Tuesday December 21st, 2010

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the Bears' playoff-clinching drubbing of the Vikings in the frigid environs of Minnesota....

• Hail, hail the Chicago Bears. It's time to give them their due. They're the newly crowned NFC North champions, and you don't win division titles in the NFL without earning it. But you also can't deny it has been a fortuitous season in the Windy City, with Lovie Smith's opportunistic club taking advantage of almost every break it has received in the first 15 weeks of the regular season.

The Bears did exactly what they had to do Monday night in Minnesota. They buried a bad Vikings team 40-14, scoring 40 of the game's final 47 points and nudging Brett Favre and the rest of his teammates one step closer to being put out of their misery. Despite a hot start by Minnesota on a frosty night, the Bears iced the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium, and ran their record in this surprising successful season to 10-4, tied for the second best in the NFC.

They've won six out of their past seven games, they're 5-0 in the NFC North and they're the first club this season to clinch a division title. Despite not being thought of as much in the preseason, the Bears are worthy champions with a quality defense and a quarterback in Jay Cutler who is having a solid bounce-back season.

But it's undeniable that Monday night represented another case of Chicago continuing its season-long trend of being in the right place at the right time, and making the absolute most of its chances. The Bears were the better team than the Vikings this season by leaps and bounds, but to face Minnesota in this game with a less-than-healthy Favre at quarterback, and a rookie backup in Joe Webb playing the final 2½ quarters, well, who could ask for anything more? Not too surprisingly, Minnesota got dominated after taking an early 7-0 lead.

It's no insult to note that the Bears have had that kind of good fortune all year, and right from the start, too, beating the visiting Lions in Week 1 in large part because of Calvin Johnson's controversial non-touchdown call in the final minute. As it turns out, that little twist of fate was just an omen of things to come for Chicago in 2010.

The Bears went into Dallas in Week 2 and upset the Wade Phillips-coached Cowboys when they were in the midst of their early season freefall. In a Week 4 loss at the Giants, Chicago lost Cutler to a concussion, but it really wasn't damaging. That's because the Bears still won on the road at Carolina the next week, despite getting next to nothing from backup Todd Collins (32 yards passing, four interceptions), beating the inept Panthers and their rookie quarterback, Jimmy Clausen.

And the beat went on. The Bears got a three-point win at Buffalo in Week 9, just before the winless Bills got things figured out and went on their current 4-2 run. Chicago blanked Miami in Week 11, with the Dolphins starting third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen. At Detroit in Week 13, Lions third-team QB Drew Stanton got just his second career start against the Bears and Chicago again found a way to prevail, 24-20. And then came Monday, with Webb seeing most of the action for the out-classed Vikings, the third time in five weeks that Chicago went up against an opponent's No. 3 quarterback.

Being both lucky and good is a lethal -- and winning -- combination in the NFL. The Bears have had it both ways this season in spades, and now they've got a division title to prove it. No apologies are necessary. Chicago has earned its place in the playoffs, and the Bears might just wind up being this year's team of destiny. After all, sometimes when the pieces start falling into place for a club, you can't tell the charmed from the champions anyway. But this season, the breaks of the game are all breaking right for Chicago.

• Tell me that has to be it. Tell me the Vikings will finally do the right thing and shut down for Favre the season. It's just not worth it at this point, putting his 41-year-old, broken-down body on the line for just the slimmest chance of a little more glory.

Favre gave a version of his well-worn farewell speech once again in the post-game setting, and you want to believe he gets it this time. But it shouldn't be up to him. Not after suffering a concussion or some kind of head injury early in the second quarter of his surprise start against the Bears. He needs somebody in the Minnesota organization at this point to sit him down and tell him it's over. No more comebacks. No more waffling. No more maybes.

It's time for him to heal up, and then head home. The Vikings have two games left, and there's nothing to be gained from suiting up No. 4 for one last victory lap of sorts. He can take his lap. He's got that coming. But he can take it without the risk of taking any more hits.

• I get amused over all the hue and cry about the sanctity of the NFL's injury report. Does anyone truly think the NFL cares greatly that the media or fans don't like it that Favre went from out on Saturday, to questionable Monday afternoon, to starting Monday night?

First off, it's Favre, and he's kind of had his own set of rules for a while now in the NFL. Secondly, the potential of higher TV ratings is really never something the league office is going to be against, and Favre playing moves that particular needle in the right direction. And lastly, the NFL injury report doesn't quite have the moral weight of the Bill of Rights to begin with. Otherwise, Bill Belichick could be brought up on charges.

When did we all start assuming the injury report was a legal and binding document?

• Weird, weird days for the Vikings, and I thought I had seen plenty of those during the four seasons I covered that always newsy franchise for two different Twin Cities newspapers. This was the second consecutive Monday night game Minnesota played, and both of them have looked and felt strange.

Last week's relocated game against the Giants in Detroit had that neutral field, who-cares quality to it, and this week's outdoor game at the University of Minnesota against the Bears had an out-of-the-ordinary vibe as well. The game obviously started out with a great burst of emotion for the Vikings, and they fed off that adrenaline, with Favre leading them down the field for a first-drive touchdown.

But shortly thereafter, once the cold started setting in, and the novelty started wearing off, the Vikings and the game in general were like a balloon that lost air really quickly, flying around backwards in helter-skelter fashion.

• That said, having seen the Vikings back outdoors in Minnesota, I'm almost surprised the team's marketing department or front office didn't come up with the idea to play this game at TCF Bank Stadium in the first place, in conjunction with the franchise's long-planned 50th anniversary celebration.

What would have been a more natural ode to the team's Super Bowl glory era than to play a game outdoors, harkening back to those Bud Grant-coached teams that went to the playoffs almost every year in the late '60s and throughout the '70s?

And that was a pretty cool moment at halftime, to see some of Grant's former players carry their now 83-year-old head coach off the field atop their shoulders. Grant, in his trademark short-sleeve shirt, looks like he could still call the shots and win 10 games a year.

• He got booed relentlessly by Vikings fans for trying to spoil everyone's outdoor party plans, but Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe wound up looking fairly prophetic. Kluwe harshly criticized the condition of the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday, predicting there would be concussions suffered Monday night.

Favre's head bounced off the hard turf on the hit that drove him from the game, and it was later diagnosed as a head injury/concussion. Vikings safety Madieu Williams later left the game with a concussion as well, although no one in the Minnesota locker room blamed the field for their injuries.

• At the start of last week's Monday night game between the Giants and Minnesota, would anyone have thought it would be Tarvaris Jackson on injured reserve and Favre starting for the Vikings in Week 15, rather than the other way around?

Could have won a good chunk of money in Vegas betting that particular quinella.

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