The quintessential play — clutch from the perspective of either team

With the Super Bowl almost upon us it’s been nearly two weeks since the Bears lost 21-14 to the Packers in the NFC championship. Still, it was only recently that I was able to watch the rest of the game (the second half unfolded while I was on a plane heading home from Sundance).  Here are my notes from the game, which I feel compelled to write down before I can put this surprising (mostly in a good way) Bears season to rest:

1. As excruciating as it was and despite the few key plays this game ultimately came down to, it’s clear to me in hindsight that the Bears weren’t fated to win this one.  Jay Cutler just didn’t have it on a day they absolutely needed him to, and it’s entirely possible that had he stayed in they wouldn’t have pulled as close as they did (third stringer Caleb Hanie might’ve actually still ended up on the field).

2.  That being said, once I finally saw the way the injury unfolded there was a part of me that came down on the side of the critics who believe Cutler should’ve stayed in.  I’ve been watching him fairly closely these past two seasons and I know for a fact he’s a tough guy; no quarterback takes as many sacks or hits as Cutler does, and yet anytime this guy runs the ball he still dives headfirst.  The guy is durable, and doesn’t shy away from contact.  So why is it that when I saw him standing on the sideline I still couldn’t help but think, That dude looks like he can still play. I know I’ve seen Ben Roethlisberger (who, by the way, is actually playing in his THIRD Super Bowl) play on what looked like half a leg before, and this just didn’t sit well with me.  I still think most of the flak Cutler ‘s getting is probably undeserved, but man did that look incriminating.

3. The Bears defense was amazing.  Yes, they allowed those first two touchdown drives but if you’d have told anyone in Chicago that they’d hold Aaron Rodgers scoreless for two and a half quarters, we’d have considered this game a lock.  Urlacher and Briggs might be my favorite duo in all of sports after Jordan and Scottie — they were everywhere.  The defense didn’t score points but it did get their takeaways that literally took away points.

4. Bears coaches did make some glaring mistakes.  Punting instead of kicking a 48 yard field goal in the first half.  Having Todd Collins higher than Caleb Hanie on the depth chart.  Subbing in Hanie right before the end of the 3rd quarter which (due to some obscure rule I still don’t really understand) meant that they would be unable to use either Cutler or Collins for the rest of the game if Hanie got injured.  Burning that last timeout to call an end-around that netted negative yards and set up the final interception.  I still respect Lovie Smith as a coach, and he still makes downright non-intuitive decisions in key situations.  I don’t know how to reconcile this.

5. Let’s talk about key plays that determined the game.  Urlacher’s interception prevented Green Bay from scoring on a key drive, but Rodgers’ subsequent tackle of Urlacher prevented the Bears from scoring what would have been a key touchdown.  If Caleb Hanie sees B.J. Raji drop into coverage and avoids the pick six, the Bears aren’t down another touchdown.  Yet if Hanie doesn’t make a clutch touch pass to Earl Bennett later on in the game, one which you could argue even a healthy Cutler might not have made that day, the Bears don’t pull within 21-14.

6. Poor cornerback Tim Jennings was targeted mercilessly by Green Bay, drawing I believe two pass interference penalties which also affected the game at key moments.  Ultimately a good strategy for the Packers.

7. The final Bears drive is storybook, all except for the ending.  The Bears overcome an intentional grounding penalty, a fourth down and several ridiculously shaky throws by Hanie to somehow advance the ball deep into Green Bay territory.  Then they call that last timeout and the rest is history.

So there you have it.  The Bears definitely got several breaks this season, but they made the most of them and ultimately overachieved.  It’s kind of crushing that victories can’t be bought with the faith of an entire city, but it was great while it lasted.  I’m a little apprehensive about what the future holds — the defense is aging, and while the offense should get better with time it’s hard to argue they’ll ever catch up to a young Packers team that still has plenty more upside — but that is why they play the games.

Thank you, Chicago Bears, for a great season.