Two moves defined the Bears' playoff season in 2010 — the release of DE Mark Anderson and the shift to a quicker developing passing game following the midseason bye week.
Sending Anderson packing sent a message to the rest of the defense that underachieving would not be tolerated. The adjustment of pass protection came after an internal tug-of-war between stubborn offensive coordinator Mike Martz and strong-headed OL coach Mike Tice, with Tice proving that deep-drop passing game cannot function with only five blockers and a marginally talented offensive line — the reason the Giants set a record with nine sacks in the first half against the Bears early last season.
This season, after a demoralizing 24-13 Monday-night loss to the Lions that was reminiscent of the game in the Meadowlands last season, Lovie Smith reverted to what worked for the Bears last season, replacing both starting safeties — the undisciplined Brandon Meriweather and injury-plagued Chris Harris — and shifting to a quicker-hitting, heavier max-protecting, play-action style of offense that best suits QB Jay Cutler's talent. Tice, who twice benched ORT Frank Omiyale in recent weeks, also shuffled the offensive line for the fifth time in six weeks, fixating Lance Louis at right tackle and inserting Chris Spencer in his place at right guard.
The payoff, similar to the five-game winning streak the Bears strung together after the bye week last season, came in the form of a 39-10 victory over the Vikings. At a time when media scrutiny and fan discontent has never been greater on the team's brass in the Chicago market, the Bears responded in every phase, with Devin Hester returning his 16th career TD (a mistake Leslie Frazier later corrected by kicking away from him); the defense restricting the big plays that stole momentum against the Lions; and the offense humming in a way in has not all season, as Cutler, for the first time, was left largely unscathed in the pocket despite facing a very solid Vikings defensive line. He was sacked only once.
DE Julius Peppers was a surprise last-minute start and looked as uniquely dominant as Hester did returning kicks. However, Peppers is still nursing the knee injury and Hester left the game late with a chest injury. With injuries threatening their most special talent, the Bears cannot afford to subject Cutler, their greatest offensive asset, to the repeated harassment he has withstood this season anymore. Great coaches know how to conceal the shortcomings of their talent and play to its strengths. Tice clearly gets it.
The greatest challenge for Smith the rest of the season will be managing his wide-eyed, pass-crazy coordinator and forcing him to maintain a healthy 50-50 run-pass ratio (a task that Tice might be needed to enforce) — which is the only way the Bears will be able to compete with the Packers and Lions in the NFC's most competitive division. If Martz reverts to his preferred ways, the Bears' season will be history. There is little margin for error with no other division featuring two five-win teams, including the only remaining unbeaten team, the defending-Super Bowl champion Packers.
• The AFC's most competitive division is keyed by veteran linebackers that have yet to fade. At age 36 in his 15th season, Pittsburgh ILB James Farrior remains one of the most instinctive linebackers in football and was always around the ball against Jacksonville. Ray Lewis, also 36 but who entered the league one year earlier, was the same way against Houston. Linebacking talent forms the core of a 3-4 defense. For years, the Steelers have fielded the NFL's most talented group of linebackers, with the Ravens, Jets and Cowboys all fighting for position.
The most impressive, young LB unit belongs to San Francisco — one of the key reasons why the 49ers are having success, as NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are really coming on alongside Patrick Willis, who already can be considered on a par with Lewis. Smith was drawn offside by a hard count by Matthew Stafford amid heavy crowd noise and flagged again for roughing the passer, but the rookie ratcheted up two more sacks in rotation with Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson.
• The QB carousal spun a few extra times this week as John Beck provided a spark in place of an inefficient Rex Grossman, and Christian Ponder showed well enough in the final quarter of a 39-10 loss to the Bears to open next week as a starter. In limited action, Ponder showed he could step up in the pocket, create plays with his feet and handle an aggressive array of blitz packages that the Bears continued sending late in the game. With the Vikings sorely in need of a spark, Ponder should see greater action sooner than later.
Most teams are expected to be better prepared exiting a bye week in which they have had an additional week to recuperate, study their opponent and recharge their bodies and minds. The lull in action seemed to dull Rex Grossman's focus into the type of performance that pushed him out of Chicago, as he forced the ball into coverage and was easily confused by an Eagles' defense that did a better job of disguising its coverages.
Kyle Boller had to step in for Jason Campbell in Oakland after Campbell broke his collarbone. Boller managed to pull off a win because of the strong play of special teams, with the explosive Jacoby Ford returning a kickoff for a TD and the Raiders successfully executing a fake field goal that was converted into seven points. The Browns still nearly rallied back late in the game. For the Raiders to remain at the top of the division and find the playoffs, they will need better than the jittery-footed, scatter-armed, easily confused Boller at the helm. A GM's role becomes critical when he loses the most important positional player on the field, and the absence of a GM could challenge the Raiders in this situation. However, Hue Jackson proved he could strike a deal quickly when he landed ex-Seahawks first-round OLB Aaron Curry, and if he could wrestle Carson Palmer out of the vice grip of Bengals owner Mike Brown, who seems intent on docking Palmer a year's pay in his prime for demanding a trade, Jackson might be able to keep the team competitive. With the urgency he is showing to win this season in tribute to his mentor, it would be a surprise if Boller remains in place long.
• A Bills offensive line that entered the game surrendering the fewest sacks in the league (four) struggled to handle the Giants' pass rush, even when they rushed only three as they did before the half and sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick to knock the Bills out of field-goal range. The line entered the game without quick-footed OLT Demetrius Bell, and his replacement, Chris Hairston, had to exit in the third quarter with an ankle injury. With DT Kyle Williams and OLBs Shawne Merriman and Chris Kelsay all out with injuries, a pass rush that ranks dead last in the league with only four sacks had to dial up more stunts and blitzes to create pressure without much success. The bye week could not come at a better time for the Bills. Chan Gailey will find ways to manufacture points, but the roster lacks depth on offense and quality pass rushers to survive injuries down the stretch.
• Even without OLT Chad Clifton in the lineup, the Packers' offensive line moves in lockstep. The rhythm and timing of the offense is a credit to one of the NFL's finest offensive coaching staffs. Much like when Mike Holmgren presided over a stable of coaches that produced Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes, it would not be surprising to see Packers assistants begin getting plucked for head-coaching jobs. The front office already has been raided, with John Schneider taking over the GM post in Seattle, and pro personnel director Reggie McKenzie could be next in line to fill the vacancy in Oakland. No one in the NFL enjoyed playing mind games more than Al Davis, and he was always in search of talent in any field that could help the Raiders, picking the brains of anyone with knowledge that could help his team. Years ago, when Davis was seeking a personnel boss to replace Michael Lombardi, one GM said Davis told McKenzie he would have hired his former linebacker had he contacted the Raiders to express interest in a position, something McKenzie never did. If the Raiders hire a GM following the season — a position that is already drawing vast interest around the league — McKenzie could be a front-runner. San Francisco director of player personnel Tom Gamble is another candidate who piqued the interest of Davis.