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We'll get to everything in the league pre-8 p.m. Sunday in a minute. And there's a lot to get to. But first, there's the exhibition game that was no exhibition game. I wasn't in Denver, but I watched Bears-Broncos on TV. Or should I say, I felt it. I don't remember a preseason game that felt as much like a regular-season game in the 25 years I've been covering the sport. The hitting, the noise, the stakes, the vibrating NBC cameras. At one point Al Michaels had to shout to be heard above the din; when Josh McDaniels was being interviewed by Andrea Kremer before the game, he had to lean to her face, and she was practically shouting.
This wasn't August football against an NFC team with no rivalry history. This was a December game with the playoffs on the line. Against an archrival.
Turns out I wasn't alone in feeling that way.
"It was very, very, very, very much like a regular-season game,'' said Josh McDaniels, an hour after it ended.
"It was not like any other preseason game I've ever been involved in,'' said Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner from the scrum of the Bears' locker room afterward. "Not even close.''
It was a tale of two teams. Chicago, the team on the rise with the petulant franchise quarterback, Jay Cutler, who forced a trade from the Broncos. Denver, the team on the stumble that let the franchise quarterback go and dealt for Chicago's retread Kyle Orton. Chicago rising. Denver on the ropes.
On the ropes is too nice. Everything the Broncos have touched in the last five months has turned to crap. Even in the lead-up to this most interesting of practice games there was another slap in McDaniels' face: Star wide receiver Brandon Marshall had to be suspended for two weeks for insubordination, and there's no telling if this 6-year-old football player will show up more mature when the suspension ends.
As if the 27-17 home loss didn't hurt enough, Denver is faced with another bit of wonderful news: Orton suffered what appeared to be a wound to the index finger on his right (throwing) hand. That's only the most important finger to throw the football. The wound would have to heal, and the finger would have to be flexible enough to throw a football 13 days from now, in the season opener at Cincinnati. If Orton's finger can't heal in time, then backup Chris Simms would get the nod ... assuming Simms' high-ankle sprain is healed in time, and there's no telling if it will be.
Uh-oh. Now there's something new for the Broncos: Storm clouds, the kind that roll in over the Rockies many afternoons and drench the plains. I found the vanquished more interesting. From his car early this morning, McDaniels sounded a little edgy. Almost angry, but not quite. Defiant might be a better way to put it. I can see what Pat Bowlen saw in him, and still sees in him. Bowlen shows no signs of wavering on McDaniels, no matter how many things keep going maddeningly wrong, and I think the owner would have loved to have heard his coach as the nightmare of the loss sank in.
"Kyle was fine tonight,'' said McDaniels. "What was he, 12 of 16, something like that? [Exactly.] He's not our issue, and I don't believe he's going to be. He's a good player who knows what to do. He's accurate, he knows the offense, he's well-respected by the guys in the locker room. But it's hard to get into a rhythm when you have 10 penalties, six holding calls and put yourself in bad situations over and over again and it always seems like it's first-and-20.''
I mentioned to him that Cris Collinsworth made a good point on the telecast, saying he felt sorry for Orton, because Orton had nothing to do with this Cutler/Denver/McDaniels war and yet would probably be identified with it for the rest of his career.
"Well, I can tell you that certainly I don't feel sorry for Kyle Orton,'' said McDaniels, his voice rising an octave or two. "Kyle Orton is one tough son of a bitch. Kyle Orton doesn't feel sorry for himself, and no one feels sorry for him in our locker room. What he has here, both with the coaching staff and in the locker room, is a tremendous amount of respect.''
As for his own mental state after the public and private battering he's taken, the 33-year-old McDaniels sounded passionate. "I have never felt sorry, not once, for anything going on here. And certain not for myself,'' he said. "I love this game. I love this city. I love the passion of the fans. It was fantastic in that stadium tonight. And I'm blessed to have a chance to coach these players, in this city. I'm thrilled about the locker room we have and the kind of players we have. We're all in. I mean that. I was in the locker room tonight after the game, and I looked around, and I saw it. We're all in. We've got a veteran locker room with strong-minded people who care about winning and not all the BS.''
They're going to need that strength. How about this eight-game stretch, starting in Week 4: Dallas, New England, at San Diego, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, at Washington, at San Diego, Giants (on a three-day week).
Now for the victors.
"You have to be pretty happy with what you saw from your offense, and what you saw from Cutler, tonight,'' I said to Ron Turner.
"Sure am,'' he said.
A couple of minutes before I talked to Turner from the Chicago locker room, he had gone over to Cutler (15 of 21, 144 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, one 98-yard touchdown drive that sucked all the air out of the stadium) and told him this, in paraphrase: What I learned from you tonight is you're not going to force the ball when we've got a good play called downfield but it's not open and you've got to take the checkdown. You could have been tempted to say, 'I gotta take more, I gotta take a shot downfield,' but you weren't. and if you didn't do it tonight with all the emotion in this stadium, then you're never gonna do it.
"It's funny,'' said Turner. "But this was actually a great thing for our team tonight. It was so unlike any preseason-game atmosphere. You can't manufacture the noise, the pressure, all the attention on a young quarterback trying to get to know his team. It's a great learning experience to be backed up all night and then have to take the ball 98 yards in that environment. You learn something about him, he learns about his teammates. So we couldn't have asked for a better situation than tonight, because this will help us get ready for the real adversity we'll face in big games this year. In our first preseason game, at Buffalo, we went three-and-out our first times with the ball, and I think everyone started pressing. Not tonight.''
The one thing about the Bears that's going to be tough on passing downs is the checkdowns to Matt Forte. If he gets in space, even a little bit of it, Cutler will find him when he can't throw it intermediate or deep. In this offense, especially if Cutler stays disciplined and takes what the defense gives him, Forte might catch 90 balls. He'll be Roger Craig.
In one night, Chicago learned everything it needed to know about Cutler. He withstood the storm, which good quarterbacks have to do. In brutal environments like that one, good quarterbacks just have to hold the fort and make sure they're not down 14-zip by the time the crowd is back to normal decibel level. Cutler had a couple of shaky series early, survived the gnat-like presence of Elvis Dumervil, and lived to fight more battles in the second quarter. By the time the half was over, he'd engineered a 17-3 lead.
Ask Chicago GM Jerry Angelo this morning, and he'll tell you that two first-rounders, a third- and Orton was pretty cheap for the guy he saw Sunday night.
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