Hate to say the Bears are the same old Bears, but they are.
Sitting in the press box at Soldier Field Sunday, middle of the third quarter, toothless Bears down 14-0, and Mike Wilbon walked by me. "I'm 52 years old,'' said the media icon, "and I grew up in this town, and the best quarterback my team has ever had is Erik Kramer!''
He was being a little facetious; there was, after all, the punky QB, Jim McMahon. But that was the level of absolute dejection and letdown in this city Sunday night. The locals feel Jay Cutler deserted them.
There's no question that the defense did its part, allowing only 14 points in 13 Green Bay offensive drives. (The winning points game from a B.J. Raji interception return for touchdown in the fourth quarter.) Point of emphasis here: Green Bay had the ball 34 times against the Bears in three games this year, not including three kneel-down series. Chicago held the Packers to five touchdowns and 41 points total. That's winning defense.
That means the Chicago offense, which scored 13, 3 and 14 points, respectively (not including a Devin Hester punt return for touchdown in the first meeting), just didn't do its job. Thirty offensive points in three games. Awful. And Jay Cutler was in charge of 10-plus of those 12 quarters of football. Chicago had better fix the offensive line, and the Bears had better get a solid receiving weapon. Because the Jay Cutler did-he-quit story of today is going to die eventually, and once it does, the distraction of whether he's tough or not tough, and the outrage of so many about him leaving the game without appearing terribly injured, is going to come back around to him still being the quarterback of the future for the Bears.
You could tell the Bears locker room was seething about the perception -- from Chicagoans at the game, and from the outside world via Twitter -- that Cutler was soft, or was jaking it. As Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett wrote via Twitter during the second half: "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!''
SI's Jim Trotter wrote a good explanation of what he saw in the Bears locker room after the game, finding an emotional Cutler near tears when told about the perception from some around the league thought that he was soft for not playing the final 25 minutes of the game. Here's the link to Trotter's piece, which I recommend reading.
The problem when you're not a popular player, and Cutler certainly is not, is that you don't have the kind of good will built up to make something like this go away. I read one report early this morning of a Cutler jersey being burned in the Soldier Field parking lot after the game. And if the MRI he undergoes today comes back negative, or shows a minor injury, it'll take Cutler a long time to get over this. If he ever does.
The NFC's the land of opportunity.
Winners of the championship in the 16-team NFC in the past 10 seasons:
2010 Green Bay
2009 New Orleans
2007 New York Giants
2002 Tampa Bay
2001 St. Louis
Ten seasons, 10 different franchises. Of the six non-champs over the past decade, five (Atlanta, Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco and Washington) have each won at least one playoff game. Only Detroit hasn't won a playoff game among the 16 NFC teams in the past 10 years.
Interesting. I could see Dallas contending next season. How amazing would 11 different championship cities in 11 years be?
What a weird series of plays that doomed the Jets.
When the Jets' LaDainian Tomlinson was stoned on fourth-and-one at the goal line by Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and James Farrior midway through the fourth quarter, New York's hopes were kaput ... even though the Jets went on to make the game very interesting in the last couple of minutes. The reason? They just took too long -- eight minutes, down 14 points against a team that wasn't going to give up big chunks and was trained to keep the Jets inbounds -- and came away with no points, and then took too long on their next possession. It had to be maddening for Rex Ryan to watch his offense while away the minutes on the clock, playing right into Dick LeBeau's hands.
The Jets had the ball for the first 7:16 of the fourth quarter, down 24-10, and took 15 plays to go 57 yards. The Steelers just weren't letting the receivers get behind the secondary. Even after New York got a safety on the first play of the ensuing Steelers possession, it was still a two-possession game, and the Jets, down 24-12, had but 7:38 to make two long drives and get the ball into the end zone, which they'd done only once in the first 52 minutes of the game. It took New York 4:32 to go 58 yards to score a touchdown.
By the time the Steelers got the ball back with 3:06 to play, all they had to do was sit on the ball, convert one third down (if they didn't throw an incompletion). That would force New York to use its three timeouts and have no way to stop the clock afterward. The Steelers actually got two first downs on the possession, then easily ran the clock out.
We've seen the Patriots and the Jets in this postseason take too much time in the fourth quarter of playoff games and all ruin their chances to win because of it. In the Jets' case, it was that, plus a fourth-and-goal stop by the Steelers on a play -- against one of the best run-stopping teams in NFL history -- that should never have gone right up the gut, but rather gone wide.
You wanna crown me? Then crown my a--!
No. Don't, really.
For those who would like to backpat me for picking Steelers 33, Packers 27 in the SI NFL preview issue last summer, I'd remind you that I'm the same guy who swerved over to pick the Patriots to win the AFC three weeks ago, as the playoffs began, and to face the Packers in the title game. So as much as I'd like to take a bow for nearly being right, and for having my two teams make it to Super Bowl XLV, I really can't.
But I am proud of the principle of my picks. The NFL has shown us a couple of things in the past few years. Not only do Super Bowl winners not repeat, but also they don't win playoff games. This is the fifth straight year the defending Super Bowl champ didn't win a playoff game the following year. So next season (assuming there is a next season) I won't pick the winner of the Steelers-Packers game.
And next year I probably won't pick an outright division winner from this season as Super Bowl champ. In the past four years (including this one), the Super Bowl champ was either tied for first in its division or in second place or lower. I'm not saying it's a science. I'm saying the games are so ridiculously close, and the chalk hasn't been repeating lately, so why force it?
"It's like I tell my players,'' Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me in the Packers locker room Sunday. "In almost every game you play, it's going to come down to two, three, four plays. If we make 'em, we win. If we don't, we don't.'' That goes for the great teams and the upstarts, which is why it's fine to pick good teams that aren't far away. But recent history says it's not smart to pick teams coming off 12-4 seasons.