The first in hopefully a number of interviews leading up to the Super Bowl is with Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts. While I believe that some of you might find somethings to argue with overall it was an excellent interview.
What is your overall impression of this game? Take that however you want, be it from an entertainment value to it being a good or bad matchup?
I think it's really a fascinating match-up for a variety of reasons. First, I picked Chicago to go to the Super Bowl at the start of the season, so I'm excited about that. Of course, I also picked Denver to go to the Super Bowl. So apparently, Cold, Hard Football Facts.com is still a half-assed aspiration. We aspire to be fully assed some day, but those picks speak for themselves.
But, about this game in particular, it's fascinating because Chicago looks like the better team on paper in a lot of ways. Clearly, the Chicago defense was much better throughout the season - it gave up more than 100 fewer points than Indy - though it did have its obvious problems later in the year after Harris went down.
And, people forget, the Bears and Colts scored the same exact number of points this season - 427. Funny, considering that Grossman is one of the most vilified QBs in football, and Manning one of the most celebrated. Yet each team put as many points on the board (though Chicago did score more through its defense and return game).
So, Chicago is the better team on paper in many ways. The problem, of course, is the level of competition each team faced. Indy has been through the ringer, with a 7-1 record this year against what we call "Quality Opponents." That's the best this year. Those games have included two wins over the Patriots, a team that was 14-3 otherwise, and a win over the 13-3 Ravens.
The Bears have been a good team ... but they beat up an NFC that's really as bad as any conference has ever been. The AFC has thoroughly dominated the NFC over the last three years. In fact, the NFC hasn't had a winning record against AFC competition since 1995. But the past few years, NFC teams have struggled against the NFC. Chicago is a perfect example: 11-1 against the NFC, 2-2 against the AFC, including a drubbing at the hands of a poor Miami team.
We don't have a lot of evidence to show that Chicago will play well against the superior competition of the AFC.
But the Bears have clearly been more dominant than Indy this year - that's not even a discussion. But we'll find out what's more important come Super Bowl Sunday: dominating your schedule and fighting through a meat-grinder schedule.
Both teams run a very similar defense, so both know all the strengths and weaknesses of the schemes. Which is more likely, a shoot out or a defensive battle?
I don't know, to be honest. But nobody knows. To make a guess would be just that ... a guess. You can study games from every possible angle, and we can make predictions about who will win pretty successfully based upon what a few key stats tell us about each team. But predicting how the game will evolve is essentially impossible. You never really know, do you? I've seen plenty of games where we expected defensive battles that turned into shootouts - and plenty of games where we expected shootouts that the defenses dominated.
So, to answer your question ... I have no f** idea. But neither does anybody else.
If I were to guess, I wouldn't say shoot-our or defensive battle: I'd expect an ordinary NFL game where each team scores in the mid-20s. Boring guess? Sure. But its definitely the most likely scenario.
The Bears defensive line looked revived against the Saints. How do you think they matchup against the Colts Oline? Will they be able to control the line like they did the Saints?
The Saints simply don't compare to the Colts, along the offensive line or at most other positions. I wouldn't count on Chicago's performance against the Saints as an indication that the Bears can somehow shut down the Indy offensive attack. Doesn't mean they can't ... just that the NO game isn't really a clear indicator.
The Colts were a better offense and had a better record, and played much tougher competition than the Saints all year. The Colts are simply in a different class than the Saints.
Many an ESPN news piece has been spent telling us how Bob Sanders is the key to the Colts run D. Given the Bears run game is currently firing on all cylinders, do you think they can successfully run on the Colts?
No. I would not put much stock in the Chicago run game. In fact, I would disagree whole-heartedly that it's firing on all cylinder.
The Saints, for example, had one of the worst run defenses in recent NFL history, surrendering 4.94 yards on every rush attempt this season. Chicago rushed for 4.3 YPA against them (46 carries, 196 yards). The totals look good, and it was a very effective ground attack, but it was not exactly a thrilling performance considering the piss-poor quality of the defense they faced in that game. We said a few weeks ago on Cold, Hard Football Facts.com and on MSNBC.com that the Saints had a very poor defense that was overshadowed by the hype over their offense and the team's revival. People simply weren't talking about how bad that defense was. We did, and were vilified by Saints fans for it. But we knew that defense would ultimately cost them, and it finally did against Chicago.
The Bears, remember, were very ineffective on the ground against Seattle (34 carries, 120 yards, 3.5 YPA) and, in the last regular-season game in which they actually tried, against Detroit, the Bears rushed for just 116 yards against a very, very bad Detroit team.
The Bears can beat Indy, but I doubt they'll do it by pounding the ball on the ground - no matter how bad the Colts run defense looked this year. The Bears just aren't good enough on the ground to expose this run defense in any meaningful way.
Same question but reverse. It seems as long as Grossman has some time to set he is a QB that can win this game for us. Can the Bears Oline hold off Freeney and the rest of the Colts defensive front?
Freeney shows flashes of brilliance, but is probably the most overrated player in football. He rarely makes plays in the running game - as evidenced by his 29 total tackles this year and hasn't had more than 34 tackles in a season since his rookie year. He did not exactly tear up offenses with his pass rush this year, either - just 5.5 sacks all year. He has had two in the playoffs, though. As a unit, the Indy defense recorded just 25 sacks this year, among the fewest in the league - of course, they had far less opportunity than the Bears. Opponents attempted just 26 passes per game against the Colts, compared with 36 per game against the Bears.
With all that said, Grossman really hasn't been sacked a whole lot. I don't believe the Colts will get to him too much ... he just has to execute when he gets the opportunity.
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman has greatly improved over last year. How do you think Tillman and Vashar will do versus the Colts Pro Bowl receivers? Should they match them straight #1 vs #1?
The way to beat the Colts, historically, is to get physical on their receivers. The good news for Chicago is that Marvin Harrison curls up into a fetal ball come playoff time. The media hasn't talked about it much - we have - but he could have been the poster child for Indy's postseason struggles over the past several years. All you really need to know about Harrison is this: 122 TDs in 170 regular-season games; 2 TDs in 13 playoff games.
He hasn't scored in a playoff game since a win over Denver in the 2003 wild-card round - eight straight games without reaching the end zone, with 31 catches and not a single 100-yard performance over those eight games. For whatever reason, he's a non-factor in the playoffs. The story is that he simply can't perform when defenses step up the physical pressure on him in the playoffs. So, Tillman and/or Vashar really have the opportunity (and perhaps the skill) to handle him one on one.
Reggie Wayne has really emerged as Indy's No. 1 guy, in the playoffs and the regular season.
I think Tillman and Vashar can cover these guys one-on-one ... if they can, it can prove the difference in the game. If they need a little extra help, that's when the Indy tight ends and slot receivers kill people over the middle.
Bears fan's feeling is that Grossman has nothing to worry about, nobody expects anything of him and Manning will take a ton of the attention and pressure away from him. Do you think Manning is up to it, or will this be another in his choke legacy?
Chicago fans should remember the story of Phil Simms: He struggled throughout the 1986 season. Was even booed off the field by Giants fans that year. But at the end of season he was 14-2 and found himself in the Super Bowl playing opposite one of the most celebrated QBs in football, John Elway.
Despite the low expectations. Simms had a game for the ages, completing 22 of 25 passes for 3 TDs and 0 INTs. He totally outplayed Elway, and won the game and SB MVP honors.
Simms and Grossman even had very similar numbers in their Super Bowl seasons, which we wrote about this week.
So there is some precedent here.
To look at it from the other side, the Colts more or less acted like they had already won the Super Bowl by finally beating NE in the playoffs, and doing it in such dramatic fashion. Everybody's already declared that Manning has shaken the "can't-win-the-big-game" tag that has dogged him, justifiably, throughout his career. We've done it, too: to beat NE they way he did it, with a big comeback and by shredding NE for 32 points in the second half, is a command performance. But that game will be forgotten if he coughs up a hambone in the Super Bowl.
Chicago is a potentially dangerous defense that can make a quarterback look bad real fast. They led the league in defensive passer rating this year (a Cold, Hard Football Facts "Quality Stat" because it has a direct correlation to winning football games). They also led the NFL in defensive and special-teams TDs with nine. Those are the types of plays that can really turn a game around.
The Colts special teams seems vunerable to the big play. Can the Bears keep control of this game if Hester can continue to give them good field position?
As we've seen time and gain, football games often turn on one or two big plays that prove the difference between victory and defeat. Often those plays come from special teams, and nobody is more capable of making this kind of big play in this game than Hester. We did a comparison of the final four teams last week and the Bears clearly had the best special teams. The Colts clearly had the worst. I think if Chicago is able to pull out a victory, the special teams in general, and Hester in particular, will play a starring role.
Dallas Clark's impact for this team is huge. Urlacher is one of the few who has the capability to neutralize Clark. If he can, how does this change the Colts attack?
Urlacher really is one of the more physically gifted men in the league - not a whole lot of guys his size who can run that fast. I think he could really prove a big factor for the Bears defense. Manning loves to shred teams up the middle when they devote resources to covering Wayne and Harrison. If Urlacher can keep up with a guy like Clark, if the outside backers can hammer him off the line, it can really shut down that Indy attack.
If you look at film of the Indy-NE playoff games of past years, when NE twice humiliated what had been one of the more prolific offenses in football (17 points in two games), you'll see a lot of images of Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest standing over Clark's prone body at the line of scrimmage. These were big linebackers, too, like Urlacher (all over 250 pounds), and Clark is not the most punishing tight end. But, he can get open and catch passes. So, if Chicago can shut down that attack, I think you'll see Clark getting hammered at the line, and then Urlacher tight on him down field.
He certainly has the capability one-on-one ... but not a lot of teams have proven an ability to shut down this offense.
Who will be the key to the Bears chances to win?
I think two players we already talked about: Hester, who can make that one play that could change an entire game's momentum, and has the opportunity to do it against a vulnerable Colts special teams unit. The other is Grossman.
It's very rare in football, especially in the playoffs, to win with poor quarterback play. I realize the Steelers won the Super Bowl last year despite a sub-par passing day from Roethlisberger, but this was a rare, rare exception. The Steelers were also a stronger team than Seattle in a number of areas, while Roethlisberger made a number of huge plays with his feet, and a couple key conversions. Again, though, he was an exception.
Grossman simply can not throw INTs. I feel safe saying if he throws 0 INTs, Chicago wins. If he throws two, the Bears lose. There's a lot of historical merit to this: teams that don't throw INTs win about 80 percent of the time in the playoffs. Teams that throw 2 or more INTs lose about 80 percent of the time in the playoffs.
I really want to see which Indy defense shows up: the historically poor sieve that it fielded in the regular season, or the speedy, ass-kicking unit that appeared in the first two playoff games.
The biggest question remains that defensive front, which yielded 5.33 yards per rush attempt this year - seventh worst in the entire history of the NFL.
The Bears have not proven particularly proficient at running the ball this year - just 3.8 YPA and 14 rushing TDs, but if they're gonna pick a day to pound the ball effectively, this would be it. By the way, I think it's interesting to note that Chicago scored far more through the air (24 TDs) than it did on the ground (14 TDs).
If the Bears can contain Manning and his receivers and make a couple big plays defensively or on special teams, they can win this game. But it's hard to count on teams to make those plays. I think that Indy, despite its many flaws, has proven it can beat top-notch competition. Chicago hasn't. Doesn't mean the Bears can't win. Just that they haven't shown that they can. So, if you're looking at this coldly and analytically, you have to roll the dice with the Colts. We'll have our official picks after crunching all the numbers next week, but right now I'd say Colts 26 (a lot of AV field goals), Bears 21.