Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Seahawks (01.16.11)

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Unless you’re a big worrier or had not yet bought into the Bears being a legitimately good team, you already knew that a Bears-Packers conference championship game was scheduled for next week even before the Seahawks-Bears game kicked off Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t a matter of if the Bears would beat the Seahawks, it was a matter of how they’d look in doing so.

To me, the Seahawks matchup amounted to a virtual bye, or a tune-up game at the very most. The result was never in doubt, even when the Seahawks were building a comeback late in the game and were attempting an onside kick. The Bears offense, which has clearly been the bum leg that has been dragged along for the ride throughout the season, looked crisp and efficient in scoring five touchdowns and racking up 437 yards of offense.

The man in charge of leading that offensive outburst was the one who came under heavy scrutiny by the national and local media alike in the week leading up to the game. Quarterback Jay Cutler became only the second player in NFL postseason history to throw two touchdown passes and run for two additional scores in one game. He completed 15 of 28 passes for 274 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was focused and on point and even flashed a smile throughout the game and during the postgame press conference.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Cutler said after the game when a reporter asked if Cutler’s personality was changing into a kinder one publicly. “Can’t you tell?”

It was a nice moment following a great performance that left you feeling good for a guy who couldn’t sneeze without it being criticized and analyzed. Last week, Cutler said he was treating the Seahawks game — his first postseason appearance since high school — as an ordinary game, and he came under fire for that. He also said the Bears might throw the ball 60 times — a smokescreen, to be sure — and the media questioned his intelligence.

Here’s an idea for the overzealous writers looking for a story during a two-week hiatus: how about trusting the guy?

But I digress.

The Bears had this game in hand just three minutes into the game. They kicked off to open the game, held Seattle’s offense to a three-and-out, came out committed to the running game on their first two downs, and then Cutler hit Greg Olsen on a deep seam on third-and-two for a 58-yard touchdown.

Game over.

A few series later, Devin Hester returned a punt 26 yards that set the Bears up at the 50-yard line. Cutler led the team down the field and Chester Taylor nearly walked into the end zone for a 1-yard score and a 14-0 lead.

Remember earlier in the season when the Bears were 0-for-everything at the 1-yard line? My, how things have changed.

On the Bears’ first possession of the second quarter, Cutler led the offense on a 9-play, 63-yard drive that concluded with the first of Cutler’s two touchdown runs. The Bears took a 21-0 lead into halftime, where surely the defense was thinking shutout at that point.

Midway through the third quarter, the Bears once again showed their offense was zeroed in on the task at hand when they drove 70 yards on 14 plays that took almost eight minutes off the clock and Cutler scored the second of his two rushing touchdowns, this one on an improvisational play.

Unfortunately for the defense, Leon Washington ran back the ensuing kickoff 62 yards into Bears territory and the Seahawks tacked on their first points of the game on an Olindo Mare 30-yard field goal to end the shutout.

The game was out of reach at that point. Some might criticize the Bears for not having a killer instinct and closing the game strong, but it was basically over as it headed into the fourth quarter. The Seahawks scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter but Cutler also connected with Kellen Davis on a 39-yard touchdown pass and the game never got too close for comfort.

Matt Forte rushed the ball 25 times for 80 yards and Taylor added 11 rushing attempts for 44 yards. Cutler ran the ball eight times for 43 yards. The offensive line did a great job of creating running lanes and also protecting Cutler and giving him ample time to throw the ball.

Olsen led the way with 113 receiving yards and the big touchdown catch on three receptions. Forte caught three passes for 54 yards, Johnny Knox had four receptions for 48 yards, Davis had two catches for 42 yards including the big fourth quarter touchdown, and Earl Bennett had a 13-yard reception.

The defense played a solid game — when it counted and when it was giving its best effort — and Brian Urlacher led the charge with seven tackles. Lance Briggs finished with six, D.J. Moore and Tim Jennings had five each, and Josh Bullocks — filling in for the injured Chris Harris — had three tackles. Tommie Harris took advantage of great pressure from Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and Harris picked up two sacks, the only sacks the Bears registered. Peppers only had two tackles on the stat sheet, but he came up big in applying pressure on Matt Hasselbeck.

Aside from allowing that 62-yard kick return, the Bears’ special teams coverage did a good job containing the dynamic Washington. Hester had just two catches for four yards on offense but played a bigger role in special teams. He averaged 15 yards on two punt returns, including the one that set the offense up at midfield for a scoring drive.

The Bears now get ready for one of the biggest sporting events in Chicago sports history. The oldest rivalry in the NFL will culminate in an NFC conference championship game, the first playoff meeting between the Bears and Packers since 1941. It surely will be one of the highest-rated NFL games in league history.

I already have my concerns that the Bears will lose in a heartbreaker. I predicted as much after last week’s wild card round. The Packers were playing the second-best football in the NFL, but that was before the Patriots got knocked out by the Jets on Sunday. Right now, the Packers are the favorite to win the Super Bowl of the four remaining teams and with good cause. Their offense and defense are both among the best in the league, whereas the Bears have just one unit — two, if you include special teams — that has earned that honor. Clearly, this game will hinge on what the Bears’ offense can do because of the four main units — Packers offense and defense and Bears offense and defense — the Bears’ offense is the “young man” playing amongst the “big boys.”

But if the offense can resemble anything like the unit that scored five offensive touchdowns and racked up 437 total yards against the Seahawks, they just may have a shot to pull it off.

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