AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Preview


BY NEAL MALONE

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (+10) AT CHICAGO BEARS – Soldier Field, 1 PM ET, Sun.

BREAKDOWN: There are endless storylines heading into Sunday’s matchup between the Seahawks and Bears. Instead of listing them off and writing for days about how unlikely and ridiculous it is that these two teams are playing for a spot in the NFC Championship Game, I’m going to focus on a few of the main points heading into Sunday.

Breaks.  Luck.  Good Fortune.  Whatever you want to call it – the Bears have had it all year long.  From the Calvin Johnson “completing the process of the catch” debacle in Week 1 to the privilage of playing third-string starting quarterbacks THREE times this season, the Football Gods have been smiling down at the Bears.  But that was just in the regular season.

Now, Lovie Smith and Co. have the opportunity to host the Seahawks, one of the league’s worst road teams,  in the NFC Divsional Round of the playoffs.  It goes without saying that the Bears meeting the Seahawks this Sunday, rather than the Eagles or Saints, required a highly unlikely scenario to come to fruition.  But apparently those Football Gods I mentioned weren’t exactly finished helping the Monsters of the Midway – which brings us to their opponent.

It was only 10 days ago when the Charlie Whitehurst-led Seahawks held off the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field to clinch the NFC West Division Championship – and what a great game it was.  Oh wait, not exactly.  As much as I’d love to talk about how enthralling that 16-6 Seattle win was, the main point is that they earned their spot in the playoffs.

You may not have believed they deserved a postseason spot at the time, but after watching them dismantle the New Orleans Saints defense on the ground and through the air, it’s clear that even the mediocre can make something happen in the playoffs if they put their minds to it.

Should the Bears be scared?  I don’t know…it’s hard to say.  On one hand, the Seahawks won’t have their raucous home crowd behind them.  In fact, they’ll play in front of a raucous crowd on Sunday – the only thing is it’ll be a Soldier Field home crowd and they’ll be vigorously rooting against them.

But after seeing brute strength from Marshawn Lynch on the ground and unflappable poise from Matt Hasslebeck in the pocket, the Bears defense will certainly have to be on high alert.  One thing is for sure – this isn’t the same team the Bears faced in Week 6 at Soldier Field.  The Seahawks won that game 23-20.

BOTTOM LINE: It would be hard to believe the Seahawks could come into Soldier Field twice this season and leave with a win both times.  The Bears have drastically improved on offense since their Week 6 loss to Seattle, with Jay Cutler beginning to come into his own near the end of the season.  First career playoff game or not, if Jay Cutler plays within Mike Martz’s offense and doesn’t try to force anything, the Bears will be fine – not to mention the Chicago defense is far superior to that of the New Orleans Saints, who gave up 41 points to the Seahawks last week.

PREDICTION: Bears 31, Seahawks 21

GREEN BAY PACKERS (+2.5) AT ATLANTA FALCONS – Georgia Dome, 8 PM ET, Sat.

BREAKDOWN: Facing a healthy Aaron Rodgers has been a scary proposition for defenses over the course of the last several weeks.  Toss in a new-found running game and you’ve got a very scary Packers offense.

Rodgers was incredibly efficient in the Pack’s wild-card win over the Eagles in Philly last week.  He only threw for 180 yards, but he had three TD passes without an interception.  Only 180 yards, you say?  Well, that was because he finally had some help on the ground – and it came from an unlikely source.  James Starks, who appeared in just three regular season games, ran for 123 yards on 23 carries, giving Green Bay a rare 100-yard rushing performance since the injury to Ryan Grant.

All this talk about the Packers and I still haven’t talked about Clay Matthews, Trumond Williams, or the rest of the Packers defense.  Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers had an amazing gameplan, which contained Michael Vick and limited the impact of LeSean McCoy.  When a big play was needed at the end of the game, Williams made it, picking off Vick in the end zone to clinch a trip to the Divisional Round.

It was a great road win for Green Bay, but now they head to a place that has been just plain cruel to it’s visitors.  Matt Ryan’s ridiculous record at the Georgia Dome got a reality check in Week 16 against the Saints, but it still gives the Falcons incredible odds.  The poised, experienced offensive combination of Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner, and Tony Gonzalez will most likely prove tough to deal with from the Packers’ standpoint.

The Falcons defense is also worth mentioning.  They’ll allow you to move the ball and put up some points, but they rarely give up a lot.  The Falcons are 10th in the league in rushing defense, so if they can stop the run and force the Green Bay offense back into a one-dimensional unit, then you may start to see Aaron Rodgers force a few throws.

Keep in mind, the Packers won’t be able to use their “cold weather” advantage on Saturday because the game will be played in a dome.  The Packers are always a team that competes well in the elements and the Falcons are probably the exact opposite, but Mike McCarthy’s team won’t have Mother Nature on their side.  Look for the noise of the home crowd in the dome environment potentially get into the heads of the Packers’ players.

BOTTOM LINE: If Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk can set a tone early with a few sacks or hits on the quarterback through blitz packages, I can see Matt Ryan getting out of sync with his receivers.  Green Bay blitzes so much that if they execute correctly, it can completely get to the opposing quarterback’s head and neutralize their skill set (like Michael Vick last week).  Also, look for Aaron Rodgers to take some shots down the field to guys like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jordy Nelson.  Their running game was good last week, but who knows how much help Rodgers will have in front of the dome crowd from an unproven James Starks.

PREDICTION: Packers 27, Falcons 24

BALTIMORE RAVENS (+3) AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS – Heinz Field, 4:30 PM ET, Sat.

BREAKDOWN: How ’bout this for a football game? When you talk about tough, smashmouth NFL teams, look no further than the Ravens and Steelers.  Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed for the Ravens.  James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers – and that’s just naming a few defensive players from each team.

The season series between these two teams suggests that it’s going to be a good, old-fashioned dogfight (not an intentional Vick reference).  Each team came away with three-point road wins at the other’s stadium.  Neither were high-scoring and with these two defensive units, you wouldn’t expect anything else.

Sure, Joe Flacco has Ray Rice to hand the ball off to and T.J. Houshmanzadeh and Anquan Boldin as receiving targets, but to think they’re going to blow up Dick LeBeau’s well-established 3-4 defense is a little unrealistic.  The same goes for the Steelers, who boast some of the toughest offensive guys in the league in Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, and Hines Ward.  I just don’t see them picking apart a defense that is led by the always-wise and experienced Ray Lewis.

It’s hard to speculate what to expect from the Steelers this weekend – of course outside of the usual, grind-it-out performance they’ve become famous for over the last several years.  But on the Ravens side, the NFL nation got a pretty good idea of where their level of play is at the moment when they crushed the Chiefs in Kansas City last weekend.  Look, Arrowhead Stadium isn’t an easy place to play by any stretch of the imagination, but the Ravens took the crowd out of it and simply dominated.  They forced turnover after turnover against Matt Cassel, letting the defense create the opportunities for the offense.

While the Ravens easily took care of business in the wild-card round on the road, don’t overlook the Steelers (not that you were going to anyways).  The Ben Roethlisberger Era can be justly characterized as one full of “ugly wins.”  But the key word is W-I-N – that’s what the Steelers do.  No matter how banged-up their team is or how workmanlike their performances may seem, you can never count out the guys from Pittsburgh, winners of two of the last five Super Bowls.

BOTTOM LINE: As crazy as this NFL season has been, you can pretty much count on this game being close.  Each defense is too mentally and physically tough for it to heavily swing in one team’s favor.  You know Roethlisberger will probably produce a few big plays, but what I’m interested in is what the Pittsburgh running game can do in this game.  The Steelers offensive line can be dominant at times, especially behind left guard Chris Kemoeatu.  If Mendenhall can produce a big day on the ground, I give the Steelers the advantage at home.

PREDICTION: Steelers 23, Ravens 20

NEW YORK JETS (+8.5) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – Gillette Stadium, 4:30 PM ET, Sun.

BREAKDOWN: Going into a road game in the playoffs against Tom Brady, I’m pretty sure it’s not the brightest idea in the world to call him an asshole – but Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie did it anyway.  I guess one could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you’re referring to Jets players and coaches.  Sure, Rex Ryan didn’t take it as far as Cromartie, but he’s been gabbing since day one in New York, and his big mouth seems to be spewing word vomit more and more as time goes on.

Let’s just get one thing straight – Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL.  Sorry, Peyton Manning fans.  The guy has three Super Bowl rings and seems to have opposing defenses figured out each and every week, no matter what kind of defensive strategies they try to throw his way.  Brady has also openly used the fact that he was a 6th-round draft pick as motivation to prove everyone wrong throughout his NFL career – and he’s obviously done that and more.

So, I’ll ask again – why exactly would you want to piss him off EVEN MORE at this point in the season?  Brady thrives on competitive jabs like the ones from Cromartie and Ryan.

All things aside for a moment, you have to give the Ryan and the Jets credit.  Going into Indianapolis against #18 in the playoffs is tough and they emerged victorious, showing a lot of team character on the way.  They have had their backs against the wall several times this season as well as last season and yet they’ve shown the ability to persevere and win playoff games.

Unfortunately for the Jets, “the buck stops here.”  “All good things must come to an end.”  Whatever cheesy phrase you want to use – what I mean is IT’S OVER.

By intangibles and mere principle alone, the Patriots will beat the Jets.  Remember, this is without even considering X’s and O’s.  But since I brought it up, let’s discuss….

The Patriots actually have a running game unlike the Colts.  The Law Firm a.k.a. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been running over kids since his mid-season emergence as the starting running back.  His running style has been the perfect compliment to Brady’s precision passing attack, which involves the always-productive Wes Welker, the reborn Deion Branch, and two trusty rookie tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.  The balance of the Patriots offense will cause major problems for the Jets, who surrendered 45 points to the Pats in Week 13 and 38 points to the Bears in Week 16.

While Darrell Revis continues to maintain his status as a shutdown corner, Antonio Cromartie has emerged as anything but one.  Cromartie was torched by Jay Cutler in Chicago and was to blame for Manning’s 57-yard TD pass to Pierre Garcon last weekend.  Add Cromartie’s struggles to the “unkind” words he had for Brady this week, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster with the Patriots quarterback as the smiling chef.

As for the Jets’ offense, they’ll have to do better than 17 points.  Now, I’m not saying the Patriots defense is miles better than that of the Colts, but there is a noticeable difference.  I’m expecting Brady and the New England offense to put up over 30 points, so Mark Sanchez is going to have to find a way to score early and often.  The Jets showed signs of offensive prowess against a more than decent Bears defense, putting up 34 points in their late-season loss at Soldier Field.  It’s that type of performance they’ll need if there going to have to keep up with the Pats.

BOTTOM LINE: The Jets may be talking a big game, but I’d say their trash talk is more of a sign of nervousness than anything.  They’ve added fuel to Brady-Belichick fire and in the playoffs, I don’t see how that is a good thing for a Patriots opponent.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets put up a fight because they do seem to have an undying swagger that can’t really be explained.  But in the end New England at home will be too much for New York, no matter how much they talk before the kickoff.

PREDICTION: Patriots 37, Jets 20

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Big Announcement


By Brady Stiff

I’ll be starting my own radio show next Sunday, the 19th of December, at chicagolandsportsradio.com

It’s called On the Sidelines, and it’ll feature myself and Joe Puschautz, a classmate of mine at the Illinois Center for Broadcasting.  Stay tuned for more updates!

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Cubs Add Pena…Good or Bad?


It’s a good time to be a first baseman in the city of Chicago.

Jim Hendry (right), along with Scott Boras (left) help to introduce the newest Cub, Carlos Pena.

Both sides of town needed to solidify the position, and both sides of town signed guys who can play the position. The White Sox signed Adam Dunn, who is an average fielder at best, and they also re-signed mainstay Paul Konerko. Konerko will no doubt get the lion’s share of time at first base.

The Cubs, on the other hand, signed free agent Carlos Pena late Tuesday night, in an effort to kill two birds with one stone. They got a first baseman, and they picked up the left-handed power hitter that eluded them for so long.

Pena is coming off a worse season than Aramis Ramirez, if that’s possible.  He hit .196 and had a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .222.  The low BABIP suggests bad luck.  So basically him and Ramirez had nearly identical seasons.  That, of course, means that they’ll both have fantastic rebound seasons….right???

Maybe.

The Cubs signed him to a one year, $10 million deal.  At first, that seemed strange to me, but after taking a closer look, it might not be so strange after all.

Let’s say the Cubs surprise the world and contend for the division this upcoming season.  More than likely, Carlos Pena will have something to do with it.  He hit 28 homers last season.  Far from a career high, but he should relish Wrigley’s small-ish dimensions, not to mention the wind blowing out.  In this case, the signing is totally worth it, and Jim Hendry will have made a good investment.

Let’s say the Cubs, as expected, struggle, but Pena plays well.  July 31st rolls around, and someone is in need of a lefty power hitter.  Pena would most certainly be traded, and the Cubs could demand a high price for his services.  Can we say, all together now, major league ready pitching?

Finally, let’s say the Cubs suck, Pena plays well, but no trade can be worked out at the deadline.  Pena leaves as a free agent, and the Cubs pick up a draft pick in the process.

Maybe, just maybe, this deal can’t go wrong for the Cubs.  Then again, there’s a distinct possibility that it could go horribly wrong.

Pena is a phenomenal fielder as well.  He’s a Gold Glove winner, and he only made six errors at first in 142 games at the position last season.  A good fielder is what they needed, with Ramirez and Starlin Castro on the left side of the infield.  Both of those guys are known to uncork some wild throws from their positions, and someone who can dig balls out of the dirt is an incredible asset.

I think the jury is still out, and will be for some time.  It may even come back a hung jury.  I think, right now, the positives outweigh the negatives for the Cubs.  On one hand, it’s a lot of money to pay for another potential lame duck hitter in the middle of the lineup.  On the other hand, he can’t be much worse than last year at the plate, and he does bring good defense to the table.

Here’s what I want from Pena: .250 average, .375 OBP, 162 or fewer strikeouts, 35 or more homers, and 90 or more RBI.  Give me that, and I’ll give him my stamp of approval (not that it means anything).

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Brady on 2 Guys and a Mic


In case you missed the show…

http://www.talkzone.com/talkzone.swf?Eid=2871&Sid=10502&showid=1641

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Earl Bennett Deserves Credit


By: Brady Stiff

Earl Bennett is not a “sexy” receiver. He’s not the biggest, fastest, strongest, or flashiest guy in the NFL. He is, though, ultra-reliable, and the best receiver on the Bears.

Earl Bennett lays out for extra yardage in Week 2 against the Cowboys.

If anyone on the offensive side of the ball from the Bears deserves Pro Bowl consideration, it’s Earl Bennett. Yes, Jay Cutler has played well (most of the time). Sure, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are speed demons. But there’s no question in my mind that Cutler’s number one target is Bennett. It was demonstrated yesterday against the Lions. Cutler hit him seven times for 104 yards. The one I remember most is when he made the catch, then dragged several Lions for 5-10 more yards.

A quick look at Bennett’s numbers shows 39 catches for 457 yards and three scores. What that stat line doesn’t show, however is the number of third down conversions from Cutler to Bennett. It seems like every time the Bears need to pick up a first down through the air, number 80 is option number one.  During this current five game winning streak, the Bears are 36 of 68, which is just better than 50%.  The top team this year in third down conversions is the Falcons at 48%.  Cutler has thrown to Bennett on third down 14 times, and completed 9 of those throws.  It amy not seem like a lot, but it’s clear Cutler trusts Bennett.  He’s a smart, sure-handed receiver and he hasn’t fumbled all year.

The top receivers in the league this year as far as yards go are Brandon Lloyd (an excellent mid-season fantasy pickup for me I might add), Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Terrell Owens. Lloyd, White, and Wayne all have close to three times the amount of receiving yards as Bennett. Dwayne Bowe leads the league with 14 touchdowns this year to Bennett’s three. Three other guys are in double digits.

The point I’m trying to make is that while his numbers don’t stack up with the league leaders, and probably not too many people know his name outside of Chicago, there’s been nobody more valuable to the Bears on offense this season. Bennett won’t win the MVP, and he may not even get a single Pro Bowl vote, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Bears wouldn’t be 9-3 without the services of Earl Bennett.

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Failed USA World Cup Bid An Absolute Travesty


BY: NEAL MALONE

The sport of soccer has come a long way in the United States over the last decade and many    thought it would take another huge step in the right direction today with the announcement of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup host nations.

In the running for the 2022 Cup, the USA had obstacles of Qatar, Korea Republic, Japan, and Australia to overcome in order to be elected the host nation.  Unfortunately for the USA, the smallest nation proved to be the biggest winner in this morning’s draw.

Qatar, a Middle-Eastern desert nation with a population of just 1.7 million, was awarded the opportunity to host the World Cup in 2022, leaving the American bid team shocked.

Should the USA be surprised?  Disappointed?  Outraged?

I would say so.  After all, the 1994 World Cup on American soil was wildly successful and to this day has generated more revenue than any other Cup.  Some may say, “that was then, this is now,” but there is no reason to believe the incredible American sports culture wouldn’t shatter the previous mark set in ’94.

Not after the sport’s growth in America.  Not after the US Men’s National Team’s momentous performances at the 2009 Confederation’s Cup and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It just doesn’t make sense – and you saw that sentiment on the faces of the American bid committee that included former President Bill Clinton, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati, US soccer star Landon Donovan, and Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman.

Several things became clear after processing FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Qatar…

-Less about FIFA doubting that the USA was a strong candidate, more about the prospect of bringing the tournament to a new   nation and new region.

-Money trumps all (Qatar threw outrageous amounts of money towards their bid process.  The country has lots of new money from oil industry, real estate development, etc)

-Extensive construction, climate risks, infrastructure issues, and country size is apparently no concern

So on one hand, the USA can hang their heads high and realize that it was less about them and more about Qatar.  The problem with that notion is that Qatar wasn’t even a good candidate in the first place (outside of the fact that they’re from the Middle East, where a tournament has never been held).

A nation that is smaller than the state of Connecticut, Qatar has a lot of work to do.  The extreme desert heat will force them to install state-of-the-art air conditioning systems at each stadium to prevent the players, coaches, and fans from overheating.

Uhhh…health risk, anyone?  What if the systems backfire, then what?

Qatar also needs to construct nine World Cup-quality stadiums within the next 12 years – not to mention all of them need to feature those expensive, stadium-wide air conditioning systems I mentioned above.

Look, you could go on and on with reasons why Qatar shouldn’t host the 2022 Cup, but the real story here is the impact it could have on soccer in America.

At a time when fan interest and sport growth is at an all-time high, the USA didn’t exactly need a setback in the momentum department.  A successful bid would have only continued the growth in popularity, especially when the 2010 Cup is still fresh in Americans’ minds.  Now, the failed bid seems like yet another defeat, much like Chicago’s 2016 Olympic push.

Fans will get over it, though, and yes, no matter what the sport of soccer will continue to grow in America.  The problem is the rate at which this growth takes place.  The real benefactor of a successful bid would have been Major League Soccer, America’s main professional league that continues to develop in a manner that not many predicted.

The majority of MLS teams already have or are currently constructing their own soccer-specific stadiums by now, but the ones that don’t have a stadium just yet would have had their facility hopes fulfilled if the USA had been awarded the Cup over Qatar.  The new stadiums would be built at the very least for World Cup training and many would probably host actual games.

Not only would the MLS likely see a wealth of new resources, the league would surely experience a spike in fan interest as another added perk.  Whether or not the increase in interest would come before or after the Cup is unknown, but the overall exposure would be invaluable in the league’s constant struggle for American sports relevance.

The impact the 2022 bid could have had on American soccer is supremely underestimated.  The amount of resources and man power it takes to put on a successful world event like the World Cup is unbelievable.

It’s America.  Everyone knows that if we were the hosts, we would have made sure it would be the most spectacular World Cup to date.   As Americans, we always have to be the best, right?  It’s because of this principle that I believe Major League Soccer would have found itself with a tremendous amount of resources that would have potentially had the power to align them with the elite soccer leagues in the entire world.

The real treat in this whole process?  We now know that, as a host nation, Qatar gets an automatic berth into the 2022 tournament, thereby taking away a spot from a national team much more deserving of the competition.

Tryouts for Qatar’s team start….NOW!

 

 

 

 

 

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Maybe…


Maybe this team is back to playing good football.  Or, maybe they are who we thought they would be.  Either way, the Bears played a really good football game yesterday.  They beat the Vikings up and down the field, in every aspect of the game.

Devin Hester continues to haunt opponents on special teams.

Maybe the Vikings were just what the Bears needed to wake back up.  Maybe Mike Martz finally found some balance in his offense.  Maybe the fact that the Bears were finally able to run the ball gave Martz the balance he’s been looking for all along.

Maybe Lovie Smith finally came to his senses and put Devin Hester back on kickoff returns.  Maybe he’ll be back there the rest of the season, and he can finally get back to his rookie season ways, returning kicks for touchdowns.

Sensing a theme here?  There’s no doubt that the Bears played a good game yesterday.  Some may even call it great.  I wouldn’t go that far, but the Bears looked like a playoff contender yesterday.  What I’m saying though, is I’m not jumping on the Super Bowl Or Bust bandwagon just yet.

There are just too many questions, too many maybes left for this team to answer.

The three biggest story lines to come out of yesterday’s game are:

1.  Devin Hester’s Special Teams Play

  • Hester returned two punts for 47 yards, and two kickoffs for 100 yards.
  • While he didn’t score, his returns helped the field position game, led to points.

2.  The Running Game

  • Both Matt Forte and Chester Taylor got involved, combining for 104 yards on 32 carries.  It was a much better performance than the 66 yards they put up against the Bills last week.
  • Credit the Bears’ offensive line, which despite more than their fair share of penalties, opened holes as well as kept Jay Cutler upright.

3.  Defense

  • It’s not often that a team can hold Adrian Peterson down.  Especially when that team is the Bears.  Historically, Peterson has always played well against the Bears, but he was held to just 51 yards on 17 carries.
  • Credit the defensive line for constantly getting penetration in the backfield.  Also, the Bears swarmed the ball whenever they had a chance.  Peterson was not allowed to use his strength to break tackles.  It’s a welcome change from the Bears’ normal style of strip the ball first, tackle second.
  • The secondary may have gotten lucky a couple of times with receivers falling down, but hey, we’ll take three picks any time.

One point that definitely belongs in the top three storylines of the game is the Bears’ third down efficiency.  I’m just too lazy to go back and change things around, but it worked out because this deserves a paragraph of its own.  It’s no secret that the Bears have struggled on third down this year, and it’s hard not to when you’re constantly in 3rd and 10 or longer because of sacks.  The Bears went 11-for-19 on 3rd down, good for 57%.  The icing on the cake came on 3rd and short midway through the 4th quarter.  The Bears easily could have run it, and probably picked up the first down, but they went with a play action pass for an easy touchdown to Kellen Davis.  It was the kind of inventive play call that Bears fans have been waiting for.

It’s nice to have a lead and to be able to afford to risk passing on 3rd and short, right?

I’ve been reluctant to give Lovie Smith any credit this season, because I’m so sick of his act (and I truly believe it’s an act).  But him and his staff deserve high marks for their game plan against the Vikings.  Like I said, this win could be misleading because of the state of the Vikings, but a win is a win.

Despite themselves, the Bears now sit at 6-3, tied atop the NFC North.  The real test for the Bears’ coaching staff comes with a short week.  The Dolphins always present a tough matchup, but I believe Thursday’s game is winnable because of the turmoil the Dolphins have at quarterback.  The Bears should be able to handle Miami’s wildcat package, but they run it better than anyone.

Could the Bears find themselves in an unfamiliar situation after 10 games?  Only time will tell, but the momentum gained from Sunday’s good effort should help.

 

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