Friday, December 29, 2006

Bears: Super Bowl or must

With all due respect to a prime-time showcase against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have a much bigger stage in mind.

Now, more than ever before this season, the Bears’ focus squarely is on reaching Super Bowl XLI. And they are not afraid to talk about it.

Before, such chatter might have seemed presumptuous and suggested a lack of focus. But with nothing noteworthy at stake Sunday night at Soldier Field, postseason goals become central.

“We’ve said that from Day 1 – OTAs, mini-camps, all that junk in the summer, training camp – we want to get to the Super Bowl,” middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “That’s been our goal the whole season, and it’s right there in front of us.”

“We’ve got to win a few more games to get there, but we’ve achieved every goal so far this season,” Urlacher added. “We beat Green Bay; we won the NFC North; we clinched homefield. We’ve just got one left.”

The Bears have not won a playoff game in 12 years, so even one postseason victory might seem like a monumental accomplishment to their supporters. But two wins are needed to play for a world championship, and anything less than that would be crushing for the players after all the team has achieved.

When they sit around chatting about their hopes and dreams, they do not discuss playing in the NFC championship game. They talk about going to Miami for the Super Bowl.

When they break their post-practice huddle every day, they chant, “Champs!” Sometimes, to be a bit more specific, they make it, “Super Bowl Champs!”

On a few occasions of late, the chant has been “Space Mountain!” That means the Bears want to wrap up their season by sending at least one player to Disney World, which usually invites the Super Bowl MVP.

“That’s the one thing left I think for our team to do,” Urlacher said. “Everyone on this team, that’s all we talk about, man. That’s all we’ve been thinking about.”

“There is nothing that’s going to make us feel good if we don’t do that,” quarterback Rex Grossman said.

The Bears have come to understand that getting to the Super Bowl might be their only means of earning respect and acclaim. Some players have taken to sarcastically calling themselves “the worst 13-2 team in football,” realizing a number of pundits doubt their prowess no matter what the record.

“We’re 13-2; nobody talks about that,” defensive end Alex Brown said. “They all talk about how bad we’re playing or how bad this is going. The way people talk, they just talk like were 9-6 or something like that. I don’t know what else to do … because at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is winning.

“There’s been games this season where a defense gives up 150 yards and they lose. Go talk to Indy. They’re losing. People say they’re playing bad, but they’re losing. People say we’re playing bad, but we find a way to win.”

They have begun thinking hard about what it will feel like to win the biggest game of all, but first they have to find a way to get there.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Ravens make sure Steelers won't repeat

Only one NFL division still needs to be decided, and that could happen today. But who has the best chance to win the Super Bowl? That question is as jumbled as the NFC wild-card race.
The only sure bet is it won't be the defending champions.

Baltimore made its case for Super Bowl favorite Sunday with a 31-7 victory over last year's winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens (12-3) can secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win over the Buffalo Bills and a loss by San Diego on the final weekend of the season.

The defeat at home eliminated the Steelers (7-8) and made them the first defending champs to miss the postseason since Tampa Bay in 2002.

"We're in a prime position to get home-field advantage," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "With the way we're playing defense and the way our offense is clicking, we're going to be a hard team to beat in the playoffs."

The Chargers (13-2) retained the inside track in the AFC with a last-minute victory over Seattle. Philip Rivers' touchdown pass with 29 seconds left gave San Diego a 20-17 win.

The host Seahawks (8-7) still celebrated a third straight NFC West title after San Francisco lost to Arizona. New England beat Jacksonville on Sunday to win the AFC East.

Dallas can clinch the NFC East today by beating Philadelphia, while the Eagles would secure a playoff spot with a win or tie. New Orleans routed the New York Giants on Sunday and would join top-seeded Chicago in getting an NFC bye with another win or one Dallas loss.

"That would be a tremendous accomplishment considering everything that happened last year with these guys, what they went through," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who joined a team that was 3-13 last year.

No wild-card spots have been determined. The New York Jets and Denver Broncos can clinch the AFC spots if they win out, while Cincinnati, Tennessee, Kansas City and Jacksonville need help.

An 8-8 team will make the playoffs in the NFC. The Giants, Green Bay, Carolina, St. Louis and Atlanta are all alive at 7-8.

"People have continued to lose, and records aren't good in the NFC," Rams guard Adam Timmerman said. "It's been pretty bizarre."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Super Bowl winners endured tumultuous seasons, Thomas says

Terrell Owens' tumultuous season is just what the Cowboys need to win a Super Bowl. Who says? Duane Thomas says. Sort of.

Duane Thomas might have had nothing to say during the Cowboys' Super Bowl ride back in 1971, but he has plenty to say 35 years later. He's one of three former Cowboys whom NFL Films selected to help guide viewers through a season that was capped with a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.

For their effort, the `71 Cowboys have been ranked as the 15th-best Super Bowl team by a panel of experts commissioned by NFL Films for its extraordinary America's Game series, which is counting down the top 20 Super Bowl champions weekly on the NFL Network.

There are three Cowboys Super Bowl teams among the top 20. The `71 Cowboys are the first to be profiled. Still to come are the `77 Cowboys, winners of Super Bowl XII, and the `92 Cowboys champions of Super Bowl XXVII.

The 60-minute, `71 Cowboys installment is next up on Friday, Jan. 5 at 7:30 p.m. CST on the NFL Network, which unfortunately is little more than a rumor in most Dallas-Fort Worth homes. If you have a friend with a satellite dish, that day would be as good a day as any to invite yourself over for at least an hour. The series counts down on Fridays before culminating with a two-hour special on the Saturday night before Super Bowl XLI.

I watched the `71 and `92 shows the other day. Perhaps because the `92 Cowboys remain focused in the rearview mirror and their stars are omnipresent, their stories fresh, the `71 Cowboys, who performed way before my time, proved far more fascinating.

To tell their tale, NFL Films selected Hall of Famers Bob Lilly and Roger Staubach as well as Thomas, whom the Cowboys traded to the New England Patriots before the season. Alas, they were forced to take Thomas back as damaged goods by commissioner Pete Rozelle following his creative differences with the Patriots.

In protest of what he believed was the Cowboys' money-pinching ways, Thomas stopped talking during the `71 season. That was not only to the media but to his teammates and other Cowboys personnel as well. An immensely talented running back, ballyhooed by some as a "young Jim Brown," he led the NFL in touchdowns that season, which happened to be his second and final one with the team.

In addition to a sphinx-like running back, NFL Films captures the turmoil caused by Tom Landry's reluctance to decide between quarterbacks Staubach and Craig Morton, a waffling unanimously criticized by Staubach, Lilly and Thomas.

Whether it was because of such controversies or in spite of them, Thomas argues that all five Cowboys Super Bowl champions were flavored with tumult.

In `77, he points out, there were issues with Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. In `92 and `93 there was the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson power struggle. In `95, there were questions about the ability of Barry Switzer to lead the team.

Hence, though he never addresses the issue, from the Thomas Tumult Theory, we might conclude that Owens' soap-opera season is just the spice needed to bring a sixth Super Bowl title to Dallas.

Steve Sabol, mastermind of NFL Films, assures that spliced into the `71 Cowboys segment, as well as the 19 others, is "footage never seen before."

He credits that to his father, Ed, the founder of NFL Films who insisted that not a frame of film should ever be thrown out. "In the early 1970s, we got a citation from the health department because we stored too many old cans of film near the cafeteria. There was some kind of problem with the chemicals."

To tell the tale of the `77 Cowboys, NFL Films has Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson and Charlie Waters. The `92 Cowboys features Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Ken Norton Jr.

Sabol says former 49er Joe Montana is the lone player or coach who declined to work on the project.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chicago Bears still great betting value despite QB controversy

The Chicago Bears as of December 3 were listed with 9 to 2 odds to win the 2007 Super Bowl. For all you folks who are not math wizards, that's a $450 payout for every $100 bet should they win the title.

The only thing getting in the way of a Super Bowl win might just be the current quarterback controversy. Chicago's record suggests this is a stellar team, yet Grossman's performance over the past weeks has a lot of Bears fans concerned that he will not be able to carry the team through the post season.

Don Pompei makes some excellent points in his Sporting News piece this week:

"It's true Grossman has been inconsistent lately. In fact, he has consistently made a couple of puzzling decisions in every game.

"But the fact remains he still represents the Bears' best chance to get to the Super Bowl. Some have called for Brian Griese to replace him. It's possible Griese could propel the Bears higher. When Griese gets on a tear, he can play with anyone. But he's not always on a tear, which is the reason he's a backup who has been allowed to leave Denver, Miami and Tampa.

"We haven't seen all Grossman can be yet. Though he's been in the NFL four seasons, he has only started 18 games in his life. It's certainly too early to say he isn't the answer. The Bears are doing the right thing by being patient with Grossman and remaining committed to him.

"When Grossman has been good, he's been very, very good. And he's been good more often than he's been bad."