Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears
Point Spread: Chicago -3
My former roommate Gabe has been driving the Bears bandwagon since the beginning of the season. While Paul and I speculated about Andy Lee's shot at the Pro Bowl, and whether the 49ers would get the first pick in the draft again, Gabe was focusing on the Bears.
"Seven wins might be enough to take the NFC North this year. You never know. After all, they get to play the Lions twice. And the Niners, at home."
While guarded, his optimism proved to be correct, as the Bears won 11 games and earned the second seed in the NFC. It's Chicago's first trip to the playoffs since 2001, when they went 13-3, got the second seed in the playoffs, and lost in their first game. Like the 2001 team, the Bears are a defensive team that likes to run the ball. In their regular-season game against Carolina, the Bears won 13-3.
Carolina is back in the playoffs after one year away. They beat the crap out of the Giants last week for their third consecutive road playoff win, which is impressive. The Panthers also have a good defense, especially the defensive backs, and they have a great wide receiver named Steve Smith. I'm fond of Steve Smith, not just because he's my height, but because he had the best touchdown celebration of the year. Vikings cornerback and sex boat multi-tasker Fred Smoot talked trash to Smith before the game, and Smith responded by catching 11 passes for 201 yards, and, most insultingly, pretending to row a boat in the end zone after his TD. Ooh, that's a burn, Fred Smoot!
I think the Bears will take it, 17-13. Bill Swerski predicted Bears 158, Carolina -24.
This is my first exposure to FOX announcer Joe Buck since the World Series. One benefit of the 49ers sucking for these past two years is that the top FOX team never does their games, and I never have to hear Joe Buck. Sure, Curt Menefee isn't the best announcer, and he sometimes messes up players' names, and what down it is, and the pronunciation of basic English words, but at least he's not Joe Buck.
During his pre-game spiel, Buck isn't wearing his glasses. Has he had LASIK surgery? Maybe Joe only has to be fake-smart for baseball telecasts. Joe establishes his theme for the game: Bears quarterback Rex Grossman is quite inexperienced. Buck and analyst Troy Aikman are both wearing extremely shiny suits.
"Least Niners" Theory update: So far, the teams with the most former 49ers are actually 2-1. One could argue that, though the Colts had just one former Niner, kicker Jose Cortez, the incredible crappiness of said former Niner might outweigh Pittsburgh's raw ex-Niner advantage, but it seems that "least Niners" is not a reliable handicapping indicator. This game should put the theory to the ultimate test, as Carolina has three ex-Niners, and Chicago has none.
FOX has two sideline reporters working the game, Pam Oliver and Chris Myers. I guess they're expecting a lot of sideline news. Sicne the game is on FOX, you can be assured there won't be any of that liberal sideline bias you get on so many mainstream sports telecasts. Only fair and balanced injury updates for us today.
DISCLAIMER: I watched the game via Tivo. In a chat with my dad about an hour after the game's actual start time, he let slip that at some point, Carolina leads 16-7, and that it's "not a bad game".
Former 49er Jamal Robertson takes the opening kickoff back all the way to the 40, and Carolina starts with excellent field position. Carolina QB Jake Delhomme reportedly gets very excited for big games, like a modern-day Phil Simms, and "doesn't do anything at all to try and calm down".
Delhomme excitedly starts off with my least-favorite overused NFL play, the wide receiver screen at the line of scrimmage, or WRSATLOS. I don't mind Carolina when Carolina runs this play, since they have the key ingredient for the WRSATLOS to work: Steve Smith. This attempt fails, but on the next play, the Bears blitz, and Smith breaks free for a 58-yard TD grab. The Bears DB, Charles Tillman, illegally runs into Smith as he sprints downfield, but Smith just keeps going and the DB falls down. On the initial replay, Smith gets so open that Tillman isn't even in frame. I think Tillman might have trash talked Smith before the game. 7-0, Panthers, and it's 10-0 in Vegas.
The Bears start at their own 17, and we hear about Rex Grossman's inexperience. He's only started six career NFL games, though this is his third season as a pro. QB Grossman sails his first pass. And his second pass, too. The third pass gets batted down. It's fourth down, and Chicago has to punt. The kick goes a whopping 19 yards.
Carolina takes over at the Chicago 36. Buck muses aloud about how Carolina can possibly attack this Chicago defense. I wonder if this is the right question to ask, considering the Panthers scored a touchdown in two plays last time. Carolina only moves the ball two yards, and former 49er Jason Baker comes on to punt. He blasts it into the end zone for a touchback. That's two punts, netting a total of 33 yards. At the other team's 34, you might as well go for it on fourth down.
The Bears quickly fail on offense, and punt again. The kick is ugly, but it takes a fortunate bounce and rolls for 41 yards. As we got to commercial, Joe Buck delivers an impromptu soliloquy in the persona of Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.
"Hi, my name is Julius Peppers," he begins. "I am a freakishly-talented athlete. Want me to rush the passer? How about run the ball? Or get back in coverage? Whatever you need, I can do. 7-Nothing, Panthers." (Note: Joe Buck's name is not really Julius Peppers, and Peppers does not actually run the ball.)
We learn that an hour before the game, Steve Smith cut short an interview. "Gotta get an IV. Gonna be one of those days." The pre-game IV seems really hardcore. Any doubt that Steve Smith came to play should be gone now.
The Bears defenders have complained that they are being disrespected, even though linebacker Brian Urlacher was the Defensive Player of the Year. In a twist to the usual respect/disrespect dance, they are also claiming that Carolina is over-respected. I hope for their sakes that no one mentioned that within earshot of Steve Smith. Buck asks Aikman if he feels he gets the respect he deserves. Aikman says, "Only from you, Joe."
Carolina tries a variant of the WRSATLOS play, throwing the pass five yards behind the line of scrimamge. It gains a yard. The Panthers fall a yard shy of a first down, and decide to punt. In an amusing moment, Delhomme tries to take an intentional delay-of-game penalty, but an alert (if misguided) Steve Smith calls a timeout. Because it's Steve Smith, the coach isn't mad. Carolina downs the punt on the 6.
Bears RB Thomas Jones makes some solid runs, and Chicago gets out to the 25. On third down, Grossman spots the blitz well and throws a pass that might have gone for a touchdown without Carolina's pass interference. Two first downs in a row for Chicago. They get a third one, and the ball is at midfield.
On second down, we see the dark side of the WRSATLOS. Grossman throws to receiver Justin Gage, who gets hit immediately by the DB. Freakishly-talented Julius Peppers scoops up the fumble and takes it in for a touchdown, easily outrunning Chicago's wide receivers. Peppers is a really fast guy. However, we have a challenge flag. Buck and Aikman debate whether the play should be ruled a fumble or an incomplete pass, but they give no indication that the receiver could be ruled "down by contact", which is what the officials ultimately decide. Replay confirms it's a good call, and the Bears keep the ball...for two more plays, and then they punt. Due to an unlucky bounce, this punt travels only thirteen yards, and the punter downs it himself. Brad Maynard now has a 13-yard punt and a 19-yard punt, and it's only the first quarter.
This game is taking forever. We're still only 11 minutes in. Buck talks up tastefully-named RB Deshaun Foster, who will be a free agent after the season. Aikman agrees, he's earned himself some extra money by playing well last week. Foster responds with runs for 2 and -1 yards. On third-and-9, Chicago blitzes, and Delhomme goes deep to Steve Smith. It looks like Tillman has a better angle on the ball, and he's much bigger, but Steve Smith simply rips it out of his hands. Tillman has personally given up over 100 yards receiving in the first quarter. Maybe he and Maynard could go get an IV together.
First down at the 2. Foster gets stuffed. Incompletion. Freakishly-talented Julius Peppers lines up at wide receiver, but he's a decoy, and Foster still gets stuffed to end the quarter. Carolina 7, Chicago 0.
John Kasay kicks a chip-shot 20-yard field goal, and it's 10-0, Panthers.
Mrs. Troy Aikman loves 24, though hopefully not just because of Dennis Haysbert's performance.
We're one quarter in, and still no mention of crowd noise. Either Buck and Aikman didn't get the memo, or the Chicago crowd is very quiet. Chicago is known for its polite, well-behaved crowds, after all. After three more Grossman incompletions, Maynard comes on and boots one 46 yards. The fans cheer sarcastically.
Deshaun Foster starts the drive by getting stuffed. He's earning his free agent money so far with 10 rushes for 20 yards. Delhomme confuses the Bears with a WRSATLOS to a receiver who isn't Steve Smith. Someone named Drew Carter takes it 29 yards, and could have had 50 if he'd stayed in bounds. Sadly, it goes for naught as Urlacher makes a very diifcult interception at the 12. The Bears block quite well on the return, and he makes it to the 30. Those blocking skills might be very necessary, as it looks like the Bears will need at least one defensive touchdown to win today.
The Bears go three-and-out again, with RB Thomas Jones individually failing on each down. Maynard punts it only 29 yards, out of bounds. Buck scolds the fans for "taking out their frustrations on the punter", but can you blame them? Maynard has two sub-20-yard punts today. Carolina puts together a drive, led by Foster, who picks up 25 yards by himself. He also fumbles, but recovers the ball himself. The drive also includes a WRSATLOS to Smith, which leads to a 38-yard field goal from Kasay. Carolina 13, Chicago 0.
Having already complained about the Chicago fans, Buck now disses the playing surface, calling it "more dirt than grass". He adds that John Hughes movies aren't funny, Lake Michigan smells like a urinal, and Abe Lincoln's beard "made him look like a big fag".
So far, Grossman is 3/15 passing, for a total of 2 yards. Not only are those stats pretty bad, it's pretty amazing that he's thrown fifteen passes already. It seems like the Bears haven't held the ball for fifteen plays yet. To break out their rut, they decide to call a fucking fake reverse. My blood boils with irrational hatred for the fake reverse. Somehow, even though it's not even a pass play, Carolina gets called for defensive holding, by the nose tackle. That's like getting a pass interference flag on a punt. Anyway, the Bears get five yards and first down, which is ten yards and one first down more than a fucking fake reverse deserves.
Joe Buck rips Eli Manning, Chris Simms, and Grossman, all in one sentence. Grossman responds with two straight completions, totaling 40 yards. And then a third, for 14. Two more completions bring the Bears down to the 1.
Troy Aikman has a habit of complimenting players by saying that they're "doing a heckuva job", which I simply cannot take seriously in a post-Katrina context. After Aikman says this, I expect Grossman to take the rest of the drive off and spend his time on the sidelines, arranging dinner reservations and asking Coach Lovie Smith, "Anything specific I need to tweak about our 13-0 deficit?"
FOX puts up a graphic about the five QBs making their playoff debuts this year, and how disappointing their performances were, due to, what else, lack of experience. It's a little deceptive, since one QB (Carson Palmer) blew out his knee on the second play of the game, and another (Byron Leftwich) was playing on a broken leg. Those injuries have nothing to do with playiff experience. One other QB, Chris Simms, played pretty well in his game. Only Eli Manning really sucked. And, while Grossman looked awful five minutes ago, his revised stats are 8/21, for 64 yards. Still not very good, but no longer historically terrible.
On fourth-and-goal, Adrian Peterson just barely pokes the nose of the football over the plane of the goal line. At the two-minute warning, the Bears have cut it to 13-7. Our two-minute warning level is at yellow.
One Bears fan has gone all out, displaying a "D Fence" sign with the "D" in orange, and the fence in blue. I don't think the Bears have cheerleaders, because it's really not that cold. Because Carolina had and will play only on the road all through the NFC playoffs, they'll have to make the Super Bowl before there's any hot girl-girl cheerleading action on the sidelines.
Buck tries to explain the controversial Chicago "over-respect" complaint, which has something to do with them being the preseason Super Bowl favorite, but it doesn't make sense to him. Or the audience. Chicago disrespects Carolina into a false start, then re-respects them by jumping offsides. After another Foster stuff, Chicago takes a defensive timeout. Steve Smith takes that personally, fighting his way to the first down marker on 3rd-and-9. And he makes up for his earlier wasted timeout by getting out of bounds and stopping the clock.
Next play is, you guessed it, a WRSATLOS to Steve Smith, who gains 20. On the next play, the beleaguered Charles Tillman gets away with pass interference in the end zone. Delhomme is unfazed, and seemingly still quite excited. He completes two more passes, and Kasay hits a 37-yard field goal as time expires in the half. 16-7, Carolina. Aside from the Urlacher pick, Delhomme has looked excellent. Carolina nearly scored a touchdown on that drive, which might have effectively ended the game. As it was, they calmly went 50 yards in two minutes. That is not encouraging for the vaunted, under/over-respected Bears defense.
We get fallout from the Steelers upset. Mike Vanderjagt says, "No excuses. I missed." That doesn't sound like much until we hear Peyton Manning's quote: "Trying to be, uh, be a good teammate here. Let's just say we had some problems in protection." In other words, Peyton said, "Fuck you, Indianapolis offensive line". You know, I didn't see the lineman overthrowing receivers on every play in the first half, or firing passes into Troy Polamalu's hands. Or, calling plays at the line of scrimmage that might deal with the blitz. Peyton Manning did all those things, if I'm not mistaken. Peyton Manning, you're dead to me.
Jimmy Johnson says Peyton sucked in the game, "good teammate or not". Terry Bradshaw brings up Manning's 3-6 playoff record. James Brown just takes a cheap shot at Terry, something I heartily approve of.
Halftime montage: Bears defense jumps together; Random Bear makes a face; Carolina's Alex Haynes (who?) points at the camera; Carolina's Marlon McCree (who?) beats his chest; four different zooms on Urlacher's eyes; Delhomme excited; Steve Smith scores; Tillman looks sad; Peppers hits Grossman, replayed from two angles; center places ball; Panthers Coach John Fox claps; Harris tackles Foster; Delhomme pleads with the ref, excitedly; two Panthers hit Thomas Jones; Mike Rucker hits Grossman; Ken Lucas struts; Steve Smith steals the ball from Tillman; Chris Harris trash talks Smith (bad idea!); Tommie Harris wears a goofy orange beanie; Smith gets tackled; Urlacher celebrates; Adrian Peterson wipes the ball on the end zone dirt; Fox runs into the locker room.
Graphic of Doom: Chicago lost the last 15 games it trailed at halftime. Which can mean only one thing: They're due!
Pam Oliver asks Lovie Smith if they're planning to give Tillman help guarding Steve Smith. Lovie says they have been giving help, which is a bad sign indeed.
Thomas Jones starts things off well for Chicago, with a 24-yard run into Panthers territory. I learn that Dallas RB is his little brother. Could this be a sibling running back dynasty to rival the Mannings of quarterbacking, the Ismails of receiving, the Gramaticas of place-kicking? By the way, this has been the NFL's first Gramatica-free year since 1998, and I couldn't be more pleased.
At 13:49, Chris Myers reports from the sideline, in a strong wind. In my mind, we have indisputable confirmation of a Chris Myers toupee, as one entire half of the thing came off his scalp and stuck straight up, like a sail.
Grossman has found a go-to guy in Bernard Berrian. He converts a third-down pass to Berrian, draws an illegal contact penalty, and then hits Berrian at the 1, where Berrian absorbs what Troy Aikman says is, "the biggest hit I've ever seen." It wasn't a bad hit, but I'm pretty sure I've seen Troy Aikman get hit harder than that a few times. I mean, Berrian walked off the field on his own. Grossman hits a guy named Clark for the TD, and it's 16-14; 19-14 in Vegas.
Buck and Aikman have switched from criticizing Grossman's inexperience to raving about how well he's playing, despite his crippling inexperience. They're going to stick with the pre-game theme no matter what actually happens on the field. Either Grossman will confirm the preconceived notion, or he's a hero for overcoming the imaginary, broadcaster-created handicap.
Buck says that Bears will be putting the ball in Rex Grossman's hands. This weekend, I have heard the phrase, "Put the ball in [quarterback's full name]'s hands" in reference to Jake Plummer, Matt Hasselback, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady. I didn't hear it about Manning, probably because Peyton Manning decides when to put the ball in Peyton Manning's hands.
There's also a regular white D + Fence set in the crowd. No Bear foamheads, and I didn't see any Indy foamheads either.
Bad news for Carolina: Foster goes down with...an injured knee? If only there were one or two people on the scene to tell us what was wrong with Foster!
Carolina responds the only way they know how: WRSATLOS to Smith, who gets nine yards and a first down. He picks up seven on the next play, and I wonder why the Bears aren't triple-teaming him. For all I know, they might be, and Smith just can't be covered by any man born of woman.
On consecutive plays, Delhomme fumbles after a QB scramble, throws a crazy shovel pass incomplete while under pressure, and fumbles after being sacked. A Chicago takeaway seems imminent. Carolina punts down to the 7.
Grossman seems to be playing better, but I feel Chicago's real advantage has come from keeping their own punter off the field. A false start kills the Bears here, and Maynard comes on to punt. The punt looks awful, but rolls a good 20 yards, so it will look superficially excellent in the box score.
Commercials: My imaginary Olympics girlfriend Lindsey is definitely cuter while worried about snowboarding. Just in case you needed confirmation.
While the AFC Championship Game will be a Battle of the Beards, barba a barba, Chicago backup QB Kyle Orton has the only remaining crazy beard in the NFC playoffs.
Tillman's tough day continues with a defensive holding call. The cornerbacks switch places, and the other guy, Nathan Vasher, stops smith on the WRSATLOS. Of course, on the very next play, Smith gets open for 20 yards.
Then, a crazy play. Urlacher blitzes, but Delhomme manages to dodge a sack and a ten-yard loss. He then dumps the ball off to a running back, who is hit immediately, and Carolina loses ten yards anyway.
Before the 2nd-and-20 play, the Bears strangely use a time out. Apparently, "make sure to guard Steve Smith" doesn't come up during the time out, because on the very next play, Steve Smith gets free for a 40-yard TD catch, which he celebrates by jumping and sliding down the goalpost like it was a fire pole, a move which looks like it would hurt his balls. I tell myself that this was a reference to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and if it hadn't been against league rules, there would be a cow in the end zone right now with Smith. Carolina 23, Chicago 14.
I think it's time we finally asked this question: Is this defense as good as the 1985 Bears?
Grossman moves the ball when the Bears take possession, and when the quarter ends, the Bears have 1st-and-10 on the Carolina 38.
Homoerotic Sideline Reporting: Pam Oliver tells us that, during the quarter breaks, "Trainers kept shoving bananas down Harris's throat." That's either for dehydration or a bootleg "Bears Gone Wild" tape
After an 18-yard pass to Muhsin Muhammad, Carolina gets an injury time out for CB Chris Gamble, but afterward, Gamble tries to stay on the field. No dice.
Another bizarre play occurs when Thomas Jones tries to stretch the football over the goal line, but has it knocked out his hand and out of the back of the end zone. The officials call it a touchdown, and Carolina challenges the ruling. They win, as the play is ruled a fumble, but a face mask penalty negates what would have been a touchdown. Given a 1st-and-goal form the 3, the Bears quickly punch the ball in, and hold onto the ball in the process. Carolina 23, Chicago 21, with 12:27 to go.
Carolina gets a good kick return out to the 38. Well done, former 49er Robertson! Delhomme ebgins with a pass to fullback Hoover, and the play results in a Rocky II-style double-knockout, as both Hoover and the Bears linebacker go out. It seems like there is an injury time out every third play. East Coast fans of 24 are going to get antsy.
The loss of Hoover doesn't stop the Panthers. Delhomme passes to the baldest white man in the NFL, WR Ricky Proehl for a first down. Then an excellent end around to Steve Smith gains 22, down to the 22, and I wonder if Chicago might think about paying more attention to him now that he's accounted for 250 yards all by himself. Maybe the problem is that they're attacking Smith one at a time, like in a Bruce Lee movie.
Replacement RB Nick Goings gets the ball and...goes for eight, then ten yards. A WRSATLOS brings Carolina to the 1, setting up a one-yard TD pass to Kris Mangum. Kasay hits the upright on the goalpost, giving carolina only an eight-point lead. That makes the game a lot more exciting, but particularly from a gambling perspective. If the Bears tie the game with a TD and two-point conversion, an overtime field goal covers the spread. 8:11 left, and it's Carolina, up 29-21.
Grossman's stats have improved to 14/30 for 145 yards. Since the broadcast team called him out for poor play, and reverse jinxed him, he is 11/15 for 143 yards.
By figuring this out, I jinx Grossman back, and he throws three incompletions in a row. Maynard comes in and punts competently, for 45 yards. The crowd seems to have forgiven his earlier crappy punting, though one could argue that might be the difference in the game right now. Of course, that's under the assumption that Steve Smith is an unstoppable natural force, like lightning or death, and Charles Tillman can no more be blamed for his failure to cover him than he can for being naught but a mortal man.
Carolina is about one first down away from icing the game. Which - they don't get, on 3rd-and-1 from their own 44. The Bears switch it up, putting CB Vasher back to field the punt, but it makes no difference. Jason Baker comes in again pins the Bears back deep, at their own 17. After that first touchback, Baker has been money. The former 49ers on the Panthers are playing quite well, except for the bizarre defensive holding penalty on Brentson Buckner.
The Bears get stuffed on their first play, but then call an excellent screen play to Jones, which goes for 27. Buck and Aikman are fretting about the clock, but Chicago now wants to run the clock, so that they will score with as little time remaining as possible, to deny the Carolina Stevesmiths a chance to win in regulation.
Buckner draws another defensive holding call on a running play, and I start to wonder if the gamblers have an agenda. A suspicious missed extra point, questionable penalties - you never know. As I'm mulling this over, the Bears pick up another free first down with an illegal contact penalty. There's 3:09 remaining.
As they leave the huddle, WR Justin Gage bumps into his own teammate and almost falls down. That can't be a good sign.
On 3rd-and-10, Ken Lucas intercepts Grossman's pass, at the 21. Troy Aikman says that Gage screwed up his route - it wasn't Grossman's fault. Heartbreakingly, the play clock had expired just before the snap, so it should have been a dead ball and a delay of game penalty. The referees' conspiracy against the Panthers backfires, and costs the Bears an INT.
Goings gains nine yards for the Panthers on first down. With one first down all it takes to end the game, Chicago's Lance Briggs makes a huge play to stop Goings for a loss of four. An end around to Steve Smith falls short, and the Panthers punt with 1:45 left. Big stop by the defense, and the Bears have one more chance. Replacement PR Nathan Vasher doesn't help things by losing five yards on his return.
The producers keep cutting to Foster, sitting on the sidelines with his foot bandaged up, but Buck refuses to acknowledge the woe-is-Deshaun storyline they're trying to create.
Hey, remember that 49ers lineman who died? Yeah, me neither. I bet there's no acknowledgement of his having died at the site of next week's AFC Championship game, either.
Grossman gets one first down, but fails from 4th-and-1, and it's all over.
Final score: Carolina Panthers 29, Chicago Bears 21.
Final thoughts: Grossman can hold his head high. If I'd know before the game that the Bears would score 21, I'd have expected them to win. His coaches might have helped him out by calling a few more running plays, too. Surely the pre-game plan couldn't have been to have Grossman throwing over 40 passes.
Steve Smith gave probably the greatest single-game performance I've ever seen, save the game where Jerry Rice caught five touchdown passes or the Monday Night game where John Taylor went for two 95-yard TDs. In the playoffs, I don't think you can do much better than 12 catches for 218 yards, plus 26 yards rushing, plus he punt returns. True, that last part was less of factor when Maynard was bouncing most of his punts or kicking them out of bounds, but the man was out there. He made the most convincing MVP case of any player this weekend, that's for sure. I don't know what the Carolina offense would be without him. Crappy, I guess.
Former 49ers are not so bad after all. If anything, teams that have more ex-Niners have better odds, which bodes well for Pittsburgh and Carolina.
To note for next week: Carolina fumbled three times today, but recovered all three. Seattle fumbled six times last week, and lost three of them. If Carolina had lost even one of those fumbles, it might have been a very different game. If Seattle had lost only two fumbles instead of three, they might have won their game by 20. So, while I think the Panthers are a smart team with a brilliant coach, and totally unfazed by playing on the road in January, I think the talent gap between the Panthers and the Seahawks is larger than people are acknowledging right now.