When it comes to playoff football, experience is an extremely valuable commodity.
But seven key members of the Bears' offense will be playing in their first postseason game on Jan. 16 at Soldier Field. That group includes quarterback Jay Cutler, featured ball carrier Matt Forte, the team's top two wide receivers, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett, and three of the five starting offensive linemen.
The veterans with playoff experience can preach to the novices about the increased speed of the game and the elevated intensity, but until the first-timers get on the field, they won't really know what it's like. But they know it's different.
"It's pretty well understood," Forte said. "I'm not going to go up to a guy and say, 'What do you know about the playoffs?' There's nothing that anybody could really tell you that's going to make you more ready than you already have to be. The basic thing is to just focus on what we're trying to do as an offense and go out there and be intense about it."
Safety Danieal Manning is one of 10 defensive starters with playoff experience, seven of whom were with the Bears for the 2005 and '06 postseason appearances.
"Veteran guys need to step up even more, but we need everybody to step up," Manning said. "Guys can be called upon at any time. Coach [Lovie] Smith, all the coaches and the players, we touch base on that a lot. I feel like those guys coming in from college understand the seriousness of the playoffs. They've played in big bowl games. They understand that every play matters, every practice counts, everything that needs to be corrected counts."
Nerves are part of the equation, too, but it's not as if the guys who have been there before are immune.
"There are going to be some jitters," Cutler said. "If there aren't jitters, then you don't care that much. The good thing about having a young team is we're just going to go out there and play. We have nothing to lose. The guys know the magnitude of the playoffs and what a good position we're in. But at the same time, we've got to take care of one game at a time, keep running the offense and executing and doing the little things."
Coaches are using the bye to get a head start on eliminating mistakes, self-scouting and attention to detail. But offensive coordinator Mike Martz doesn't believe he needs to remind his quarterback what's at stake in the postseason.
"I've always felt that was unnecessary," Martz said. "Kurt [Warner] went through that (when he was the quarterback of Martz's Rams teams). Obviously it was his first time, but they know. He's been around. If he were a rookie or something like that, [but] he's been in some big games this year, kind of playoff atmosphere. We just talk about managing the game, like we do every week with him."
In his previous four NFL seasons, Cutler never even played on a winning team, so he appreciates the position he and the Bears are in now.
"It's very hard, especially to get a bye," he said. "Some guys go to the playoffs every year. Some guys never make it. I've got a good understanding of how hard it is to get in."
Defensive end Israel Idonije will be making his first playoff start a week from Sunday, but he played in the Bears' four postseason games in '05 and '06, so he knows the routine.
"We're coming in and working and leading by example," Idonije said. "Everybody knows what's at stake. We've been there before. So we know this is not an opportunity that comes every other day. You've got to pay the price and do more so you can have the opportunity to play in that big game. Because you'll look back and it will all be worth it, regardless of what price you pay."
S Chris Harris
NOTES AND QUOTES
The Bears have been incredibly fortunate all season in terms of health, and their good fortune appears as if it will carry into the postseason.
Safety Chris Harris suffered a stinger near the end of the regular-season finale. Bennett sat that game out, more as a precautionary measure, and rookie safety Major Wright suffered a minor leg injury last Sunday.
But it was all hands on deck at Wednesday's indoor practice.
"Everybody, for the most part, was able to go," Smith said. "Next time we play (Jan. 16), we'll have everyone ready to go as far as injury-wise."
Among the starters, and including significant backups or situational players, only two missed more than two games: left guard Chris Williams missed three games early in the season with a hamstring, and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa missed four games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
30 players on the roster played in all 16 games. ...
Forte played the best football of his three-year career in the second half of the season, getting stronger as the season wore on.
"In the last five games, I don't know if there's a back playing any better than he is right now," Martz said. "He's always been really good, been very impressive. But about five weeks ago, something happened. Maybe it was six weeks ago, but he just all of a sudden took it over."
In his last six games, Forte averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry in five of them. He finished with 1,069 yards and a career-best 4.5-yard average. ...
Rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb, a seventh-round pick from West Texas A&M, has been by far the team's most valuable rookie, starting 12 games.
"He played a great game last week against one of the premier pass rushers in the league," Cutler said after Webb was instrumental in holding Clay Matthews to one sack and two tackles. "You can see he's getting better and better each and every week. He still has a lot to learn. That's the fun part about that big guy. He's playing at a really high level, but you can see how much better he can play." ...
Smith doesn't agree with the notion that the game gets faster in the postseason or that the playoffs call for more quick thinking from coaches.
"I'm not one that buys into that argument at all, the speed of the game," Smith said. "The later you get into the season, a lot more is at stake and things are starting to clear up a little bit more. We played tough games and I don't see the game improving that much more, and I would like to think that coaching-wise that we've been making the same type of decisions. I don't see a lot changing."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"If you're fast, you're fast in sand, you're fast on concrete, you're fast anywhere. If you're slow, you're slow. That's just the way it is." – Offensive coordinator Mike Martz when asked if his offense was better suited to grass or artificial turf.
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