No NFL team has had to face more criticism from the national media over the last year than the Chicago Bears. The Google search trend of "Brian Urlacher overrated" is probably ranked ahead of Kate Upton and Hope Solo. Lovie Smith is on and off the hot seat and has seemingly never recovered the respect he built up in 2006 thanks to the recording of "Rex Grossman is our quarterback." Mike Martz is an evil used-to-be genius offensive coordinator. The ownership is clueless. The grass turf sucks. The defense is old. The offensive line is terrible. The wide receiver corps is the weakest in the league. And... then there's the quarterback. Lest we forget headlines like these after last year's NFC Championship Game loss against the Packers...
"Does Cutler have seriously injured knee or weak heart?"
"Why Cutler burns us up"
"Cutler's NFL contemporaries go after him on Twitter"
"The assassination of the coward Jay Cutler by everyone"
It was as if Cutler's knee injury and subsequent (largely unfair) evisceration by fans, players, and pundits took the Bears completely off the map as a legitimately good team that, ya know, hosted the NFC Championship Game. Even during the 2010 season the Bears were continually ripped because they supposedly didn't look the part. Perhaps it was the way the offensive line ole'd defenders or a bias against Cutler from his Denver departure. Sure, Chicago was overshadowed by the rival Packers defeating them and going onto win the Super Bowl, but they were the #2 seed in the NFC in the 2010 Playoffs. They had a bye! This team wasn't in contention for the top draft pick. And yet, NFC teams like the Falcons, Eagles, Saints, Lions, Bucs, and Cowboys were more highly touted as contenders coming into the new season. Going into the 2011 season, 20 writers from SI and ESPN predicted their NFL playoff teams. How many do you think predicted a playoff appearance for the Bears?
That's right. The team that hosted the NFC Championship Game last season received 0/20 votes from the top two sports publications in the USA to get back to the NFL Playoffs in 2011. Does that not sound insane??? The Bears didn't even lose anyone of substance in the offseason besides an old Olin Kreutz at center. They added pieces like Amobi Okoye, Roy Williams (who had his best season in his career under Mike Martz), Marion Barber, and Brandon Meriweather. This is a team that likely got better in the offseason. And yet, going into Week 1's game against the Falcons, everyone and their pet octopus was betting against the Bears. That's why after all the turmoil of the NFC title game and an offseason of being saturated with doubt, the Bears needed to make a statement on Sunday. They did just that, and then some, turning in the most impressive performance in Week 1...
Chicago dominated Atlanta (last year's #1 seed in the conference) from start to finish yesterday, winning 30-12. The numbers don't tell the whole story either because Atlanta ultimately outgained Chicago 386-387, Matt Ryan had 300 yards through the air, and Michael Turner had 100 on the ground. But they were both thoroughly outplayed by Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. Cutler turned in a mature performance and did the one thing Bears fans have always asked of him - don't commit stupid turnovers. Cutler was in control throughout yesterday's game (22/32, 312, 2 TDs, 1 batted/fluky INT) and continually found open receivers down the field.
Matt Forte showed a burst of top end speed that he hadn't in quite some time. Don't discount the significance of the Tulane product playing for a new contract, but it's his dual threat ability that adds such an important element to this Bears offense. See his TD catch yesterday that displayed the jukability, speed, and toughness that gives him the complete package as a running back. Sure enough, he gives this Bears offense a similar element to a certain Hall of Fame Rams running back...
Forte is vastly underrated (1400+ yards from scrimmage each of his first three full seasons)... but so are the Bears receivers. Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Roy Williams all made big catches against Atlanta's secondary and even undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher got in on the action. Of course, the offensive line can play better protecting Cutler (4 sacks) and getting a push in the running game (3.3 yards per carry), but it's clear that this Bears offense is the real deal.
It's a fact few NFL fans are willing to realize. Instead, the images of Cutler pouting on the sidelines and being driven into the New Meadowlands turf are the pictures that define this Bears offense. I'm convinced those 9 first half sacks on Sunday Night Football last year did more harm to one team's reputation than anything else last year. Since that happened on primetime national television, it seemed to stamp this Chicago team with their scarlet letter forever. On the other hand, few choose to remember Chicago hoisting 38 on the scoreboard against the fear-inducing New York Jets defense in late December last year.
Finally, it was a classic Lovie Smith defensive performance yesterday. Bend but don't break. Get key stops when necessary. And most of all, create game-changing turnovers. That happened early on with the game tied 3-3 when The Vastly Overrated Brian Urlacher had a diving interception. Urlacher added to that with ten tackles and a fumble return for a TD. Julius Peppers (another veteran player thought to be overpayed and overrated on this Bears D) played at an All Pro level and Charles Tillman forced a fumble and had good coverage on the Falcons receivers all day long.
It was a comprehensive, complete victory over a team thought to be a Super Bowl contender. And yet once again, the Bears are being shuffled off the radar screen. The Ravens dominated the Steelers. The Cowboys/Jets errorfest is a hot topic of conversation Monday morning. Then there's the revival of Rex Grossman. The Colts wandering through a Manningless wilderness. The Lions and Matt Stafford. The Dream Team. The Packers/Saints classic. And, a thousand other stories that push Chicago's big win to the back pages. In fact, I'm sure the national media will find ways to marginalize this performance and chop it down as less meaningful than it truly was. By all means, a Week 1 victory does not a season make, and the Bears have a ridiculously tough schedule - playing two more NFC favorites the next two weeks (New Orleans, Green Bay). However, for one week, they were more than happy to prove the doubters wrong... again.
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