In a profession in which the job description includes picking winners and losers, offering fantasy advice and fielding questions sometimes out of left field on radio and video appearances, being wrong, on occasion, is, unfortunately, an occupational hazard.
This is my first year participating in Pro Football Weekly’s Handicapper’s Corner, and anyone who follows my picks knows that I am letting myself off far too easily when I say "on occasion."
But last night’s Lions-Bears game, a rather drab, ugly outing in which the Bears’ defense and Jay Cutler’s toughness — paired with Detroit’s usual comedy of errors — amounted to a 13-7 Chicago victory, has forced me to eat crow this morning.
No, I didn’t predict the Lions would save their season by pulling off the road upset (in fact, one of the few forecasts I’ve hit on this year was that the Lions would take a step back and miss out on the postseason). Instead, my about-face stems from a column I wrote nearly two months ago, where I predicted that the Bears’ necessary recipe for success would be the retooled offense carrying the aging defense.
To wit: Chicago enters Week Eight at 5-1 and in first place in the NFC North, with the second-largest point differential in the NFL. How have they done it? With the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense. The offense, meanwhile, is ranked 22nd in the league.
Nostradamus, I am not.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I specifically pointed to CB Charles Tillman, who I heard from several sources and saw with my own two eyes being a step slower in the offseason, becoming a potential liability for the squad this season.
In neutralizing the NFL’s most physically imposing wideout, Calvin Johnson, who turned 11 targets into just three receptions for 34 yards and no TDs, Tillman was actually his club’s greatest asset. He shadowed “Megatron” all evening, breaking up two passes, forcing a pair of fumbles and chipping in with seven tackles in his usually strong run-support role.
Tillman did commit a pair of penalties — and Johnson did have an inexplicable drop on Detroit’s first offensive series that might have dramatically altered the direction of the game — but his perfectly timed breakup of a pass intended for Johnson in the right corner of the endzone on 1st-and-goal early in the second half, which led to a Joique Bell fumble on the very next snap, was a major play in the game and yet another illustration that Tillman is far from finished. In fact, I think he is playing at a Pro Bowl level again this season.
A lot of that has to do with Tillman’s performance leading up to Week Seven, when he and Lance Briggs became the first teammates in NFL history to register pick-sixes in consecutive weeks. Playing opportunistic in Lovie Smith’s “D” is an absolute must, and Tillman continues to exemplify this style of play.
In light of Pro Football Weekly’s feature in this week’s issue on older players making an impact, I felt it was the right time to single out Tillman and the rest of Chicago’s aging defense — Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were exceptional as well Monday night — for their dominance thus far this season.
Of course, the attention will eventually shift to questions on whether the old men can keep it up for 16 games, especially with the schedule soon stiffening.
I’m done doubting this group, however, and particularly Tillman. One of this generation's best playmaking cornerbacks, Tillman doesn’t usually garner praise for being a shutdown corner. But that is exactly what he was last night — against a player who just doesn’t get shut down.