The offense functions methodically but efficiently. The defense yields points and running yards grudgingly. The team minimizes its mistakes.
No doubt, the Bears are built for playing January football in Chicago, where the cold wind blowing off Lake Michigan and into Soldier Field can feel like an icicle slicing through your rib cage. But they aren't equipped for a track meet against the top-seeded Rams in a dome in St. Louis, where the NFC championship game seems destined to be played.
Each of the NFL's playoff teams faces a critical concern heading into the postseason, a question whose answer will largely determine how long that team will dance. For the Bears, the query is: How can they beat the Rams, who never ease up on the throttle? They can't if they try to get into a score-fest.
"I give (Bears offensive coordinator) John Shoop credit," says Les Snead, the Falcons' director of pro personnel. "He's done a heck of a job taking the personnel he's been given and making the best of it. But if he came out trying to run the Rams' offense, you'd look at him like he didn't know what he was doing."
The Bears don't have a quick-strike offense. It revolves mainly around rookie running back Anthony Thomas and a dink-and-dunk passing attack. Marty Booker is the only playmaking wide receiver on whom quarterback Jim Miller can rely consistently. Rookie David Terrell still struggles running some routes, Dez White stalled after a strong start, and D'Wayne Bates has emerged only recently.
The receivers are big and physical -- the 6-foot-3 Terrell, 6-2 Bates, 6-0 White and 5-11 Booker all are at least 215 pounds -- and that gives them a matchup advantage against smaller defensive backs. They also are good blockers on running plays. They are particularly effective when they line up in a bunch formation (three receivers grouped tightly on one side). From that alignment, the Bears like to run a toss play with each of the receivers blocking a defender and one of the offensive tackles, either 6-7 James "Big Cat" Williams or 6-4 Blake Brockermeyer, pulls out to lead Thomas or James Allen.
If the offense takes time off the clock, and if the defense allows no big plays and forces some turnovers, and if the game is close in the fourth quarter and the Rams go into a conservative mode, maybe the Bears can compete. But there are too many ifs to expect them to win.
The Bears are not the only playoff team with uncertainties. A look at key playoff questions:
--Will the Rams give it away?
They have the NFL's past two MVPs (quarterback Kurt Warner, 1999, and running back Marshall Faulk, 2000), a plethora of receivers, the best defense in the NFC and home-field advantage. It looks like an invincible combination.
In their only two losses this season, both at home, the Rams imploded. They had eight turnovers against the Saints on Oct. 28 and five against the Buccaneers on Nov. 26. But they have taken measures to improve their ball security, including replacing erratic punt returner Az-Zahir Hakim with Dre' Bly.
Another potential chink would be if Warner reinjured his thumb and was unable to grip the ball tightly. That could lead to some errant passes and, possibly, interceptions.
But ask the question of any NFL expert or an 8-ball, and the answer will be the same: Can the Rams be beaten? "Signs point to no."
"The Rams are in a class by themselves,"' says an NFL pro personnel director. "There's nobody in the NFC who can beat them. If there's no turnovers on either side, the Rams win going away. So what if the other team scores 28 points? The Rams are going to score 42."
--Will Tom Brady's star continue to shine in the postseason?
One reason for Brady's success is that the wunderkind quarterback hasn't had to carry the Patriots' offense on his shoulders. Running back Antowain Smith has rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns.
If the Patriots can maintain a balanced attack and Brady gets sufficient protection, he will have time to stand in the pocket, diagnose defenses and find open receivers such as Troy Brown (101 catches for 1,199 yards and five TDs).
Another element in New England's arsenal is Coach Bill Belichick's proficiency at designing potent defensive schemes. Brady, Smith and Belichick make the surprising Patriots a legitimate threat to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative.
--Can the Packers' count on any of their wide receivers?
Antonio Freeman has lost his speed, quickness and ability to separate from defensive backs. Bill Schroeder has speed, but he can't get off jams, is not a good option across the middle and doesn't get a lot of yards after the catch. Corey Bradford does one thing: go deep.
If the receivers can't make plays, opponents will focus on stopping running back Ahman Green and shut down the Green Bay offense. The Titans crowded the line and held Green to nine yards on nine carries in a 26-20 win on December 16. Two weeks later, the Vikings limited Green to 31 yards on 16 carries.
Quarterback Brett Favre has tried to buy his receivers time to get open by running more sprintouts and bootlegs. Favre sometimes is most dangerous when he does that. But the Packers can't thrive on a steady diet of improvisation.
Before the game in Tennessee, Favre offered a telling revelation to Brian Baldinger, an NFL analyst for Fox and Sporting News Radio. "He told me that he hasn't had a guy who's wanted the ball in a big spot since Sterling Sharpe was there," says Baldinger. Sharpe's last season was 1994.
--Can the 49ers win if Terrell Owens plays only a cameo role?
Before he caught touchdown passes of 60 and 56 yards last week in New Orleans, Owens had a combined 16 receptions for 254 yards and one TD in his previous four games. In the first 11 games, he averaged 6.6 catches and 98.8 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
The recent falloff was due to two developments. Quarterback Jeff Garcia suffered injured ribs, and the 49ers tried to protect him by throwing fewer passes and relying on their capable running attack. And the Rams and Cowboys did a good job of taking away Owens in two late-season games that San Francisco lost.
Now that Garcia's health has improved, look for Owens to play a starring role again. Some NFL scouts think the best way to stop Owens is to get up in his face at the line of scrimmage and knock him off his route. The 49ers counter by lining up Owens in different spots or sending him in motion -- anything to keep him from being a stationary target. Even when a defender tries to jam him at the line, the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Owens can be too physical to handle.
--Do the Raiders need to turn back the clock on offense?
Last year, Oakland ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, with 2,470 yards on 520 carries. This season, the Raiders ran 70 fewer times and gained 816 fewer yards. With the additions of running back Charlie Garner and wide receiver Jerry Rice, they accented the short, controlled passing game in their West Coast offense. While Garner has been both the leading rusher and a receiving threat, Tyrone Wheatley (1,046 rushing yards last year) almost has been phased out.
But Oakland might have to use Wheatley more in the postseason, if for no other reason than to allow quarterback Rich Gannon's play-action to open up receiving room for Rice and Tim Brown.
--What will happen to the Buccaneers if Keyshawn Johnson and Warrick Dunn can't make plays?
The Bucs can't win on defense alone. If Johnson and Dunn don't step up, the Bucs will quickly step aside.
Clyde Christensen, the team's third offensive coordinator in the last three years, made it his mandate this season to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. To a certain extent, he has done that. Johnson has been terrific between the goal lines (106 receptions for 1,266 yards), but he has scored only one touchdown. Johnson is a good intermediate receiver, but he's not an explosive threat to beat you deep. Despite being hampered by a sprained foot for much of the season, Dunn has scored six touchdowns and has about as many yards receiving as he does rushing. The Bucs have tried to divide the rushing load between Dunn and Mike Alstott.
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