A lot of folks want to pin the Bears’ Super Bowl hopes squarely on the shoulders of Jay Cutler. There’s a prevailing feeling that Cutler doesn’t have to be spectacular for the Bears to survive and advance – just smart. Luckily, he’ll be able to lean on an improved running game, a speedy/dangerous receiving corps and an offensive coaching “mastermind” to help him work through the rough spots.
But it’s the play of another high-priced, high-profile Bear that will play a bigger role in determining how long the team’s playoff ride lasts.
Julius Peppers earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first year in Chicago. Most people think he was worth every penny of the heaps of money the McCaskeys threw at him last March, even if his statistics don’t blow you away…
54 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 INTs, 9 passes defended and a blocked kick
But we’ve seen him make spectacular interceptions (Carolina game), dominate a game without recording a sack (vs. Packers in week 3) and serve as a locker room leader for a team already filled with grizzled vets (Urlacher, Briggs and C. Harris).
And now that the playoffs are here, Peppers will be under the microscope to meet and exceed the expectations a $90+ million contract brings.
Get the Bears to the Super Bowl, and JP will go down as one of the greatest free agent acquisitions in NFL history. Fail to make an impact against the Seahawks (and their rookie left tackle, Russell Okung) in a losing effort and he’ll live with the ‘overpaid, overrated’ label for the entire offseason.
Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck has seen Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defense up close and personal several times in Chicago, including an upset win there earlier this year and a close loss in the 2006 playoffs. He knows the Bears D is built upon generating pressure with the front four – and only the front four. If Peppers and company can’t make life miserable for the veteran signal caller, he’s savvy enough to make the right reads and find the holes in the Cover-2 (a la Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez).
Even if Peppers leads the Bears by the Seahawks on Sunday, one of two Pro Bowl quarterbacks awaits next week – either Matt Ryan on the road or Aaron Rodgers at home. Some Peppers pressure will be vital to forcing them into mistakes and incompletions.
So say what you want about Cutler’s arm being the key that will ultimately punch the Bears’ ticket to Dallas. But I think the Monsters of the Midway will only go as far as the freakishly oversized fella sporting #90 will take them.