Lovie wins, even in loss
All last week Bears head coach Lovie Smith said he planned to play his starters in the team's regular-season finale in Green Bay, even if he knew by kickoff that his team wouldn't have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC. True to his word, Smith sent out his A-Team against their division rivals, hoping to keep the Packers out of the postseason with a win. The Bears nearly pulled off the knockout blow, but a Jay Cutler pick in the final minute of the game sealed the 10-3 win for Green Bay.
Some are arguing that Smith's decision was just plain stupid. Sending out your playoff-bound starters in a meaningless game? Risking injury simply for the satisfaction of sweeping the division and dashing the hopes of your biggest rival? Though I can understand their point, I don't join them in criticizing the move. Smith has had his doubters since the start of the season -- when many had the Bears winning just five games on the year -- but I believe he's earned the right to take some chances and make some bold moves.
Like their quarterback, the Bears have proven to have a little Jekyll and Hyde quality this season. One week the defense is leading the way, the next, it's up to the offense to keep them in it. After allowing 84 points in the previous three games, it's no wonder Smith wanted to put his defense out there and give it one final test heading into the postseason. And as for that offense, back-to-back high-scoring games against the Vikings and the Jets weren't enough to erase the memory of a measly seven-point effort against the Patriots on Dec. 12.
The truth is, this Bears team has a lot of talent, but it also has had a lot of luck. Smith very well may have looked back at that debacle against New England, then ahead to the postseason, and decided his team needed a little more work. A division title, a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye are great accomplishments, especially for a team that's watched the postseason from home for three consecutive years. But let's be honest, a one-and-done in the playoffs would be a big disappointment for the Bears and their fans.
After the loss on Sunday, Cutler said his offense learned a lot from its first game with significant crowd noise and now enter its bye week with an even greater knowledge of what to work on. As for the defense, the Bears reminded themselves and the league that they're not be messed with. The Packers only made it into Bears territory twice in the first half, and they didn't score either time. They managed just 10 points and 284 yards on the day after putting up 45 points and 515 total yards on the Giants the week before. A performance like that gives the Bears' defense invaluable confidence as its enters the postseason.
Now I'll admit I cringed a little every time Cutler got sacked -- six times in all on the day -- and if a Bear stayed down on the field too long after a tackle, I found myself watching him, waiting for him to bounce up and jog it off. In the end, Chris Harris, Nick Roach and Major Wright suffered what Smith deemed to be minor injuries and, incredibly, the Bears are likely to have their entire roster of players healthy and ready to go when they host the NFC divisional game at Soldier Field on Jan. 16.
If Cutler and company had sat this game out, they would have faced their next opponent on three whole weeks of rest; that's way too many days without working at game-speed or facing competition. Sunday's game had the feel and importance of a playoff game for the Packers, and getting the Bears practice like that was worth the risk. They may have lost, but they got their defensive swagger back and they entered their bye week with a little bit of extra bite. And it was just a nice little bonus that the 71,000 plus fans at Lambeau -- myself included -- got to see a good one.
'Course even I'm not too blockheaded to admit that this column would be mighty different had Cutler gone down for good on one of those sacks. Ain't hindsight a beautiful thing?