiar betrayal of a crumbling offensive or defensive line against a more aggressive opponent could be the difference between a win or a loss. Time for the Bears "uglies" to draw a line in the sand.
Steve von Horn
Ultra-talented NFL wide receivers tend to articulate their preferences through their behavior. True No. 1 targets enjoy playing with proven starting quarterbacks who are skilled enough to fit passes in small windows and confident enough to take chances to give top wide outs chances to make plays. They are not fond of being paired with conservative game manager types who reflexively turn to check down routes when other targets aren’t wide open. As a Bears fan, I need to use sweeping generalizations in this discussion because Chicago has never acquired a true No. 1 receiver. Until now.
Brandon Marshall has done his part to reinforce that stereotype about top wide receivers. Dolphins
quarterbacks didn’t impress Mr. Marshall. Here’s what the most talented pass catcher in Bears history had to say about Miami signal callers
on his way out the door after being traded to Chicago in March:
"[I]f you don't have a quarterback it doesn't matter who you have out there. You can bring Jerry Rice back in his prime and he's not going to be effective."
On the QB Continuum, I’d put Jason Campbell a lot closer to "Dolphins QB" than "Jay Cutler Clone." Marshall has been terrific for the Bears this season, both on the field and at the mic, and I think he realizes the situation in front of him on Monday Night Football. I’d bet ESPN has built out this potential issue as pre-packaged storyline they will push at certain times during the broadcast. Brandon Marshall body language watch? I expect it to happen.
The good news is that the Bears’ dynamic pass catcher (a) understands people will be watching closely and (b) has already made efforts to minimize the distraction. Here’s what Marshall had to say about Jason Campbell
going into this game:
"Jason Campbell is more than capable. I think he came in and did an amazing job and had control of the offense. Really, got us into some good situations, made some great checks. Again, I think the guys around him need to step up, myself included. We let him down and the team, that won’t happen again."
For the first time in 2012, I’m on Brandon Marshall Negative Storyline watch. He’s handled every question with grace and aplomb so far this season, but I’m curious to see what happens during the heat of the moment on MNF. ESPN is (probably) ready and willing to tactlessly mash Marshall’s behavior into a reel of "lowlights" that will have people talking about his relationship with Campbell by the end of the game. Hell, that had no problem doing it with Jay Cutler. How will Marshall handle it? Will it matter going forward? Will he rise above the noise like he has done so well since joining the Bears? I think he will fare well on all fronts, but I’m not completely sure – my glass is more than half full when it comes to Marshall, but the one fleck of doubt I still have has floated to the surface of that glass.
Win, lose or draw, I just want to see Marshall escape from the game without making a genuine scene and/or without providing any fodder for a possible pre-fabricated storyline of a mutiny against the backup quarterback. Those are my modest hopes for the game.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Bears 16
I think I speak for all of Chicago when I say a Super Bowl is really all that matters. That's the harsh reality of the current situation the Bears find themselves in, when anything less than capitalizing on their puncher's chance at a championship this season will leave our city feeling collectively unfulfilled. That isn't fair for a talented, likable and seemingly well-meaning group of guys who have been truly balling all season long, but them the breaks in a football-crazy town that hasn't won a Super Bowl during my lifetime.
Games like tonight's vs. the 49ers would seem to offer that rare gauge into what the postseason might be like. Stat-heads in football like to tout margin of victory no matter the opponent, though the city's Super Bowl anxiety won't be quelled with another beatdown over a meager opponent. The Bears have to piss with the big dogs, and they've failed miserably, for a variety of reasons, in both of their opportunities this season.
The concussion to Jay Cutler, and even the one to Alex Smith, essentially wipes that extra layer of meaning away tonight. The "Jason Campbell! Colin Kaepernick! It's Monday Night Football!" jokes are too easy to make, but for a Concussion Bowl battle between backups, this one retains at least some of its juice.
Campbell was paid a pretty penny this offseason for this exact moment -- to keep Chicago afloat while Cutler recovers from the inevitable injuries that come from playing behind the Bears' offensive line for four seasons. Yes, he's a backup for a reason, but it doesn't feel controversial to say he's likely a top 35 quarterback. Top 35 QBs hardly get treated like war heroes upon arrival, but history is chalk full of examples when these men are among the most important on the roster. This is Campbell's chance to prove his worth.
As for Kaepernick, color me excited. Football is always more engaging when an "athlete" is at quarterback, partially for combustibility, partially for the off chance you'll see something that has never happened before. The Tebow thing has layers upon layers, of course, but how many of them would dissipate if he were a perfectly average pocket passer? Point is, shit happens when someone who can run is manning the offense, and I'm actually very excited, as a football fan, to see what Kaepernick -- a promising second year pro out of Nevada who has looked great in spot duty -- can do with his big opportunity.
We're straying away from the point here, though: what does tonight mean? While Bears vs. 49ers no longer foreshadows things to come because of the concussions, the outcome still triggers tangible results. A Bears loss and the 49ers take Chicago's poll position for the No. 2 seed in the conference and a first round playoff bye. A Bears loss and the Packers
are on top of the division. If there was ever a time for the Bears to scrap and claw their way to victory, this is it. But do they have the horses to get it done?
It'll be interesting to find out. Sure would be a nice time for that first Devin Hester return, yes? A Peanut ball-punch or another history pushing pick-six would make for a good look, as well. I expect this game to be close, and gun to my head, the Bears to fall in a tight one. But with news coming this morning that Smith will also sit out, the probability of a Bears win rises.
Prediction: A more entertaining game than anyone is expecting.
With Alex Smith officially ruled out for tonight's game, the Niners will turn to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, who stepped in for Smith last week against St. Louis, interpreted the "don't lose us the game" creed bestowed upon Smith a little too broadly. The two are very different quarterbacks. Smith "manages the game" with low-risk short passes and good ball protection. Kaepernick is a more mobile quarterback with a stronger arm, and the confidence that comes with never having been benched in favor of Trent Dilfer.
Most people, I think, would argue that Kaepernick is the more talented player. I'm just not sure he's the better player for this game. In what figures to be a low-scoring contest between two defenses jockeying for turnovers and field position, the more sure-handed Smith would have been the ideal option. The 49ers have turned the ball over the fourth fewest times in the NFL this season behind only the Patriots, Packers, and Bucs -- thanks mostly to Smith completing 5-7 yard passes 70 percent of the time and only losing one fumble. The young Kaepernick may try to do too much against a Bears defense that feasts on mistakes. But that's probably me looking for a reason to be optimistic.
Prediction: The talking heads endorse Colin Kaepernick as the new starting quarterback from this point forward. Make sure to tune in for Steve Young's bold take at the top of the hour. 49ers 16, Bears 10
Want to make friends in Chicago? Walk around bar to bar and casually bring up the year 1985. The context is irrelevant. Fiscal cliff? "Yeah too bad it's not 1985." Did you see last night's Survivor? "In 1985 I did. High five!" It is the end-all, be-all unifying Chicago response. I'm pretty sure if you punch in 1985 for your PIN at a Chicago ATM, the fees are waived.
I very vividly recall that magical year. Being five years old and singing the Superbowl Shuffle on the bus on the way home from school. For Christmas, my brother and I got Bears championship t-shirts, and for the life of me I now wonder if those weren't printed and distributed before the Superbowl was even played. It was a happy time in the Chi. And, oh yeah, 1985 was also the last time the Chicago Bears won at Candlestick Park.
Granted they are out of division and thus a less frequent opponent, but based on how much the 49ers sucked in the 2000's, being 0 for the last 18 years in San Francisco is a pretty shocking stat for those that root for the navy and orange.
No matter the outcome tonight, the winner will come away with an asterisk - or as I like to call it, scoreboard herpes - as two of the league's best teams are both (reportedly) without their respective starting quarterbacks. I suppose the fact that the Bears have been preparing Campbell to be the starter all week helps their cause, as Alex Smith still hasn't been ruled out officially, mere hours before the game. But either way this is going to be a test of the line of scrimmage, in who can break that one big play, in who can make less mistakes. It is very much the kind of game the Bears have won with regularity in the Lovie era, but the 49ers are the one team that can go toe-to-toe in that regard. Sucky quarterbacks are nothing new in these parts.
It would be quite beautiful, and ratings-friendly, to frame this game as the full circle maneuver the Bears need to return to the glory of 1985. It beats the hell out of calling it a meaningless test of backup quarterbacks against completely dominant defenses. Either way, despite a fantastic first half of the season, with the Packers once again nipping at their heels Chicago needs to break its Candlestick curse under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.
Bears 23 - 49ers 17