Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
It doesn’t matter much whether the Bears play the Seattle Sea-hawks, Philadelphia Eagles or New Orleans Saints in a divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on Jan. 16.
At least that’s what Bears coach Lovie Smith said publicly. Privately, he’s likely wearing green-and-blue face paint and screaming “Go Sea-hawks!”
It’s obvious enough that the Bears would most like to play the only sub.-500 division winner in NFL history in their first postseason appearance since the 2006 season. The Seahawks won the NFC West despite a 7-9 record, finished the regular season with the league’s 28th-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense, and host the Saints in a wild-card game on Saturday at Qwest Field.
As fortuitous as that matchup might be, the Seahawks did defeat the Bears 23-20 at Soldier Field on Oct. 17, which could give a team coming off an upset of the defending Super Bowl champions an extra dose of confidence. Avenging an embarrassing loss might also provide added motivation for the Bears.
“I’m really not going to consider Seattle,” former Rams and Cardinals quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said when asked to dissect the Bears’ first potential playoff opponents. “I really don’t think they have much of a chance to win. I’m sure they would most like to play Seattle first.”
There’s no doubt they would. Since that’s unlikely, however, here’s a look at how the Bears match up against the two teams they are more likely to meet.
New Orleans Saints
When Sean Payton’s team is doing what it does best, it’s as formidable as any in the league. Even if the Saints put running back Pierre Thomas on injured reserve with an ankle injury, Drew Brees presents a huge challenge, especially after what Tom Brady did to the Bears defense during a 36-7 face-washing in snowy conditions on Dec. 12.
Brees throws accurately from spread formations, much like Brady, and could wreak similar havoc given his accuracy, weapons and the potential for uncertain footing.
The Saints are built for playing indoors. The weather was a major factor in the Bears defeating them in the 2006 NFC Championship Game and could be again. But this is a more experienced and battle-tested team after their Super Bowl run and should better handle the elements.
A solid defense built back to front around underrated cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter relies more on mixing up coverages than heavy blitzing. Whatever, it works. The Saints held the Falcons to 215 total yards on Dec. 27.
The Bears have a big edge in the third phase. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub may need to dominate the Saints’ ordinary units to ensure victory.
“With how well [the Bears] defense is playing, the Saints coming to Chicago would be a better matchup because Michael Vick is playing at such a high level,” former Rams quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Trent Green said. “I don’t necessarily believe Philly is going to beat Green Bay, but the inconsistencies have been a little surprising from New Orleans, some of which is due to injury, some of which is Drew forcing things more than he did last year. Based on that, and especially since they are a dome team and if you can dial up the right kind of weather they could have problems, I would say the Saints, even though it’s hard to say you hope the matchup is against the defending Super Bowl champs.”
If there is a defense equipped to stop Michael Vick, it’s the Bears. They proved as much during a 31-26 win on Nov. 28 that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The Bears are quick and disciplined defensively. They kept Vick in front of them and forced him to run around in cold weather on slick sod trying to throw touch passes over Brian Urlacher’s head.
Vick is a dynamic player, but what the Bears will try to force him to do plays to their strengths as much as his.
“We’re set up for that,” Smith said. “First you talk about personnel. We have an athletic front. All 11 guys can run. We’ve done well against athletic quarterbacks.”
The Bears benefitted from the absence of Eagles Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel the first time. Samuel can take Johnny Knox or Devin Hester out of the game or help take them both out the way the Packers did while limiting the duo to one catch in a 10-3 loss at Lambeau Field.
In the final analysis, Warner agrees with Green. The best-case scenario for the Bears — beyond a Seattle upset — has the Saints marching into Soldier Field.
“Even though they played Michael Vick good the first time they played them, he’s still an X factor,” he said. “Give him a seam and he can change the complexion of the game with his feet as well as his arm. Come playoff time, you like to have things you can control. You like to know what they’re going to do. You never want to play against those X factors, especially in cold weather.”