Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Bears navigate Minnesota's Bizarro World
By Kevin Seifert
Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears celebrated an NFC North division title on Monday in Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The juxtaposition was stark Monday night at TCF Bank Stadium. With three minutes remaining in a battle of division rivals, most Chicago Bears had already donned celebratory hats with the words "Division Champions" emblazoned across the front. The Bears were looking ahead and considering a world of opportunity in front of them.
The Minnesota Vikings, on the other hand, were resting comfortably in a Bizarro World of misplaced nostalgia and an endless farewell tour of their quarterback. The Bears clinched the NFC North title on a night when last season's champions were clinging to their past.
"I wish I could figure it out myself," said quarterback Brett Favre, referencing the process that lifted him into the starting lineup Monday. But he was also giving voice to those who are still digesting the Bears' return to prominence.
Here's a start: In a 40-14 victory, the Bears played like they know where they're going. "This is just one of our goals," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "There are other things that we want to accomplish."
The Vikings? In ceding its two-year reign on the division, the franchise seemed disproportionately caught up in a long-planned celebration of their 50th anniversary. The event compelled the team to shoehorn Monday night's game into the kind of outdoor stadium it has struggled in for decades. And while we won't soon forget the moving sight of former players carrying former coach Bud Grant off the field at halftime, it was overshadowed by Favre's characteristic but still stunning compulsion to enter the fray.
On Friday, Favre was excused from practice and meetings to visit a terminally ill child in Milwaukee.
On Saturday, Favre was ruled out of the game amid continuing indications that his career was over. But on Sunday night, Favre sent interim coach Leslie Frazier a text message suggesting he might be ready to play after all.
During a postgame news conference, Favre never said the numbness in his right hand had dissipated or that his sprained SC joint had healed substantially. Instead, it was clear that the toughest man in NFL history couldn't resist one final, nationally televised opportunity to prove it.
"Why I would even consider playing, I have no idea," Favre said. "I knew it was my last home game. ... And as crazy as it sounds, I was looking forward to playing in a blizzard. ... I think my stubbornness, hard-headedness and stupidity is what has allowed me to play for 20 years."
Favre proved his point, playing reasonably well for five series before suffering a concussion with 11 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter. In a twist of irony, Favre admitted the concussion came when his head slammed into the frozen turf.
Favre said last week that he wasn't interested in a last hurrah, but it sure looked like one. Frazier, for one, seemed swept up in it.
Corey Wootton's sack of Brett Favre in the second quarter ended the quarterback's night.
According to Frazier, Favre told him: "'This is my last home game in Minnesota. I want to pay for these fans. I want them to see me play.'"
The Vikings were eliminated from playoff contention last week, so Favre provided a moment of interest at the end of a lost season. But it was still somewhat jarring to watch that ultimately irrelevant theater playing out parallel to an opponent romping its way to a division title.
When this season began, many of us were predicting an irrelevant season for the Bears rather than the Vikings. The Bears missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year in 2009 and coach Lovie Smith had one more season to get back. The last thing any of us thought would happen is that it would actually happen -- not with two new coordinators, a revamped offensive line and a seemingly tired defensive scheme.
"I heard a lot of that from the outside looking in," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "We all realize that Lovie was on the hot seat. Chicago is the kind of city that if you're not doing well, they'll let you know about it. It's nice to be successful because Lovie really is a great coach, and I really can't imagine playing for anyone else."
Indeed, Smith has navigated the Bears to a 10-4 record using a simple but foolproof -- at least this season -- approach. Consider Monday night's game.
Smith's Tampa 2 scheme kept the Vikings' offense in front of it, as it is designed to do. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 26 of the Vikings' 33 passes traveled 10 yards or fewer in the air. Smith's always-reliable special teams produced a 64-yard punt return touchdown by Devin Hester, and tailback Matt Forte produced a 92-yard rushing night.
"We know what it takes to win," quarterback Jay Cutler said, and I believe every word of that sentence. But at this moment, the Vikings appear to have no such clue. They are a franchise lost in last year and yesteryear.
"Sometimes," Favre said, "you just have to try."
But what exactly were Favre and the Vikings trying to do Monday night? I wish I could figure that out myself.