Grin and Bear it: Chicago's winning ugly
They're maddening, frustrating, inconsistent and somehow just one win away from Super Bowl XLI. That's life with the Bears, writes Gene Wojciechowski.
CHICAGO -- So Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. was standing in front of his locker after Chicago's 27-24 overtime win in the NFC Divisional playoff, and he was talking about how difficult the past 12 months have been for him. I'm a sucker for a heartwarming overcoming-adversity story, so I clicked on the digital recorder.
"I would say the last year has been a drastic change for me as far as signing with the Bears, then with the off-the-field issues [he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge], getting married, having a kid, moving to Chicago, buying a Bentley ... it's crazy," he said.
It is, isn't it? I was just telling the ball and chain that very thing a few days ago when we were at the Ferrari dealership picking out ostrich leather seats for our new 599 GTB Fiorano.
Oh my gawd. You see, this is the problem with a lot of the Bears. Manning signs a five-year, $21 million free-agent deal and buys one of the most expensive cars on the planet -- and thinks he's had it rough. Bears quarterback Rex Grossman watches his team eke out an overtime win against a Seattle Seahawks team with a loan officer in its secondary and he says, "Our whole team just played great."
Nothing against my favorite Bear, but Grossman might need a little more padding in his helmet. The Bears didn't play great. They played with heart, with emotion, with desperation at times, but they weren't within an L ride of great. I'm not even sure they were the best team on the field. But they won, and that counts for something, such as their first NFC Championship Game appearance since the 1988 season.
All those outside the Chicagoland area who still think the Bears are the best team in the NFL, please raise your hands. Take your time. I can do a Sudoku or count the ways the Bears could have lost to the Seahawks.
How about this: All those outside the range of Mike Ditka's cigar smoke who still think the Bears are the best team in the NFC, please raise your hands. No rush. Manning Jr. and I are busy discussing various benefit packages for our chauffeurs.
If the Bears have proved anything about themselves in the past two weeks, it's this: They're beatable, maddeningly inconsistent and resilient. But of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, the Bears are the most vulnerable.
They have talent. Talent isn't the problem. The problem is you don't know what you're going to get. Good Rex or Bad Rex? Good defense or Bad defense? Domination or frustration?
"The most important thing is that we won," Grossman said. "I don't care how we do it, I really don't. This is an unbelievable situation we're in right now. We're in the NFC Championship Game. If we win one game, we're in the Super Bowl ... two wins away from having a ring on my finger for the rest of my life."
That's one way of looking at it. I prefer the other way, the one where we hold hands with football reality.
Grossman sees another step toward Super Bowl XLI. I see the Seahawks self-destruct in the fourth quarter, thanks to one of the worst interceptions ever thrown by Matt Hasselbeck, followed later by what appeared to be a busted play on third-and-1, followed even later by a bobbled snap by Hasselbeck on a failed fourth-and-2 attempt at the Seahawks' 45, followed even later yet by Hasselbeck's failure to unload the ball before getting sacked. Give the Bears enough chances (give any team enough chances) and they'll finally figure it out.
That's what the Bears did in overtime. They held the Seahawks on a third-and-2 from the Seattle 48, watched Ryan Plackemeier shankemeier a punt 18 yards, then drove just far enough for Pro Bowl place-kicker Robbie Gould to ease a career-long 49-yarder over the crossbar.
"I didn't even watch the end of it," said Gould, who knew it was good when it left his foot.
"I didn't want to watch it," said Grossman, who didn't sneak a peek until after it cleared.
Grossman is the guy who, after the regular-season-ending loss at home to Green Bay, told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that he didn't exactly over-prepare for the Packers. He might as well have said he wears a cheesehead to bed.
But Sunday at an unfilled Soldier Field (an embarrassing 6,659 no-shows on a surprisingly tame 32-degree January day on the lakefront), Grossman kept his screwups to a workable number. He threw an interception in the fourth quarter to cornerback Pete Hunter, who about a week ago was working as a loan officer. And he almost threw another one three drives later, but tailback Thomas Jones knocked the tipped pass to the ground before defensive tackle Rocky Bernard could grab it.
Of course, Grossman also threw two long passes that belong in a Canton exhibit. His 68-yard touchdown throw to Bernard Berrian in the second quarter and his 30-yarder to Rashied Davis in overtime were both placed on the receivers' palms. NFL Films will love them in slo-mo.
"He's been roasted the past couple weeks over all different kinds of things," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He is our quarterback. When you push him against a wall, he knows how to come out fighting. There was a lot of pressure on him and our entire football team, and I thought they handled it well."
Smith got that part right. There's pressure on the Bears.
"It's scary, man," Manning Jr. said. "It's a scary feeling. We got to win this game. If we lose this game -- if we blow this game -- it's going to feel bad."
Instead, they get to stay home and play America's sweetheart, the New Orleans Saints, for the NFC championship.
"For us, the Bears, today was just meant to be," Gould said.
Next week, who knows? But that's the Bears for you.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.