Was it a fluke when the 2-2 Seahawks came into Soldier Field after their bye week and defeated the 4-1 Bears in Week 6?
Sunday's divisional-round playoff game will provide the answer, and also one of the participants in the following weekend's NFC Championship Game.
The Seahawks' surprising 41-36 upset of the Saints in the wild-card round served notice that they are playing at a higher level than they attained during a 7-9 regular season. The Bears are also a much better team than the one that lost 23-20 to Seattle on Oct. 17. They regrouped during their bye two weeks later and went 7-2 after that to capture the NFC North title.
Bears coach Lovie Smith says his team simply wasn't ready to play its best football three months ago.
"Everyone expects you to be playoff ready right away, and we weren't," Smith said. "We just needed a little bit of time to grow and see exactly what we would be [with] a lot of new parts that we had. During the bye, we kind of figured out a little bit in what direction we wanted to go. You would like to see improvement from the early part of the season in any year."
The biggest change for the Bears was a decision to run a balanced offense, with the emphasis on "run." Before the bye, they ran the ball less than 20 times in five of seven games and lost three of those five. In the first eight games after the bye, the Bears ran the ball 27 times or more seven times and won all seven.
Also, after using five different offensive line groupings in the first eight weeks, the Bears settled on the same five, who have started together for nine straight games.
"As much as anything, we'll just try to execute a little bit better than we did the first time around," Smith said.
That will be especially true in the way the secondary deals with 6-5, 235-pound wide receiver Mike Williams. He led the Seahawks with 65 catches and 751 receiving yards in the regular season and caught 10 passes for 123 yards against the Bears.
"I think when you look at what he was able to do last time... we have to play a lot better against him, and we do plan on it," Smith said. "If you don't have success, you look for a better way of doing things. Maybe a better way is just to play what we had planned a little bit better. Show up Sunday, and you'll see."
A better way might be to assign 6-1, 198-pound cornerback Charles Tillman to shadow Williams whenever possible, rather than 5-8 Tim Jennings, although Tillman struggled to contain him in the first game. Jennings has played admirably since replacing Zack Bowman as the starter opposite Tillman in Week 4. But Williams is an especially tough matchup when he's got a nine-inch height advantage, which could provide an opportunity for Bowman to see a little more playing time.
"For me it's real tough, a guy like that," Jennings admitted. "But that's one thing about this defense. If it was just a lot of man-to-man and no help over the top, it would be a problem. But we play a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 3 (with two or three safeties deep). We've got guys running to the football. Our linebackers, even our D-linemen, get to the secondary and make tackles. With a guy like Mike Williams, we just limit some of their big plays. He's going to get his catches. We just have to minimize the yards after the catch."
DE Julius Peppers
NOTES AND QUOTES
Defensive end Julius Peppers didn't see anything from the Seahawks in their wild card-round victory over the Saints that will give him nightmares this week.
"I wasn't really impressed by anything," Peppers said. "It was just good football. They played the whole game hard, and they're used to being in that spot. They didn't have a great season record-wise but they're used to being in the playoffs, so they played like they were."
Peppers expects a much better effort from the Bears this week than in their Week-6 loss to the Seahawks.
"We didn't play well that game," he said. "Well, we played OK, but we didn't play up to our standards, so that's something we're going to take a look at this week and try to get it fixed."
That was the only game all season that Peppers was held without a sack or quarterback pressure. He said the Seahawks didn't do anything special to stymie him.
"Just an off game," he said. ...
Jennings was thrilled to see the Colts lose to the Jets 17-16 over the weekend, but not because they didn't offer him a new contract after four years in Indianapolis.
"I had to be one of the happiest guys," Jennings said after the Jets' victory. "We were for the Jets. Nothing against the Colts and what they were trying to do, but you just want to get rid of all the favorites. So, Peyton Manning, being the good quarterback that he is, it's good to have him out of the way. But, you know, somebody take care of Tom Brady, please." ...
Every player practiced to some extent during Monday's outdoor work, according to Smith, although an official injury report is not required until Wednesday.
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