Here are five things we learned following NFL Wild Card weekend.
1. Good fortune keeps smiling on Bears: Seattle is the ideal matchup for the Bears in the divisional playoffs. First of all, the Bears played a horrible game against the Seahawks back in Week 6, and should be eager to prove that regular season meeting was a fluke. How bad was that game for the Bears? The offense accounted for only one touchdown, Jay Cutler was sacked six times and fumbled once for a safety, Mike Martz called 12 runs -- three coming on the game's opening drive -- against 41 passes, the Bears defense didn't register a single sack or takeaway and they surrendered two long Seattle touchdown drives. Not to diminish the Seahawks' accomplishments -- they played an excellent and exciting game against New Orleans Saints on Saturday -- but they were 7-9 in the regular season and only made the playoffs because they reside in the awful NFC West. This year has shown us that anything and everything is possible in the NFL, so there's absolutely no guarantee the Bears are going to win. But if Martz calls a balanced and smart game, and the defense plays up to its usual standards, the Bears should advance to the NFC Championship game.
2. Bears vs. Packers is still alive: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is 19-2 lifetime in the Georgia Dome, so it'll take another spectacular effort by Green Bay to knock off the Falcons next weekend. But can you imagine the excitement if both the Bears and Packers win in the divisional round, which would set up a Chicago (No. 2 seed) vs. Green Bay (No. 6 seed) NFC Championship game at Soldier Field? I'm not trying to jinx either team, but it would be the first playoff game between the two since Dec. 14, 1941, when the Bears won 33-14. The buildup for that game would rival that of a Super Bowl. First things first, the Bears still need to defeat the Seahawks and the Packers must eliminate the top-seeded Falcons. But a guy can dream, can't he?
3. It's tough to overcome bad coaching: Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell's late timeout in the Colts’ 17-16 loss to the New York Jets reminded me of Lovie Smith's decision to stop the clock, which allowed Seattle to take one more shot at the end zone, at the end of regulation in 2006. The Bears were able to overcome Smith's gaffe and ultimately make the Super Bowl, but the Colts were not so fortunate. Whether it was Caldwell's timeout or Todd Haley's challenges, bad coaching reared it's ugly head during wildcard weekend. This cannot happen to the Bears moving forward. In reality, the Bears should be the most prepared team in the NFC next weekend, thanks to a staff littered with former head coaches -- Mike Martz, Mike Tice and Rod Marinelli -- which was given an extra week to gameplan against three possible opponents. All the Bears issues with communication, clock management and challenge flags must be cleaned up by Jan. 16. Not only did the Bears get outplayed against Seattle on Oct. 17, they got outcoached. For that to happen a second time would be criminal.
4. Maybe Rex Ryan isn't so bad: Staying on the topic of coaching; one of the stranger themes to emerge in the wake of the Bears’ 38-34 win over the Jets on Dec. 26 was the notion Rex Ryan wasn't a good head coach. Really? I realize Ryan made a few questionable decisions that day at Soldier Field. He rolled the dice that Cutler would turn the ball over in the fourth quarter and ultimately give the game to the Jets. Cutler did not and the Bears squeezed out the victory. Plus, Ryan's penchant for creating off-the-field controversy also gets old, and with the exception of the Minnesota Vikings, no NFL team dealt with more drama in 2010 than the Jets. But who are we kidding; NFL coaches are ultimately judged on their win-loss records, especially in the postseason. Since Ryan arrived in New York, the Jets are 23-13 overall and 3-1 in the playoffs. All of those postseason victories, by the way, were on the road. In just two years at the helm, Ryan already has won more playoff games than Smith (2-2), who’s in his seventh season coaching the Bears. The Jets may not make the Super Bowl -- and probably will lose in New England next weekend -- but Ryan deserves credit for making the Jets a consistent winner and one of the tougher teams in the AFC.
5. Baltimore could challenge Pats: Bears fans know all about the talent level on the Ravens. In perhaps the lowest point of the Smith era, the Bears were slaughtered 31-7 by the Ravens last season, a game that featured Joe Flacco throwing four touchdowns and Cutler tossing three interceptions. Fast forward a little more than a year, and the Ravens look even tougher following their road win vs. Kansas City. Not only does Baltimore still boast veteran talent on defense -- Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs -- Flacco has plenty of weapons to chose from on offense. The regular-season numbers paint the Ravens offense as an average unit, but there is nothing average about Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Todd Heap. Throw in established veterans like Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Willis McGahee, and Baltimore has the potential to hang with anyone in the NFL. If Baltimore keeps playing at this level, they have a great shot to beat Pittsburgh next week, and perhaps challenge New England for the AFC Super Bowl berth.