Commentary

Healthy Packers a scary thought

Chicago's string of good luck may run out when Finley, Grant return in Green Bay

Updated: February 7, 2011, 9:43 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

The Green Bay Packers did not necessarily become any more dangerous Sunday with their Super Bowl victory.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireConsidering what Aaron Rodgers did with two key weapons sidelined by injuries, what's realistic to expect from him next season?

The Packers were a problem for the Chicago Bears this season and they are going to continue to make life difficult for them.

Of course, nothing is a certainty, particularly in the NFL, this season being a convenient reminder if one is still needed. But if there is a 2011 season, the Packers will be there and likely posing an even bigger obstacle.

The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday largely without Charles Woodson and Donald Driver, and as we all know by now, they reached the Super Bowl without their leading running back in Ryan Grant, their star tight end in Jermichael Finley and one of their talented linebackers, Nick Barnett.

If and when free agency begins, there are few losses with the exception of Cullen Jenkins and maybe A.J. Hawk (Charlie Peprah, Brandon Jackson and Atari Bigby are also on that list) that threaten to really hurt them. How will the Packers respond to wearing the proverbial bull's-eye?

Since 1999, beginning with the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos and runner-up Falcons -- who both finished 14-2 in the '98 season and fell to 6-10 and 5-11 respectively the next year -- the Super Bowl hangover has been a bit of a headache.

With the exception of New England, defending conference champions since 1999 have had only 10 winning records. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, all 24 Super Bowl participants since then -- including the Patriots -- have compiled on average a .560 winning percentage the following season, which is just shy of 9-7.

We have no idea if the Packers, like the '85 Bears, will fight over endorsements, become jealous over attention or merely get fat and happy. But they are probably too young to get fat, and happiness can only be a bonus spending winters in Green Bay.

How will the Bears respond to a season in which they seemed to rely heavily on the age-old, no one-gave-us-a-chance tactic?

Every Super Bowl the Bears aren't in, which is to say all but one the past 25 years, I can't help but picture them in the game and ask myself if they belong. Usually watching the NFL's best only reminds me of how far away the Bears remain.

Obviously, they were only one win short this year, and yet I never felt they truly belonged among the final two teams playing for the championship. From the Packers' first touchdown in the NFC Championship Game, I never really believed the Bears had a chance to advance to the Super Bowl.

And even during their five-game win streak following the bye, I never really felt they were a scorching hot, Super Bowl-bound club hitting on all cylinders as I did with the Packers.

And now the bad news.

The Bears may never get another opportunity like the one that presented itself this season.

All together now: The almost complete lack of injuries; the officiating break to seal the Detroit game; facing third-string quarterbacks in Carolina and Miami; getting Seattle in the first round of the playoffs; the opportunity to play the conference title game at home. Those chances just don't come along every year.

Yawn, if you must, at the repetitive nature of all of this, but the season was teed up for the Bears and, ultimately, it doesn't matter if they finished with a better record than many of us thought they would.

In a purely visceral take, I found the end to the Bears' season to be as strange and unpredictable and ultimately unsatisfying as far worse campaigns, despite the lofty record.

In a bizarre local reaction to Jay Cutler's cruddy performance in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, followed by his legitimate knee injury and sulking on the sideline, it is now suddenly met with horror and disgust to question anything from the bravery to the leadership skills to the clothes choice of the Bears quarterback.

This is not to suggest that if Cutler gave a rousing halftime speech or stood cheering on the sideline the Bears would have rallied to beat the Packers. I am only going by what Green Bay players said about the added motivation they felt after teammate Charles Woodson's emotional words of encouragement to them in the locker room at halftime of the Super Bowl. Read whatever you'd like into it.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher & Lance Briggs
AP Photo/Jim PrischingBears defensive stars such as Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs aren't getting any younger.

Either way, it's on to next season and the prospect of a young division rival with its window opening wider as the window for the Bears and their aging defense begins to close. In a conference in which all four teams are capable of taking a game against each other, the question is whether the Bears can climb past the Packers and win the division again because they certainly do not want to take a chance on winning a wild card.

I liked the Packers this season. I thought Aaron Rodgers was thrilling to watch. I thought even when they lost, you felt like they were going to pull it together and even in the end, when they had to essentially play and win six straight playoff games, that they had a legitimate chance.

And that chance just doesn't look like it's going anywhere.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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