Surprise: Bears earn playoff bye

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Once 1-3, Chicago grabs the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Not too long ago, the notion seemed, to be kind, farfetched.

The playoffs? Yeah, right. The Chicago Bears were 1-3 after losing at Cleveland in early October.

"There was no doubt in anyone's mind we had the personnel to do it," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said after Sunday's 24-17 victory at Green Bay.

The Bears celebrated Christmas by locking up their first postseason appearance since 2001, winning the NFC North, and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs -- all of which seemed unlikely to outsiders a few months ago. Chicago finishes the regular season at Minnesota on New Year's Day.

So much has changed since those first four games -- and even the eight-game winning streak that followed. Sure, the Bears are still built on the league's top defense, a strong offensive line and a solid running game.

But with Rex Grossman starting at quarterback, the Bears (11-4) now have another element on offense: swagger.

It was there on the first snap, when his 45-yard pass sailed just beyond Bernard Berrian's reach. Grossman completed his next five to lead the Bears to the end zone.

It was there in the second quarter, when Grossman and Berrian connected on a 54-yarder that set up Thomas Jones' 2-yard run, which gave the Bears a 14-7 lead.

It was there in the fourth quarter, too. Rather than go for the field goal on fourth-and-1 at the 28, the Bears went for the end zone. Grossman's pass hit Muhammad in the hands and fell incomplete.

"We saw what they were doing when we went to two tight ends," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Monday. "They were really stacking everybody up, especially to the strong side. We went to the play-action. ... We thought we had a real good shot at hitting it. And if we didn't hit it down the field, we had an out with Thomas in the flat."

With Grossman healthy after missing the first 13 games with a broken left ankle, the Bears have balance on offense and the ability to pull off the big play. It was apparent when he relieved Kyle Orton in the second half of the Atlanta game Dec. 18.

And Grossman showed it again against Green Bay despite missing on 9-of-12 attempts at one point and finishing a rather pedestrian 11-for-23 with 166 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The Bears' receivers -- specifically, Muhammad -- didn't help, missing several catchable passes.

With Grossman at quarterback, Green Bay dropped a defender out of the box. That helped spring Thomas Jones for 105 yards.

"Grossman gets them in a better rhythm with his three-step drops than Orton did," Packers defensive tackle Grady Jackson said. "He gives them confidence on offense."

Turner said the Bears need "that next dimension" to go with the dominant defense and sound running game.

"As far as running the football and protecting the football, we still have to do those things," he said. "But if we can add the dimension of getting the ball down the field ... then we obviously have the chance to be much, much better."

Four years ago, the Bears had a bye and lost by 14 to Philadelphia. Now, they're in a place few outside their locker room expected to be.

"No one is even talking about us, but hey, that's the way it goes," Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown said. "We've got to make some noise in the playoffs and make them talk about us."

They need to heal, too.

Turner said he expects rookie running back Cedric Benson to be ready for Minnesota after missing six games with a sprained ligament in his right knee. Whether Brown (sore calf), linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer (thumb) and defensive tackle Ian Scott (sore hamstring) play after missing the Green Bay game remains to be seen.

"As we said all the way through training camp: We felt we were a good team," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "We felt we were on the rise. ... We talked about where we felt we could be as a defense -- being in the top 10, being in the top five, being No. 1, finishing No. 1. The ultimate prize has always been the playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl."

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