The Bears have roared and whimpered and stumbled and survived in a roundabout trip to the doorstep of the NFL playoffs. And maybe, just maybe, discovered their true selves in the December cold.
The Bears have roared and whimpered and stumbled and survived in a roundabout trip to the doorstep of the NFL playoffs.
And maybe, just maybe, discovered their true selves in the December cold.
Chicago (9-6) started out a defensive team, throttling the Colts and doing the same for 3 1/2 quarters to the Panthers and Bucs and staging a game-saving goal-line stand against the Eagles, before going on a mid-season slide.
Then Kyle Orton took over for three weeks, averaging 301 yards and a 106.1 passer rating. Hey, look, the Bears have a passing game!
Until they didn’t.
Orton sprained his ankle at halftime of the next game and hasn’t been the same player since. Whether it was being injured against Detroit or whether he just returned to his true self, Orton has averaged 151 yards passing the last seven weeks with a 62.7 passer rating. That’s below the lowest-rated passer of any quarterback to pass for 1,300 yards this year (Cleveland’s Derek Anderson brings up the rear in the NFL rankings at 66.5).
Even with Matt Forte running for a team rookie-record 1,188 yards, the Bears, who led the NFL in points after seven games, have sunk to No. 26 in total offense, which is measured by yards. That’s almost the same spot they ended last year (No. 27).
The Bears aren’t a team that’s going to pass for 300 yards or throw 205 consecutive passes without an interception; Orton has eight picks in four games since that improbable streak ended.
Nor are they a team that can reasonably be expected to hold their two toughest foes — the 11-4 Colts and Panthers — to 293 and 216 total yards again.
What the Bears can be expected to do is to make the most of what little they have, play their best in the biggest moments and sometimes win despite getting outplayed on both offense and defense because nobody outplays the Bears on special teams.
This is every bit as true now that the special teams stars are Danieal Manning, Brad Maynard and Robbie Gould as it was when Devin Hester provided 90 percent of the special teams magic.
Manning has four kickoff returns longer than 50 yards the last three games, Maynard constantly lands punts inside the 10-yard line and Gould never misses a field goal, no matter how bad the weather.
“You can’t find a more clutch guy than him,” tight end Greg Olsen said after Gould kicked a 38-yard game-winner into the wind to beat Green Bay 20-17 in overtime Monday.
Moments earlier, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby had a 38-yarder with the wind at his back blocked by Alex Brown.
“In the timeout, we had a little time to really hit the guys one more time,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I just said, ‘Hey, we really have to block this kick.’ And Alex Brown came through as he has many times.”
Everybody on special teams did. Chicago’s three scores in regulation were all set up by special teams: Manning’s 70-yard kick return, Jason Davis’s recovery of a muffed punt and Hester’s 24-yard punt return set up three “drives” of 16, 27 and 51 yards that netted 17 points.
“We’ve gotten a lot of plays from our special teams, but we’re set up that way,” Lovie Smithy said. “We practice that way. We rely on our special teams.”
And the Bears rely on their offense and defense being better than they normally are at the biggest moments. They did this even before Lovie Smith arrived. In 2001, the Bears went 13-3 and allowed the fewest points in the NFL despite ranking No. 15 on defense (the NFL measures by yards) and scored the 11th-most points despite a No. 26 rank on offense.
Chicago’s defense has many flaws, but it’s one of the best near the goal line. Monday, the Bears held Green Bay to a field goal after it had first-and-goal at the 5.
“We dominated the game,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We had a lot of yardage and converted third downs. But we just didn’t score enough points.”
That’s no accident. The Bears do that to teams a lot.
And now they are starting to do the opposite on offense. Two weeks in a row, Kyle Orton has played awful for 3 1/2 quarters, only to awaken in the final minutes and win the game in overtime.
“We go through that a lot,” Hester said. “We’ve been put in a lot of situations this year where we have to drive down at the end.”
The Bears won by gaining more yards in the final 18 and a half minutes (118) than they did in the first 45 (92 yards).
“It’s about the finish,” Lovie Smith said.
It’s about special teams dominating from the start, and the offense and defense being strong at the right times.
“Everybody,” Alex Brown said, “contributed when they needed to.”
Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.