Sunday, January 9, 2011 Updated: January 10, 4:32 PM ET
For Bears, opportunity knocks again
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- There are no byes in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, but this one seems pretty close, doesn't it?
Yes, the Chicago Bears already lost to their playoff-opening opponent, Seattle, this season, and yes, the Seahawks are coming off an impressive win over the New Orleans Saints.
But it is true that the Bears, touched by providence all season, have the easiest draw of the divisional round with the sub-.500 Seahawks coming to Soldier Field next Sunday afternoon.
Yes, that's right. Seattle versus Chicago for the right to play in the NFC Championship, just like we all predicted in August.
Of all the options, this was the most palatable for the Bears. No Drew Brees, No Michael Vick. Just a 7-9 team (well, 8-9 now) that barely won the worst division in football.
In a season full of fortuitous breaks, this does nothing to change the conversation.
Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run clinched a win for the Seahawks on Saturday against the Saints.
Yes, fans joked about New Orleans resting starters before their wild-card matchup at Qwest Field, before Marshawn Lynch went "beast mode" and the 10-point underdogs wound up winning a 41-36 shootout.
The Bears are getting similar respect, or vice versa for Seattle, from the oddsmakers, opening up as 9½-point favorites, even though the Seahawks beat Chicago 23-20, at home, earlier in the season.
In that game the Bears, playing without Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, failed to record a sack or a turnover and went 0-for-12 on third down. Jay Cutler was brought down six times, including once for a safety, and Mike Martz called just 12 runs. The only bright spot was Devin Hester's punt return for a touchdown, highlighted by a hellacious block by Earl Bennett.
While Chicago lost again the next week to Washington to go limping into the bye week, it's safe to say the Seahawks loss was the low point of the season. Well, that and the time Cutler almost got killed in New Jersey. But as a team effort, the Seattle game.
Since the bye week, the Bears are 7-2, and a surprise No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Things are dramatically improved from that Week 6 loss, but there's no question that the Bears wouldn't mind some revenge.
"I definitely want to play the Seahawks because they beat us earlier in the season," safety Chris Harris said on ESPN 1000 on Sunday morning.
While Cutler has still gotten dropped regularly (52 sacks "leading" the NFL), the post-bye Bears started running the ball with regularity and -- this is not a coincidence -- started converting third downs. Perhaps they should be thanking Seattle for delivering one of two "wake-up call" losses.
Still, I can't shake the feeling that Seattle is going to be absurdly confident after handling New Orleans, and Rah-Rah Pete Carroll will have his team running through a brick wall -- figuratively, we hope.
The easy message to parrot would be for the Bears not to get overconfident, but that's not something you really get from this team, despite the number of times their star players have mentioned "Super Bowl."
I have never sensed arrogance from this team, but rather a consistent level of confidence commensurate with a playoff team. Coach Lovie Smith imbues the team with a steady vibe, and they're grateful for it.
While there's no denying that the Bears have benefited from some breaks this season, all that really means is that they've taken advantage of opportunities presented to them.
And this is certainly another opportunity. While Seattle is no pushover, and the betting line is a mirage, the Bears have no legitimate excuses for not winning this game, and to me, a loss would seriously handicap any argument to extend Smith's contract beyond next year, unlikely division title be damned.
And while a return to the NFC title game would be validation for Smith, for Cutler this game is a true defining moment. He hasn't been to any postseason since the 2000 Indiana state playoffs, where he caught the winning touchdown on a trick play in the championship game. But he also threw three interceptions and, amazingly, no touchdown passes.
Obviously, he's come a long way since high school, and it's silly to compare a teenage Cutler to the man you see before you, but it's not exactly a confidence-boosting anecdote, is it?
I'm not worried about the defense laying another no-sack, no-turnover egg, and I certainly don't think defenders will let Lynch break tackle after tackle, like he did in that eye-popping 67-yard touchdown run. Nor will they let Seattle drop 41 points.
But -- and this is a trend that goes back to those pre-bye week days -- the offense still scares me, as it should you.
Martz's latter-day reputation as an "offensive genius" is on the line as well. The Green Bay plan might have been a
smokescreen -- Cutler said they didn't alter any of their hot reads on purpose -- but it was still an ungainly dependence on the pass over the run.
Seattle's defense is hardly imposing, but New Orleans' injury-ravaged running attack made them depend on the pass, and Brees threw 60 passes.
For the Bears to win, Matt Forte needs his touches. That's obvious. To most of us, anyway.
Despite their protestations, the Bears, as individuals, will be thinking this week about the chance to host an NFC Championship Game if Green Bay beats Atlanta on Saturday, and about the chance to get back to the Super Bowl. It's human nature.
But if the Bears lose, it won't be because of overconfidence. I'm sure Smith will do his best to keep this team focused and edgy.
If the Bears lose, it will be their own fault, because there's no reason for them not to beat Seattle and play for the right to get blown up by an AFC team at Cowboys Stadium in February.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.