Bears quarterback Jay Cutler walks off the field after the first series of the second half not to return. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
The worse thing the Bears could do after Sunday’s 21-14 loss to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game is think they were that close to winning the NFC Championship.
The Bears did a great job to get this far — Jerry Angelo, Lovie Smith, Mike Martz, Mike Tice, Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher, et. al. No one disputes that. Or no one should dispute that.
But this game exposed shortcomings on several levels that might be difficult to correct next season — and a disparity between themselves and the Green Bay Packers that could become bigger before it gets smaller. The Packers still have Aaron Rodgers. The Bears still have Jay Cutler. And that’s just a start. How many times does Dom Capers have to outsmart Mike Martz and Mike McCarthy have to outsmart Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli for people to realize the Bears are at a disadvantage almost anytime they face the Packers?
The Bears did make it close at the end even with Caleb Hanie at quarterback. But it’s always suspicious when a team doesn’t start to make things happen until they’re down 14-0. The Packers, a good team but hardly a world-class team, might have reeled themselves in as much as the Bears rallied to make it a game.
The bottom line is that in the biggest game of the season against a team they had played twice before, the Bears were outplayed in all three phases of the game. So congratulations to the Bears on a fine season, with the hope that they realize that there might be more work to be done than they think.
And now, 10 more observations from the Bears-Packers NFC Championship Game:
1. Julius Peppers has been given proper credit for his impact on the Bears even with only eight sacks. But when Cullen Jenkins is more noticeable on the field than Peppers in a championship game, something’s wrong. Jenkins had a half a sack, two tackles-for-loss and two quarterback hits against the Bears. The Bears’ defensive line COMBINED for no sacks, three TFLs and three QB hits for the game.
2. Why is it that the Packers draft Bryan Bulaga in the first round of the NFL draft (No. 23 overall) and he starts in the NFC Championship Game and shuts down Israel Idonije. While Chris Williams, the Bears’ No. 1 pick in 2008 (14th) overall, is playing his third position and was at the very least one-fifth of a poor effort against the Packers’ defensive front Sunday?
3. For the second time in a row against the Packers, the Bears called a time out that negated a successful play and then had the ensuing play blow up in their face. It happened in Green Bay when a last-second time out negated a 19-yard pass play to Chester Tayor and Cutler was sacked for an 11-yard loss on the next play.
It was even more costly this time, when a running play that sure looked like it would have gotten a first down on third-and-three from the Packers’ 27 with 1:20 left was nullified by a last-second Bears time out. Sure enough, Earl Bennett was stopped for a two-yard loss by Desmond Bishop on an end around — an end around, really? — that set up a fourth-and-five that ended with Hanie’s second interception, clinching the victory for the Packers.
‘‘It might have given them too much time to think about what they were doing,’’ Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk told me in the winners’ dressing room. ‘‘It gives Dom Capers some time up top to figure out what he wants to call.’’
4. Though the game was close, Capers routed Martz in what was billed as the key “chess match’’ of the game. The Packers’ pressure on the Bears quarterbacks didn’t look quite like the jailbreaks they had against the Bears in Week 17, but it was constant pressure that the Bears never really had an answer for. Very disappointing on the Bears’ end of things.
‘‘When you play a team three times, you have to mix it up a little bit in order to present new problems,’’ Matthews said, ‘‘and I think we were able to do that for the most part in presenting new schemes and lining up players at different positions to try and them them off a little bit.’’
5. As it turned out, the only success the Bears had on offense was when they threw a curve at Capers by playing Hanie. They had Cutler completely under control. He was 6-of-14 for 80 yards and an interception, a 31.8 passer rating, while he was in there.
‘‘I kind of wish they would have had Jay in there the whole game the way things were going,’’ Matthews told me.
‘‘I didn’t know much about the third one,’’ Capers said afterwards. ‘‘What was unnerving was when he led that team right down the field for a touchdown. He did a nice job. He made plays. He could move around a little better [than Todd Collins], that’s the thing.’’
And of course, eventually, Capers had the right answer.
6. The Bears’ special teams get their share of the credit — more than most special teams units in the NFL do for sure — but they have to take their share of the blame for Sunday’s loss. In a game where they needed to make the difference, they only added to the difficulty. Brad Maynard’s 24-yard punt to the Bears 44 set up the field-position disadvantage that led to B.J. Raji’s 18-yard interception return for a touchdown.
And overall, they played a part in the Bears losing the field-position game — the Bears, who led the NFL in drives starting at midfield on in this season, did not have one drive start in enemy territory Sunday. That’s a disadvantage that ultimately spelled doom for the Bears because the Packers are so much better equipped to go long distances for touchdowns. The Packers have 19 touchdown drives of 75 yards or longer this season. The Bears have four.
7. If Frank Omiyale is the Bears’ starting left tackle next season, the Bears are in trouble. You don’t have to see the film or know what protections were called to know that the Bears should expect better than that at left tackle to win a championship. There’s room for good-but-not-great on all NFL teams, but not at key positions like that. Not when you’ve got good-but-not-great — and that’s being charitable — all the way down the line.
8. It seems like the more the Bears try to use Devin Hester on offense, the worse he is on kick returns. How about letting him just return kicks for a game or two and see how that works out. Hester had one kickoff return for 24 yards and three punt retrns for 16 yards, with a long return of 11 against the Packers. The only time the Bears beat the Packers this season, Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown. And he had one catch for 16 yards.
9. Did the Bears misevaluate Todd Collins as a No. 2 quarterback or just not develop him? It’s got to be one or the other, because Collins showed that he was at the very least rusty if not incapable in a start against the woeful Carolina Panthers on Oct. 10 in Carolina. And he was just as rusty or just as incapable on Sunday. How can you have a quarterback like that in the NFC Championship Game? The Packers started Matt Flynn against the Patriots on the road and nearly won. How do they do that?
10. While Jay Cutler’s toughness and sideline demeanor is being questioned in the aftermath of the Bears’ loss to the Packers, let’s not overlook the bigger red flag. Cutler was unable to rise to the occasion of a big game. If his success is contingent on everything being perfectly in order — great protection, great run game and receivers winning one-on-one matchups — the Bears aren’t getting their money’s worth.