Marshawn Lynch‘s 67 yard touchdown rumble capped off perhaps the greatest playoff upset in NFL history, even topping the Giants knocking off the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. By putting up 41 points on the defending Super Bowl champions (giving Drew Brees his ‘Madden Curse’ tag), the Seattle Seahawks went from being jokes at 7-9, to showing the world that their record doesn’t exactly indicate their abilities.
After Lynch, Matt Hasselbeck, and Mike Williams humiliated the Saints defense (which may explain Gregg Williams “withdrawing” from these head coaching interviews), Pete Carroll leads his team into the Windy City, where victory should be hard to obtain, right? Well, not so fast. On October 17, the Seahawks actually beat the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field 23-20. While the Bears possess a crippling defense and a remastered offense, they now must beat a team that simply won’t take no for an answer.
Matt Hasselbeck kept his passing attack diverse, picking on two areas were New Orleans were lacking on Saturday afternoon: the secondary (even the safety help on over-the-top plays was extremely late) and over the middle (New Orleans’ linebackers played their worst game of the season). Matt Hasselbeck’s been such an enigma these last couple seasons with injuries and a generally inept team around him. I think, if anything, New Orleans felt Hasselbeck would defer to the run more, and weren’t expecting Hasselbeck to come out throwing (the man had a serious hip injury as recently as days before the game). The Saints were expecting run on just about every play, and that enabled John Carlson to pick up two almost-gimme touchdowns, as well as Mike Williams (the ideal over-the-top guy now that his past is behind him) to snag well-placed passes. The Saints just weren’t prepared mentally for this game.
2. Who was Seattle’s MVP on Saturday?
As much as Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown was highlight-reel material, I’m giving the nod to Hasselbeck. The clincher game six nights prior wasn’t even played by him, as Charlie Whitehurst had to push the team over the finish line against the Rams. I argued that, while Whitehurst had the hot hand, he should get the go on Saturday against the Saints. How wrong I was. Carroll felt that with Hasselbeck healthy enough, he could lead the Seahawks with his experience. After throwing an early interception that helped put Seattle down 10-0, Hasselbeck came roaring back to throw four touchdown passes (the relatively easy ones to Carlson and the well placed throws to Williams and Brandon Stokely.) Hasselbeck did a superb job of ignoring the negative hype of Seattle even being in the game, let alone hosting it, and simply outplayed a defense that’s supposed to be better than how they played.
3. What little-known player was most impressive for the Seahawks?
Without question, it’s Ben Obomanu. Playing through a separated shoulder on Saturday, Obomanu proved to be a reliable target for Hasselbeck in front of a national TV audience. Despite the fact that Hasselbeck’s lone interception went off of his hands into those of Jabari Greer, Obomanu would have worse luck when he was reinjured on a first quarter tackle by Roman Harper. Knowing that this could very well be his only playoff game, Obomanu made his way back into the game in the second quarter and quickly re-acclimated himself in the offense. He helped the team with an 18 yard completion into Saints territory that helped set up Mike Williams’ 38 yard score to take the lead, one that the Seahawks wouldn’t give back. The preliminary injury reports for Sunday don’t list Obomanu, so he’s taking full reps in practice, despite his injuries. Obomanu’s as reliable as he is tough.
4. How do the Bears differ from the Saints?
Defensively, you could call Chicago the complete inverse of New Orleans. While the Saints are good at patrolling the sidelines and the center field (well, until Matt Hasselbeck surprised them), the Bears are superior at jamming the line and preventing outside gains. In other words, there aren’t many Tracy Porters on the Bears for Marshawn Lynch to demonstrate his sparring skills on. Of Chicago’s front four and starting linebackers, only one of the seven (Tommie Harris) hasn’t forced a fumble this season. Both defensive ends, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, have forced seven together and it adds a degree of difficulty to outside running. If you can somehow get past the outside edge, you still have to contend with All-Pros like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and the formidable Pisa Tinoisamoa. All three men are sure tacklers who can easily force fumbles, and are capable of blitzing at a high level.
5. Is Jay Cutler prepared for his playoff debut?
This is the first year in which Cutler has had a winning record, after getting away from the mismanaged futility of Mike Shanahan’s final years in Denver, and enduring a reality check in his first year in Chicago (the quarterback he was traded for, Kyle Orton, actually had a better 2009 season with Josh McDaniels designing the offense around his strengths). Cutler’s had his share of bumps in the road, mostly with attitude issues and an acrimonious relationship with the Chicago media. After throwing a staggering 26 interceptions in 2009, for which much of the Cutler/media posturing took place over, the Bears brought in Mike Martz (a lightning rod himself) to restructure Chicago’s offense. Cutler performed better under Martz, whose offensive genius was the heart of the Rams winning it all eleven years ago (and nearly again 2 years later). But given his occasional immaturity, can Cutler handle the pressure?
6. Can Seattle stop Matt Forte/Chester Taylor?
Matt Forte may as well be the modern day Marshall Faulk, given that he’s the Swiss Army knife of the Bears offense. With Mike Martz in town, Forte has seen his rushing and receiving averages soar. Seattle’s defense gives up 4.2 yards a carry, and in a division with Stephen Jackson and Frank Gore, there’ve been plenty of opportunities for other teams to figure out where Seattle’s weakest on the ground. However, when the two teams met in October, Forte had one of his worst running games of the season, picking up 11 yards on 8 carries, with many runs getting stuffed for losses. The Bears offensive line is about as steadfast as a house of cards, and Pete Carroll has good run-stopping ends in Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons, so between Forte and Chester Taylor, Seattle would love to shut them down early and make Cutler have to throw.
7. Do the Bears blitz Matt Hasselbeck?
Seattle’s got a decent offensive line, but the key here is Hasselbeck himself. With his injury history (especially recently), he’s had to develop a quicker release in order to avoid sacks. More often than not, Hasselbeck demonstrates a fast enough release that he can avoid contact, but the Bears defense is quite good at, well, “bearing down”. The Bears defensive philosophy is to bring constant pressure to take away the deep throw, forcing the quarterback to either get creamed or dump it off. In the case of the latter, with the aforementioned linebackers, the receiver generally won’t get too far, unless the completion came on the linebackers blitzing. The Bears only problem is that if Hasselbeck has a day like he had last week vs. New Orleans, he’ll calmly make his reads and neutralize the rush. If the safeties play too light, Hasselbeck can make those throws, pressure or not.
8. How does Matt Hasselbeck approach Chicago’s defense?
Looking at question seven from the opposite perspective, Hasselbeck has to know that the ends are going to be his biggest concern. Julius Peppers lines up opposite rookie Russell Okung, and Okung is tasked with protecting Hasselbeck’s blind side. Given Pepper’s penchant for forcing fumbles and running down everything in the backfield, Okung’s going to have his hands full. It’s good that Hasselbeck’s a patient general, because the disruption that can come from the left side of the line (especially if Lance Briggs is brought in on blitzes to help disrupt as well) is where the Bears will likely attack. Having a tight end with good awareness like John Carlson is going to be important, because if he’s used to help keep Peppers away, it gives Hasselbeck more time to throw downfield with good placement. The Bears defense can be thrown on as long as the quarterback doesn’t throw short.
9. Marshawn Lynch/Justin Forsett vs. Brian Urlacher/Lance Briggs: who wins?
While Lynch earned his way into the hallowed halls of the NFL Films studios with his victory gallup on Saturday, the reality is that the New Orleans’ defense doesn’t have the greatest tacklers (even Darren Sharper’s slowing down with age and injuries), and the Seahawks wanted that run enough that they were able to block everyone else away with ease. As great a play as it was for Lynch, it was also a horrid play for the Saints. Lynch can be fumble prone, and that plays right into the hands of Urlacher and Briggs, who have been so good for so long at stripping runners. Forsett matches up better in that regard, because he’s more protective with the ball. On the other hand, he’s not anywhere near as aggressive as Lynch, who would be more likely to lower the shoulder and try and run anyone over, including Urlacher and Briggs.
Head coach firings, or at least the rumors of potential axings, are a common occurrence every January, and after the Bears finished a disappointing 7-9 in 2009 (after the world media laughed at the Cutler/Orton trade and said the Bears were on their way), rumors circulated that Lovie would lose his head over the disastrous season. Smith survived, and Mike Martz was brought in to help fix Cutler’s flaws. A year later, the Bears have the luxury of a bye week, and the (hypothetical) luxury of facing a 7-9 team. Cutler and Lovie both had the heat poured on them last year, so what would happen this year if they blew a #2 seeding with a loss to Seattle? I think Lovie Smith would survive either way, but the bitterness would linger. If the Bears had a bad 2011 as well, it wouldn’t take much to promote Martz from in-house.
I do love a good underdog story, and the world seems to have rationalized the Seahawks as one. Two weeks ago, they were undeserving contenders. Now that they’ve beaten the Saints, the defending champions, they now resemble a Disney movie that’s playing out before our eyes. Can the Seahawks beat the Chicago Bears? In researching this article, I admittedly looked for ways in which it could be possible, because I won’t lie: I’d love to see a frowning Roger Goodell have to hand the trophy to a grinning Pete Carroll. However, the law of averages would point to Chicago winning. It’s a lot colder than it was in October, and Matt Hasselbeck can only take so much abuse before he’s turned into a shell by the third quarter. Unless he’s on point with his passes again, he’s going to be under constant pressure, and that’s how the Bears like it.
SCORE: Bears 27, Seahawks 17
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