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Bears, Giants are close, but there is some separation

With healthy Jay Cutler Bears were enjoying better seasthan New York Giants. | Nick Laham~Getty Images

With a healthy Jay Cutler, the Bears were enjoying a better season than the New York Giants. | Nick Laham~Getty Images

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Updated: March 11, 2012 8:49AM



If the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants are the last two Super Bowl champions, how far away can the Bears be?

The Bears were NFC North champions ahead of the Packers in 2010 and battled the Packers to the end in the NFC Championship Game even with Caleb Hanie playing most of the second half.

The Giants were below the Bears in every NFL power ranking with six games left in the 2011 regular season. On Nov. 20, the Bears were 7-3 after beating the San Diego Chargers, while the Giants were 6-4 after losing to the Philadelphia Eagles and Vince Young — the same Eagles team the Bears beat in Philly with Michael Vick at quarterback two weeks earlier.

Had Jay Cutler not been injured, the Bears would’ve finished 11-5 or 10-6 and made the playoffs. The Giants barely made it with Eli Manning playing every down.

The Giants won it all with a wide-receiver corps almost as modestly acquired as the Bears’ — Victor Cruz was undrafted in 2010; Mario Manningham was a third-round pick (95th overall) in 2008; Hakeem Nicks was a first-round pick, but 29th overall, in 2009.

Is Manning that much better than Cutler? Is Kevin Gilbride that much better than Mike Martz? Is Tom Coughlin that much better than Lovie Smith?

I’m pretty sure most Bears fans would say: No, no and yes.

Smith sure seemed like a better coach than Coughlin when Cutler was healthy. He just caught a bad break. Kind of uncanny how Aaron Rodgers tackles Brian Urlacher in the NFC Championship Game to save a potential game-turning touchdown and doesn’t get a scratch on him, yet Cutler merely chases an interceptor of one of his passes and suffers a broken thumb that destroys the Bears’ season.

But after watching the Bears collapse and the Giants finish strong to win another Super Bowl, it might be more than just bad luck that separates the two. Coughlin has a knack not only for keeping his quarterback healthy (Manning has started 130 consecutive games), but for having his team primed to take advantage of every opportunity late in the season.

And maybe there’s a reason why Manning never misses a game. Maybe it’s because when Jerry Reese took over as general manager in 2007, he wasn’t satisfied with a good-but-not-great left tackle in Luke Petitgout — the kind of veteran the Bears would think is always on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowler — so he cut him and replaced him with starting guard David Diehl, the Brother Rice product.

‘‘People act like Petitgout was the second coming,’’ Reese told the New York Post after making that move. ‘‘He never made the Pro Bowl, and I don’t think he ever was a first alternate. Now, all of a sudden, he’s the savior? That’s ridiculous.’’

Hard to imagine new Bears GM Phil Emery saying anything like that. But he doesn’t have to. He just has to think like that and act like that, and it’s all good. (For the record, Manning has been sacked 74 times in the last three seasons; Cutler has been sacked 140 times.)

The Giants caught some breaks in the postseason. They faced the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons at home in the wild-card round as the 9-7 NFC East champions; they faced a rusty Rodgers in the divisional round. And they faced Kyle Williams instead of Ted Ginn Jr. on punt returns against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game.

But the Bears had their share of breaks in the playoffs after the 2010 regular season. They faced the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round; they faced the Packers at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship Game.

But where the Bears kept waiting for the next break to push them over the top, the Giants took matters into their own hands. They faced four of the top five teams in turnover differential in the postseason — the No. 1 49ers (plus-28), the No. 2 Packers (plus-24), the No. 3 New England Patriots (plus-17) and the No. 5 Falcons (plus-8) — and were plus-6 overall, with only one giveaway in four games.

That’s how you win Super Bowls. And with two in the last five years, there must be something the Giants have that teams such as the Bears don’t. It’s easy to be encouraged when a team of destiny wins the Super Bowl. But you can only take it so far. Even if the Bears are close, they still have a long way to go.



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