Big Men on Museum Campus
Like a college team, the Bears must approach each game as a must-win
It's a shame he's not the Pro Bowl tackle of old, because Tommie Harris is still a quote machine, an unofficial designation that pays a lot less than "sack machine."
But for guys like me, he's still a must-listen.
Earlier this week, Harris met with reporters at his locker and compared the Bears to a top college team, taking on all comers each and every week.
''It's starting to feel like college,'' said Harris, who played at Oklahoma. ''When you're a top team, you get the best shot of everyone.''
Harris is right in one regard: The Bears are the favorites this week against Seattle, favored by 6½ points the last I looked.
Amazingly enough, it's only the second time this season the Bears (4-1) have been favored by the bookmakers. The Bears are 3-1 straight up against the spread as underdogs and 0-1 as favorites, beating Detroit in the opener 19-14, despite the same 6½-point line.
"I guess you see what they really know," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Smith obviously doesn't get how the betting lines work. I can't imagine the square Smith is a big gambler, although his poker face would rival Lady Gaga's. Can't you just see him feigning indignation if someone thinks he doesn't have the cards?
The Bears might be favorites now, but they aren't college studs, more of a resurgent powerhouse, like Nebraska this season, that needs to prove it belongs back on top.
It's not a foregone conclusion this team is among the best in the NFC. Still, wins over preseason darlings Dallas and Green Bay are encouraging, and winning a game in which your quarterback looked worse than Jimmy Clausen surely gets you some street cred as an NFL survivor.
People are starting to believe in this team, the conversation shifting from "Can they keep it up?" to "How can they avoid an upset?"
As we've discussed ad nauseum, no one really knows what to make of the Bears, who seem to be on top of the NFC North thanks to a heaping portion of good fortune. But whatever the reasons, whatever the provocateurs of this start, the only thing that matters now is keeping a consistency that will ensure a playoff appearance. All things being equal, a 5-6 finish likely works.
But how do they get there, and how important is this week's game against Seattle?
I'm willing to throw in the old "must-win" descriptor, only because I think the Redskins will come into Soldier Field and pull off a road victory next week. (Just a hunch.) After the Bears' Canadian vacation -- to take on the Bills in Toronto -- following the bye week, the schedule gets a lot more treacherous. There is potential for two three-game losing streaks in the last two months. I'm not saying it will happen, but the concern is there.
The Seahawks are more likely to be a playoff team than Washington, but only by geography. The rest of the NFC West is putrid, to put it mildly.
Even with the Seahawks' benefits of a bye week, the NFL's top special teams return tandem of Leon Washington and Golden Tate, and the addition of Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch in the backfield, I expect the Bears pull off a win.
The question is: How will they play as favorites? How will they play at home, with the distractions of family and friends, and the weight of a city on their shoulders?
Every week seems to mean the same thing for this team, a test, a chance to prove to everyone outside Halas Hall that this team is for real and not a redux of last season's team or a continuation of the mediocrity that has plagued this organization since its last Super Bowl appearance.
While Lance Briggs' potential absence due to an ankle injury is a big one, the Bears are in good health and good spirits. The Seahawks' offense isn't too scary, and the Bears are coming off a no-touchdown game, which included a big stop on the Panthers' first drive that resulted in a field goal. Smith's Cover 2 is working as advertised, with the defense third in the league on third-down efficiency, allowing opponents to convert just 29.9 percent.
Offensively, the Bears are a mixed bag, and they should be facing a lot of third-and-long situations.
The good news is that Jay Cutler is back after missing a game with his first or fifth concussion, depending on whom you believe, to bolster a passing game that is artificially ranked near the bottom of the league after two statistical bye weeks.
Cutler wanted to play last week but said he wasn't cleared. After watching Todd Collins muck it up, you can be sure his arm will be extra live.
Now, is that a good thing or a bad one? After all, an amped-up Cutler can be an imprecise Cutler, and we've all seen that show.
The Seahawks' defense hasn't been too successful against the pass so far. But offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates was Cutler's position coach in Denver. Bates isn't the only former Denver coach the Bears will encounter this weekend. Seahawks tight ends coach Pat McPherson held that position with the Broncos in 2006, and current Seattle quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch coached the receivers during Cutler's last year in Denver.
Even worse, the Seahawks have had an extra week to watch film of how to attack Cutler, and there is plenty of footage to suggest it's very possible to neutralize his arm through pressure or simple positioning. (His last interception against the Giants came from a cornerback sitting and waiting on a drag route by Greg Olsen.) Cutler needs to throw like he did in the first two weeks, and the Bears hope Chris Williams' return, albeit at left guard, should help protect Cutler.
After a career-best day in Charlotte, Matt Forte could have trouble getting carries against the Seattle defense, which is second against the run, allowing just 72.8 yards a game. The Seahawks also are near the top of every defensive line stat compiled by Football Outsiders, although two of the four teams the Seahawks have played, San Francisco and Denver, rank 30th and 32nd in the NFL in rushing, respectively.
Mike Martz's play calling will be one of the three things to focus on this week, along with how the special teams handle Washington and Tate (especially with special teams standout Brian Iwuh expected to start for Briggs), and how the line looks with Williams at guard.
How the Bears handle being favorites is a more ephemeral observation. But like any college powerhouse, they have to defend their house. The next two games will show how the Bears look as Big Men on Museum Campus.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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